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Entries in Dark Star [1974] (1)

Tuesday
Feb022010

Dark Star (1974)


Please Tweeze Me

A friend recommended Dark Star, saying that it was a great satirical comedy. I did a double take and asked him to clarify. “It’s like Dr. Strangelove in Space”, he said, thoroughly confusing me.

I’d heard about the film a few years ago, but had never checked it out. I knew it was John Carpenter’s first movie and, last December, that it was Alien writer Dan O’Bannon’s first film as well (he died in late 2009). Carpenter is known mostly for directing horror movies, so I just assumed Dark Star was one; the idea that he started out in sci-fi comedy was enough to immediately place it at the top of my Netflix queue.

Dark Star is definitely a comedy, but I can only recommend it cautiously. First of all, it’s an early-Seventies student film (more accurately, it’s an expanded version of a student film), so for anyone unable to appreciate pre-Jurassic Park special effects, stay away. Second, the humor reminds me of the kinds of things my really smart friends in high school would die laughing over; it’s catnip for science geeks, Monty Python fans and Dr. Who devotees. Lastly, all of the actors have these crazy Castro beards! This isn’t a valid criticism, I know, but I really wanted to reach out and shave these people.

Dark Star tells the story of an eponymous space ship that tours the galaxy, blowing up uninhabitable planets to make way for corporate development. When the four-man crew isn’t traveling from sector to sector planting talking, self-aware bombs, they wrestle with boredom, talk about surfing, and contend with their alien mascot—a gigantic beach ball with the hands of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Dark Star isn’t plot-driven so much as it is a series of witty vignettes that reveal character and lead to a logical conclusion (wait, isn’t that the definition of a plot? Shit.).

What’s most striking about the movie, aside from its incredibly smart humor and ideas, is the crew that created it and the groundbreaking work that went into the production. It may seem unfair to break objectivity here, but it’s impossible for fans of genre filmmaking to not consider these things when watching Dark Star today. Carpenter and O’Bannon (who co-wrote the picture, created the effects, and stars as crewman Pinback) bridged the SFX gap between Kubrick’s 2001 and Lucas’s Star Wars. I’d always assumed that the Millenium Falcon was the first ship to make the jump to hyperspace, but, no, it was the Dark Star; it’s stunning to see those warping star fields done just as well on a fraction of the budget. O’Bannon would, in fact go on to do effects on Star Wars three years later—two years before Alien came to the big screen.

Alien is probably the biggest recipient of Dark Star’s conceptual generosity. The beach ball monster is a quirky ancestor of the xenomorph that terrorized Sigourney Weaver: an eye-less, leaping beast that hides in the ductwork and attacks the crewmembers’ heads. There’s also a bizarre scene in the climax involving a visit with the ship’s deceased captain, whose body has been suspended in a block of ice while his brain lives on, in thoughts interpreted through a computer. The scene reminded me instantly of the cut scene in Alien, where Tom Skerritt is cocooned half-alive in the ship’s wall.

I should really mention John Carpenter’s contributions here, as it is, technically, his show. What struck me the most is how easily the director managed to turn comedy into suspense, particularly in the scene where Pinback gets trapped in an elevator shaft. What starts as a funny gag, goes on for minutes; the duration takes us from amusement to claustrophobic panic in a beat, much as the situation must have occurred to Pinback. It’s here that Carpenter sheds the skin of Kubrick and promises us films like Halloween and Escape from New York.

Dark Star is a great, brisk little movie. If any of what I’ve written sounds appealing, you’re likely to enjoy a really fun 83-minute ride. If none of this interests you, I have a feeling you checked out at the phrase “Dr. Strangelove in Space.”