Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Dark Star (1974)

by on July 12, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed July 13 at 6:50, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
With FOSTER’S RELEASE Terence Winkless | 1971 | US


BAM continues its inspired tribute to unsung horrormeister Dan O’Bannon, the (anti)hero of Jason Zioman’s new book Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror.  More coverage of Shock Value and O’Bannon in our Alien blogroll this week.


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

In John Carpenter’s witty and stylish 1974 sci-fi satire, the Dark Star is an intergalactic bomber wandering through the universe on a vaguely Nixonian mission to destroy unpopulated planets that might stand in the way of space travel. The ship’s crew is variously bored, blissed out, and restlessly rambunctious. By introducing human eccentricities (mostly southern Californian in nature) into the cold structure of science fiction, Carpenter creates a vision of the technological future that is both disillusioned and oddly affirmative in its insistence on the unscientific survival of emotional frailty. Amazingly, the film (Carpenter’s first) was made on a reported budget of $60,000.



Peter Bradshaw with some background for The Guardian:

Dark Star was the funky, satirical twist on epic, visionary sci-fi, a film which absorbed Kubrick’s Strangelove as much as 2001. Carpenter and O’Bannon wanted the future to look scuzzy, boring and shitty. Their spacemen had the low-morale job of journeying through the cosmos, blowing up “unstable planets”. They were truck drivers in space. It chimed perfectly with the alienated mood of Nixon’s America in the early 70s, and the superb sequence in which the talking bombs have to be persuaded not to cause Armageddon was a brilliant satirical commentary on the proliferation of weaponry, supposedly under political and democratic control, but building its own unstoppable momentum, making ultimate use harder and harder to stop. This week’s reports of MoD fears about unmanned weaponry and the lack of “controlling humanity” are a case in point: a very Dark Star issue.


Dark Star was supposedly copyright-owned by the University of Southern California. In return for letting its students learn their trade with USC equipment, it claimed any resulting work as its intellectual property. Carpenter defied USC’s lawyers, stole the reels of film from the university’s vault and took them to Jack Harris, the veteran, gravelly-voiced B-movie impresario, who had produced The Blob. Carpenter asked him to distribute Dark Star. At this stage, it was only an hour long — another thirty or so minutes would have to be added to bring it up to feature length, and so the film’s distinctive, Beckettian “waiting” atmosphere was created. New scenes had no conventional narrative purpose other than to show the crew’s dreary, absurd, ridiculous existence. Bizarrely, Harris was prevailed upon to hand over the distribution of Dark Star to Bryanston Pictures, the notorious mafia-linked outfit that was making a fortune from the porn film Deep Throat; now Bryanston took Dark Star around college campuses and raked in a nice cash profit, without reference to the taxman.


Roger Ebert:

“Dark Star” is one of the damnedest science fiction movies I’ve ever seen, a berserk combination of space opera, intelligent bombs, and beach balls from other worlds. It has a checkered history. It began as a student project by John Carpenter (later to direct “Halloween”) and Dan O’Bannon (later to write “Alien”), and grew over a period of time and expanding budgets into a full-length film.


This is a fun movie, and a bright and intelligent one. It bears few signs of having been made on a low budget, and the special effects are reasonably slick. And it has a mercifully low-key comic approach; many satiric comedies by young filmmakers are frantic and overwrought, but this one is wry, laid back and fond of its situations. And on the same program is “Hardware Wars,” a short subject starring steam irons, pop-up toasters and other kitchen appliances in outer space.



Lawrence Brookes for Den of Geek:

Dark Star is now a major player in the sci-fi hall of fame. Its influence can be seen in many a space opera from all mediums, Red Dwarf, Sunshine, Hitchhiker‘s and Carpenter’s own The Thing, to name a few. The film also proved the basis as a dry run for Alien, for which O’Bannon wrote the script.


Dark Star can rightly be awarded the seminal tag. Many films may lay a claim to it, but this one’s the real deal.


While John Carpenter directed and scored the music to Dark Star, Dan O’Bannon seemed to have had a hand in most other facets of the film’s production. Along with acting, editing and co-writing the script, he was heavily involved with the special effects for the movie, in particular the flashing computer graphics that are screened on the monitors in the ship’s bridge.


Dark Star is very much a product of its time. Channelling the disillusioned ideals of the 1960s peace and love era with the darker, more paranoid mood of the 1970s, the film takes influence from a number of sources. O’Bannon was a big fan of anarchic psychedelic comics of the 60s such as The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and the graphic novels of Robert Crumb (he was reading Crumb’s Book Of Genesis when he died in 2009) and the mood of Dark Star is very much derived from these.


And it is a funny film, a mixture of slapstick and stoner shtick with a few bleaker more cynical laughs and some gallows humour to boot. Most alternative movies in the early 70s had either Watergate or Vietnam as subtextual themes and Dark Star is no different. For dazed and confused hippies in space blowing up planets, read naïve young soldiers drafted into the army to fight an unknown enemy.


Sean Axmaker for Parallax View:

Think of Dark Star as John Carpenter’s answer to the glistening designs and metaphysical ponderings of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Deglamorizing the allure of space-age technology by giving it a drab, industrial practicality, Carpenter and co-writer/special effects supervisor/actor Dan O’Bannon give us not heroic space jockeys bravely exploring the unknown but “truck drivers in space” stuck on the fringes of the galaxy in a broken-down ship long past a dry-dock overhaul, numbly trudging through the twentieth year of a mission to blow up unstable planets.


On a budget of $65,000, Carpenter and O’Bannon cobble together a dank spaceship out of spare part that anticipates the claustrophobic industrial gray of the Alien ship (which O’Bannon later scripted) and manufacture a fritzed-out intelligence system that brings new meaning to the term “smart bomb.” As the ship collapses around the wearily indifferent crew, the acting captain engages a persistent talking bomb in phenomenological philosophy in the most direct parody of Kubrick’s classic. This is no lost masterpiece, mind you. The acting is inconsistent, the pacing is awkward (partly as a result of rewrites and new scenes to expand the film to feature length) and the production values at times distractingly shoddy. Yet the writing is often clever (the final destinies of the characters pay off from the seeds sown in the opening minutes) and the production design and execution overall a triumph of ingenuity and creative solutions. It’s a grungy, darkly humorous declaration that, in the end, boredom and human slovenliness trumps technology and high ideals.



Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

In John Carpenter’s guerilla undermining of the pomposity of space odysseys, the Kubrickian crack-up is enacted for the spaceship’s video log: “This statement is for posterity. Uniforms don’t fit me. The underwear is too loose.” The intergalactic vessel is a triangular cardboard model, the mission is to vaporize unstable planets; struggling not to vanish under the mass of space ennui and their own beards, crew members deal with faulty radiation shields, toilet paper shortage, and nostalgia for Malibu surfboards. Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay is a beautiful bit of streamlined absurdism, wittily meditative down to the exasperated little sighs with which the characters address the artificial-intelligence explosives (“Weeeell, Bomb…”). As the least atrophied of the astronauts, he executes a pas de deux with the rubbery alien mascot (a mischievous, red beach ball with clawed flippers) as a rough draft for his Alien chest-busters, a skit that Harold Lloyd would’ve loved. The spaceship is an existential void, and also a stoner’s cluttered pad and the original cubicle for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gagsters; already a genre-sculpting ace, Carpenter manages to work an elegantly choreographed camera into even the most cramped of shoestring sets. As much about the creative process as, say, Eraserhead, it encompasses Milton’s “misled and lonely travelers,” Rossini and muzak, the vastness of the universe contemplated to the tune of a trucker’s ditty (“Benson Arizona, the same stars in the sky / But they seemed so much kinder when we watched them, you and I”). “So many malfunctions,” the cryogenically frozen commander wheezes from the beyond about humanity, yet the film builds optimistically to a philosophical debate with its own HAL 9000, then “Let there be light” and a flash of transcendence among the stars.


Simon Abrams for Slant:

That pervasive existential uncertainty, according to Carpenter and O’Bannon, is the stuff of great comedy. Dark Star‘s black humor is influenced equally by Merry Melodies’s precise comic timing and emphasis on schadenfreude and Buster Keaton’s unique brand of blue-collar absurdist peril. The two styles collide in the film’s best scene, in which Pinback (O’Bannon) is stuck in a service hatch at the bottom of a moving elevator while Figaro’s aria from The Barber of Seville blares. The worker drone gets it in the end and suffers spectacularly for his troubles. The only sign of intelligent life on the ship other than a talking computer and the Smart Bombs is an alien that looks like a mottled red beach ball with pooper-scooper-sized claws. Likewise, the only signs that the crew is tenuously maintaining their sanity comes from Pinback’s heavily censored video diaries, in which he reveals that he’s not really Pinback but rather a “fuel maintenance technician” that’s been wearing Pinback’s clothing for years. There is also now no more toilet paper left on the Dark Star; their supply inexplicably has exploded. In space, no one can hear you crack up.


The fact that there’s no logical way to not emotionally malfunction aboard the Dark Star speaks to the film’s central egocentrism: everybody has to do everything themselves, even the Smart Bomb that obliterates the ship after it reasons that it is, in fact, God: “The only thing that exists is My Self.” The only crewmember afforded a momentary escape from that kind of self-imposed burden is Doolittle when he commits suicide by riding a piece of debris like it were a surfboard. He burns up in the nearest planet’s atmosphere and disappears from view not as a man, but as a blip of light on the horizon. Space is, after all, the place for cowboys and loners. Dark Star remains one of the best expressions of that quest for personal freedom because it was principally created by two artists that define themselves by their own fierce intellect and staunch individualism.


Dark Star in 2 minutes:


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