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Dark Star (1974) – Carpenter countdown #3

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This was to be John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon's graduation film at the University of Southern California film school. It was Carpenter's first as a director (he also co-wrote it, edited it and did the music), with O'Bannon starring, co-writing, and supervising the special effects. When another student film Carpenter had worked on, The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, won the Academy Award for best short, the university kept the Oscar and reminded everyone they owned the film. Not wanting this to happen to them, Carpenter and O'Bannon removed their unfinished film from USC one night and took it to an independent outside producer. He put up the money to complete it, including adding extra material to bring it to feature film length. It was possibly the best use of $60,000 in the history of cinema.

Concept: Truckers in space.

Scoutship 'Dark Star' is about fifty light-years from Earth, twenty years into its mission of destroying unstable planets that may get in the way of future colonists. They do this via intelligent bombs and we see the nineteenth such destruction go off perfectly. The crew are listening to surfing music when the computer tells them an asteroid storm with an electro-magnetic energy vortex is on the way and they have thirty five seconds to activate all defensive systems. They manage to do this, but a communications laser is damaged in the storm and bomb #20 thinks it has been given the command to deploy. The computer tells it that it is an error, and it goes back into the ship, but you can tell that it's not happy…

Then it's time to feed the alien while en route to their next destination, and once they've arrived, an attempted repair to the communications laser goes wrong. This means that bomb #20 cannot be dropped even though it is utterly determined to go off in fifteen minutes. But how does it know that it has been given the order to detonate?

What's good: The script. The final 'bomb #20' act is particularly well written. Even I've sampled it.

The setting. In contrast to the gleaming white expanses of the spaceship in 2001 A Space Odyssey, Dark Star is a cramped pigsty. Its computer is just about the only thing that is working and optimistically thanks the crew for observing all safety procedures. It doesn't help morale that Mission Control is very sorry, but they can't afford to send any radiation shielding or that the storage area containing the ship's entire supply of toilet paper has recently self-destructed. The crew sleep in a food storage locker because they can't be bothered to repair their real bedroom and the electrical fault that killed the ship's captain remains unfixed.

The script. It also has some pathos – not only can the rest of the crew not remember what Talby's first name is, Lt Doolittle cannot remember his own. The captain is sad that no-one bothers to talk to him now he's dead, except in emergencies.

The performances. O'Bannon's Sgt Pinback is particularly good. (He's not actually Pinback – you needed to score 700+ on a test to become an astronaut and he got 58 – but there was a problem at launch and people assumed he was.) He's the source of much of the humour and the 21 minute long 'Pinback and the alien' middle section is a complete classic. Brian Narelle's Lt. Doolittle is also good, especially given what he was put through (the spacesuit was not designed for breathing and the cold mist was kerosene!) The uncredited Nick Castle's acting as the alien's feet is great.

The script. Whether it's lines like "I show a 95% probability of intelligent life in the Horsehead Nebula sector." "Don't give me any of that intelligent life stuff, find me something I can blow up!" or the little things: O'Bannon reading a teenage girls' romance comic.

What's not so good: It needed to be expanded to be released as a feature film, and some of the 'new' footage is clearly padding. Apparently, one scene that Carpenter and O'Bannon tried to get producer Jack Harris to accept was one of the crew staying in bed, ignoring the computer's instructions about being time to wash or clean, until the computer announced it was breakfast. That would probably have been better than, say, Lt Doolittle playing music on a home made instrument which did make it in.

The budget shows, but what do you expect for $60,000?? How some of the effects were done is obvious, but so what? It was shot on 16mm, without much light in many cases, then blown up to give a 1.85:1 ratio, so is rather grainy in places.

Music: By Carpenter on a synth of course. It's ok. The soundtrack album is a cut down audio version of the film, with much of the dialogue, rather than a 'here's theme one, here's theme two' etc.

Miscellany: Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace would go on to be involved in lots of other Carpenter films and, like O'Bannon, also became directors

The knife game that Boiler plays is real – including the injury – and was unscripted.

The only Carpenter feature not shot in widescreen 2.35:1 ratio.

Overall: Everyone should see this. I first saw it around 1976 during an autumn season of SF films on BBC2. The previous week had seen Silent Running, an ecologically aware film with Bruce Dern on a space greenhouse looking after the last remaining plants, assisted by some robots. (Memory tells me one of the robots looked not unlike R2-D2.) It was very worthy, and it has clearly influenced WALL-E, but it was not particularly entertaining. In contrast, Dark Star is not just one of the funniest SF films ever, but one of the funniest films, full stop. If Halloween led to hundreds of inferior copies, Dark Star led to Red Dwarf and you can see it .

It's probably a more accurate prediction of the future too. The increase in computing power will mean that before too long, any bit of kit will have the sort of intelligence that the bombs have here. The problems that brings here will doubtless be repeated in real life.

Sadly, Carpenter and O'Bannon fell out over the film that launched both their careers. Both wanted more control and no film was ever going to be big enough for the both of them again. Oh for what might have been…

TL;DR Most people never make a film as good as this, even with budgets a thousand times larger

Film: 5/5
DVD: 5/5

The original and expanded editions, plus a very good documentary on the history of the film. There are several other releases out there, and while they're much of a muchness with not very good picture and sound quality, they're still better than not seeing this.

Best DVD and soundtrack audio version:

Written by Ian

June 28th, 2011 at 10:38 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

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