(1974) director John Carpenter
Before there was Halloween (1978), before there was Alien (1978), before there was Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Lifeforce (1985), The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Total Recall (1990), there was Dark Star.
Having recently been revisiting Wes Craven’s more plum films, I was reminding myself that I had a number of films by another (and arguably more interesting) 1970’s-1980’s American horror filmmaker languishing in my queue, the honorable John Carpenter. I’d never seen Dark Star, which was Carpenter’s first feature film, adapted and expanded from his student film, a drolly comic, low-budget science fiction movie that falls into no single clean category. It had been recommended to me by a friend many years ago after we’d watched Carpenter’s masterpiece, The Thing, and were reveling in the fine qualities of that film. He’d said that he’d always had a soft spot for this odd space comedy. But it took me this long to get around to seeing it.
Dark Star is the name of the spaceship that is home to four Earthlings (and one dead suspended-animation Earthling), who are roving the galaxy with the sole goal of blowing up “unstable” planets (the captain at one point says something like “Don’t give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up”), making outer space more friendly to colonization. They’re in a bit of a time warp, having been away from Earth for 20 years but having aged only 3. Their ship is slowly falling apart but their distance from Earth (and budget cuts) haven’t allowed them to return for repairs. Their captain was killed in a technical mishap and his body was put into a deep freezer, where via radio signals, he can still be reached (in one of the film’s stranger and more interesting sequences).
The film is odd. Tonally, there are some rather thoughtful and intellectual moments, like with the dead captain who speaks from another existential plane, or another character who is withdrawing from the others to just sit and stare at the stars, or in the film’s ending in which that same character is absorbed by a rainbow comet to travel space for all eternity and the captain surfs into a planet’s atmosphere, burning up as a falling star. And then there is more outright comedy, most obvious in the strange alien sequence in which the alien is a “beach ball with claws”. It’s such a silly thing and its comedic battle with the character Pinback (who is played by co-screenwriter Dan O’Bannon) is one of the weirder elements of the film. And, of course perhaps most-amusing, is the discussion of epistemology between the captain and the computerized bomb. The captain tries to convince the bomb that it doesn’t really know if the outside world exists and should therefor not follow its instruction to explode.
The visuals are low-fi, yet effective. I mean, you’ll never confuse this film with cutting edge visual effects, but of what they have they make interesting use. It’s low-budget quality gives it an air of low-budget 1950’s sci-fi, even while what it channels is a more humorous slant on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). And it’s that weird mixture of odd humor and the cerebral that give this film its unique flavor.
And in prefacing this entry, I mention not just Carpenter’s more notable films, but the notable films of writer/actor Dan O’Bannon. I hadn’t been so familiar with O’Bannon myself, but he’s the best of the actors in the film, playing Sgt. Pinback, but as co-writer, he went on to write the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s classic Alien, apparently adapting aspects of this film (the beach ball alien) from comedy to horror, and in researching him, I found that he worked on a number of interesting, if not awesomely grand sci-fi/horror films. Worth noting, so I noted it.