Tuesday, 11 March 2014

John Carpenter's Dark Star: An Incredible Debut

In 1974,  a low-budget science fiction parody called Dark Star was released to theatres, directed by an unknown filmmaker named John Carpenter and co-written by Dan O’Bannon. At the time very few people saw it, and the movie faded into obscurity for years before eventually achieving the status of cult classic (something that would happen surprisingly often to its director in his later films). It is likely those people had no idea the inspiring history behind this movie.

Dark Star originated as an hour-long college short that was the product of a collaboration between two men, both of whom would go on to work in much greater projects. The first is John Carpenter, who I have voiced my admiration of before (in fact I've even had the chance to meet him), and this is a fine beginning to a long and extraordinarily diverse career.

The other major contributor is of course Dan O'Bannon, who both co-wrote and stars in the film, and also played a major role in special effects (actor Brian Narelle has a few interesting stories about working with him on set). You might not recognize that name right away, but you may have heard of a few of his later projects, probably most famously the script for the 1979 sci-fi/horror classic Alien (which, incidentally, was partially inspired by some of this movie). He also did special effects for Star Wars and wrote the screenplay for Total Recall.

 Now to make a long story short, Dark Star originated as a student project which would have been about an hour long. Later on John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon made a deal with Jack H. Harris, who agreed to give the movie a theatrical release if they could extend it to a feature running time.

It is the mid-21st century, and humanity has explored beyond the boundaries of the solar system and begun to colonize other worlds. Ahead of these massive expeditions are smaller missions sent to pave the way for colonization by destroying unstable worlds.

Among these many brave men sent ahead are the crew of Dark Star, a spaceship that has been travelling through hyperspace for 20 years. The crew are all bored out of their mind and have lost any interest in their mission (even the odd chance of finding intelligent life doesn't so much as slightly lighten the mood). The commander was killed by a faulty seat, but still (sort of) retains semi-consciousness with his body carefully frozen. 

Meanwhile the ship is slowly falling apart because nobody wants to do any maintenance, and the navigator, Lt. Talby, has completely isolated himself to the point of spending most of his time literally staring off into space.

Indeed, a lot of the humor comes from the strange situations the characters end up in due to the ship's malfunctions. The crew are faced with piling disasters that cause more and more trouble as the movie goes on. Probably the part most people remember best is the infamous alien who is obviously played by a painted beach ball with webbed feet. At first glance this may be an area where the film's low-budget status shows, but the alien does still manage to take on a life of its own and convincingly act like a living creature. The film even takes advantage of the fact that it is obviously played by a beach ball, using it as a source of humor. 

Later on, we get other memorable moments, but the other part that most people remember is of course the sub-plot involving Bomb #20, an artificially intelligent bomb that is irrevocably determined to explode. The solution? Why, teaching it the basic fundamentals of rationalism, of course.

For a movie made on (by film making standards) an extremely low budget the movie’s visuals are surprisingly good. The exterior shots of the ship are very convincing, as are the views of the characters in weightlessness while outside.

The picture and sound quality are also far from perfect by normal standards, but as it was originally a student film one can hardly expect absolute perfection in that particular area. The music is also quite fitting. Most of the film we have a synthesizer score playing in the background, which fits in nicely with the the low-budget quality of everything else. Of course, that's also not getting into the really catchy theme song, which as amusing as it is does help to emphasize the longing desires of the main characters.

All this of course builds up to a surprisingly emotional final scene. I'm not going to give away the details, and yes I am aware that it draws inspiration from a certain Ray Bradbury story, but I'm not sure if there could have been a better way to end the movie.

Dark Star may not be a film for everybody. It has a very distinct brand of humor and should be observed with an open mind, but if you are a fan of John Carpenter or Dan O’Bannon and interested in seeing their beginnings—or just looking for an unique comedy with dark and subtle humor, it is certainly worth checking out.

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