Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Once Over Twice: Dark Star

(1974) Directed by John Carpenter; Written by John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon; Starring: Brian Narelle, Dre Pahich, Cal Kuniholme and Dan O’Bannon
Available on DVD

Rating: ****

Dark Star is predominantly known as the film that launched the careers of John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, but it also deserves attention as a minor science fiction classic.  The film started out as a student project at USC, which producer Jack Harris helped develop into a theatrical-length feature.  Carpenter’s relationship with Harris was purportedly contentious, but it helped put his name (and O’Bannon’s) on the map, eventually leading to bigger productions.

The film follows the exploits of the crew of the space ship Dark Star, who have been tasked to locate and destroy “unstable planets.”  It’s never made precisely clear what constitutes an unstable planet, but I suppose that it has something to do with erratic orbits that threaten other planets in a solar system.  20 years have elapsed since the Dark Star began its mission, although the crew members have only aged three years.  An equipment malfunction resulted in the death of Commander Powell, who now exists in a semi-conscious state in cryogenic storage. 

As the crew’s sanity erodes, each member deals with the boredom of deep space exploration in his own way.  Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) is currently in command of the Dark Star, but doesn’t particularly relish his duties.  He pines away for his surfing days and plays music on his bottles.  Talby (Dre Pahich) spends most of his time in the ship’s observation bubble, just staring at the stars.  Sgt. Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) tends to an alien mascot that he brought on board to liven things up.  John Carpenter effectively captures the monotony of confined life in a spacecraft for a prolonged period of time, managing to make it amusing without eliciting boredom from the audience – not an easy task.

O’Bannon, who co-wrote the screenplay with Carpenter and also worked on the special effects, brings a lot of pathos to the Sgt. Pinback character.  This was a rare starring role for O’Bannon, who preferred to stay behind the scenes, and would go on to write the screenplays for Alien, Total Recall and Return of the Living Dead, to name just a few.  He’s basically the Rodney Dangerfield of the bunch, garnering no respect from his fellow crewmates.  He doesn’t seem quite as jaded by the isolation, and makes several ineffectual attempts to encourage camaraderie, which are largely ignored by the others.  He keeps a taped video diary, where he expresses his exasperation with everyone else, and sulks about the crew forgetting his birthday.  The scenes with Sgt. Pinback and an alien creature (operated by assistant cameraman and future director Nick Castle) that suspiciously resembles a beach ball play like a silent movie routine.  These protracted chase scenes go on far too long, and could easily have been cut in half, but they still comprise some of the more memorable moments in Dark Star.  It’s hard not to laugh as the creature turns the tables on the hapless Pinback. 

In contrast to the earnest optimism of many 50s and 60s films depicting space travel as a wondrous opportunity for exploration (2001, Forbidden Planet, etc…), Dark Star prefers to take a more cynical view.  The mission of the Dark Star is endemic of government excess and exploration for profit at the expense of the individual (the crew’s request for additional radiation shielding is denied).  Any social commentary, however, is purely unintentional, or at least kept to a minimum.  It’s doubtful that Carpenter and O’Bannon   intended to present a treatise on inequities in society or the harsh realities of space exploration, preferring humor over pontification.  As they scan the galaxy for a new system with unstable planets, Doolittle states, “…just give me something I can blow up.”  One of the film’s highlights occur later in the film, as Doolittle is forced to engage in an existential discussion with one of the ship’s sentient bombs (normally used to destroy planets).  He tries to convince the defective bomb that its sensory information could be faulty while the bomb insists that it must carry out its programming to explode.

The special effects are surprisingly good, considering the time and $60,000 budget.  Ron Cobb (working on his first motion picture) designed the Dark Star’s exterior, and the corridors seemed to be inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey (undoubtedly created for a fraction of the price of Kubrick’s film).  For the most part, the ship has a more “lived-in” look compared to the sanitized environment found in many other science fiction films that preceded it, which was likely dictated by the fact that the filmmakers had to be imaginative with what they had to work with.  The set/prop designs are augmented by bargain basement hardware such as lighted ice cube trays for buttons on a control panel, or a muffin pan on a spacesuit.  This doesn’t detract from the story, but adds to the film’s do-it-yourself charm.  It’s easy to see how these concessions made out of necessity influenced later, more expensive productions such as Star Wars and Alien.

Dark Star’s unique origins beg the question: “Would it be worth watching if none of the cast or crew went on to do anything else?”  The answer is a resounding “yes.”  It’s more than a cult oddity or cinematic footnote.  The film represents the product of several talented minds converging during the “anything goes” 1970s to create a bold film with big ideas that’s not afraid to venture into absurdity.

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