Hi y'all, a little interim post as I'm going out for a while and I may be some time... this review was published by Den of Geek website earlier on this year so thought I'd re-up it on the blog in a slightly abridged format, you can read the original here. Enjoy and keeping watching the skies!
April 1974. Richard Nixon is in the last days of his presidency. The bloody war in South East Asia rages on. Abba win the Eurovision song contest with Waterloo. And Dark Star, a low budget sci-fi comedy, hits the screen. Fast forward into hyperspace almost 40 years and Dark Star has achieved a mighty cult status as a late night movie standard and a post-pub classic. Made on a shoestring budget of $60,000 by film school graduates John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, 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. Yup, Dark Star can rightly be awarded the seminal tag. Many films may lay claim to it but this one’s the real deal.
The film is set in the year 2250 and follows the trials and tribulations of the crew of the Dark Star as they career around the galaxy blowing up “unstable planets” that stand in the way of Earth’s space colonisation. The five astronauts have been stuck on the spaceship for 20 years already and are clearly bored and frustrated with each other’s company and the monotony of their existence. Like the crew of the Nostromo they are a lonely unglamorous bunch of blue collar workers who are just doing their job. With only the soothing female voice of the ship’s computer (think “Mother” with a few technical faults) to keep them company, insipid lounge music to listen to and bland space food to eat, they are slowly flipping out.
Lt Doolittle, the lead ranking officer, is a soulful ex-surfer who has created a musical bottle organ which he plays alone in his downtime in one of the ship’s many engine rooms. His main ally on board is space cadet Sgt Talby who spends his time in the observation dome at the top of the ship. Sgt Boiler is a cigar smoking grunt who practices the “knife trick” (as favoured by Bishop in Aliens) in his spare time and who also likes to use the ship’s laser gun for random target practice.
Sgt Pinback (as played by O’Bannon) is a paranoid, victimised character that acts as the ship’s scapegoat - his only solace is in watching back the video diary entries that he has kept throughout the voyage. As the film progresses it’s revealed that Pinback is actually on the ship by mistake. His real name is Bill Frugge, a fuel engineer whose attempts to save the original Pinback from suicide led to him being mistakenly identified as the astronaut just before Dark Star launched into space. The final starman is Commander Powell who accidently died in another of the ship’s many system failures, but who is kept alive in a frozen animated state in the ship’s hold.
Also on board is the ship’s mascot alien, a red spotted beach ball with webbed claws that holds court in the food cupboard and leads Pinback a merry dance around the ship at feeding time. In the film’s longest sequence Pinback, armed with a broom, chases the Alien through air locks, passageways and into the lift shaft (shades of Alien again) where he ends up stranded and hanging on for dear life.
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. The FX, animation, set designs and costumes in Dark Star are what you might expect from a student film in the early 1970s – they are striking, but basic. For example, the space suit design follows very much the Blue Peter school of thought in its use of disused household implements. Look closely and you can see frying pans, vacuum cleaner nozzles and silver sticky tape. In the main though, the effects work and their simplicity serve to lend the film its satirical edge.
Dark Star is very much a product of its time. Channelling the disillusioned ideals of the 60s 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 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 schtick with a few bleaker more cynical laughs and some gallows humour to boot.
As far as influence from other movies goes, an obvious mention goes to 2001: A SpaceOdyssey. Dark Star spends much of its time lampooning Kubrick’s grand opus to good effect. The jump to hyperspace in the first few minutes is a reference to DouglasTrumbull’s “Stargate” sequence from the earlier film, although on a much smaller scale. The “character” of Bomb 20 is a direct nod to HAL as is Doolittle’s space walk and his “phenemological” conversation to try and convince the bomb not to explode in the ship’s loading bay. Director John Carpenter has referred to Dark Star as “Waiting for Godot in Space” and whilst it never tries to seriously answer questions about life, the universe and everything Dark Star is more than just a run of the mill genre spoof.
After Dark Star, John Carpenter’s career rose rapidly. As director of horror and sci-fi classics such as Halloween, The Thing, Escape from New York and They Live, Carpenter cemented his name in the annals of movie history. O’Bannon went on to work as an effects technician on Star Wars, then came Alien and he also had a hand in Total Recall. He never reached the same heights as Carpenter though and the pair didn’t work again after Dark Star completed. A new documentary on the making of Dark Star “Let there be Light” was shown at the Sci-Fi London festival earlier this year. The film’s legacy is a great one and it deserves to reside in any top ten list of outer space classics.
Flipping out in Space...