Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dark Star (1974)

Title: Dark Star (1974)

Director: John Carpenter

Writers: John Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon

Cast: Dan O’Bannon, Brian Narelle, Cal Kuniholm, Dre Pahich


Dark Star is fun to watch simply because it was John Carpenter’s training wheels as a director. Same as THX-1138 was for George Lucas and Sugarland Express was for Spielberg, Dark Star was John Carpenter’s student film. It evolved into a full length feature film thanks to producer Jack H. Harris, the guy who decided to put some money behind Carpenter and O’Bannon’s then unfinished student film. He decided to believe in this crazy bunch of filmmakers, he saw something there. So he financed a couple of extra scenes to expand the films running time so that it could be released theatrically. Watching films like these is a joy because it’s the equivalent of seeing baby pictures of an old friend whom you’ve known your whole life. I’ve been seeing John Carpenter films since I was a child, and watching Dark Star showed me a Carpenter who was a directorial infant, just getting started, fresh out of film school, but as future films would prove, with talent to spare.

Story concerns four guys who travel across the galaxy on their spaceship called Dark Star. Their job is to fly around the galaxy looking for unstable planets which are considered threats to future colonization. Once they find these unstable planets, their job is to blow them up with “exponential thermostellar bombs”. Unfortunately, when they are not blowing up unstable planets, they spend too much time completely bored out of their minds! So they play pranks on each other, catalog their journey on a ship’s log, stare at the universe for hours and hours and play dangerous games with the ships mascot, an alien that looks like a Killer Tomato/Beach ball. Seriously!

Essentially, this film came to be because a bunch of film school students wanted it to. You have to have a certain amount of balls in order to get this kind of film made. I mean, its no easy task to make something out of nothing and you could tell these guys had next to nothing when they were making this one! Still, these guys had the gravitas and they went ahead and made chicken salad out of chicken shit. Spacesuits were fashioned after toys, because said toys were used as miniatures for some scenes. The sets were extremely claustrophobic because some of them were made inside of closets….and the buttons on the spaceship were made out of overturned ice cube trays. Miniatures for the film were made out of re-fashioned model cars, and aliens were made out of repainted inflatable beach balls. So it’s that kind of a film where you can tell it was made on a shoestring budget. But what we can admire about this kind of film is that the guys behind it went out and did it none the less. I mean, anybody else would have said “no way, this can’t be done!” A sci-fi with no budget? But these guys had the ‘cojones’ to do it, so I salute them. Best part is that the film is actually watchable and entertaining.

The filmmakers behind this film came out of USC’s film department and at the time, the big story that came out of USC was how George Lucas had turned his student film THX-1138 into a full length feature film. This story excited the hell out of the rest of the student body in that film school, many of whom followed Lucas’s example and did the same thing. Amongst those that followed suit was John Carpenter, only difference being that Dark Star was a much smaller film than THX-1138 and it got very little exposure when it was first released on a limited amount of theaters. It was a bit misunderstood at the time, because it was marketed as a serious science fiction film, audiences werent expecting a comedy. I mean, one look at the films poster and you'd never get an idea that it was a comedy! But like all films of merit, Dark Star eventually found its audience and well, here we are still talking about it after all these years.

Can you spot the cup cake mold?

I’ll be honest, Dark Star is not the most exciting film ever made, but I guess that was the whole point. This movie is about as laid back as its main characters are laid back. This isn’t a movie about interstellar wars, with battalions of spaceships and big budget special effects. Nope, this film is the complete opposite, it’s so low key. It’s a movie about four bored guys flying through space. Four working class heroes, bored with their lives, bored with their jobs, with nothing better to do then talk amongst themselves, philosophizing, asking the big questions. You could say the film flies by without a heck of a lot happening except these four guys just passing the time. One look at these guys and you can tell that the actors (including Dan O’Bannon himself) were a bunch of hippies in real life; the kind that would rather just sit back and smoke a fat one, if you know what I mean. Carpenter himself would have fit in nicely in this crew of misfits characters had he decided to act on the film. Back then, he looked like a hippy himself. Actually he still looks like one if you ask me. Hurray for eternal hippies man! Hurray!

Excitement comes along when the ships alien mascot/killer tomato decides to take one of the crew members for a ride, hiding in the spaceship, playing games. It has been said that those scenes with the alien tomato mascot were the inspiration for Alien, which O’Bannon was responsible for writing, so that makes sense. The other exciting moment in Dark Star comes when one of the bombs that the guys use to blow up planets called ‘Bomb #20’ (wow these guys have blown up 19 planets before this one!!?) gets jammed and wont drop. Problem is that since the Bomb is essentially a thinking computer, it decides that it has to follow orders and blow up anyway, even though it’s still attached to the ship! How hippy is this movie? I’ll tell you how hippy: one of the crew members decides to philosophize his way out of this tight jam by convincing the computer about the existence of the universe. Ha! So this is a film made by true blue hippies, for true blue hippies. In fact, some have gone as far as calling this one “the last great hippy film”. Another trippy element that the film has is that it was inspired by 2001 (1969), obviously Carpenter and O'Bannon were huge Kubrick fans. There are a lot of elements here that come straight out of Kubricks film, like for example the use of classical music, trippy space traveling visuals and the use of an intelligent computer that turns on its crew members. The film also has elements from a couple of sci-fi novels, these guys obviosly loved Phillip K. Dick. So essentially, Carpenter and O'Bannon payed homage with this movie to everything they loved about science fiction, but in a funny, ireverrent way. This movie was fun times, and it goes to show just how much film is an illusion. If Carpenter and O’Bannon took a closet, a couple of ice trays, toys, car models and cup cake molds and made a science fiction film out of them and got said film released in theaters, what’s to stop you from achieving your dreams? Exactly!

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5


Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Historically important, but not one of my favourite Carpenter films. I return to DARK STAR very rarely. If I'm honest I'd rather watch 2001 any day of the week to this. I'm liking the new banner Franco!

Franco Macabro said...

Agree man, it's not Carpenters best, but its still amusing to check it out because its his first film. Its got that raw creativity that this kind of film tends to have. You can tell they were trying really hard with very little, I always tip my hats down to films like that.

But I get what you say, it's not a film Im dying to re-watch soon. Of course you'd rather watch 2001, it's not even in the same ball part in terms of quality.

Glad you liked the new banner, its a visual from Sucker Punch, a film I didnt love, but the image of the giant Samurais was rockin!

Thanks for commenting Shaun!

Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...

You’ve given Dark Star a fair assessment, Francisco, which is a difficult thing to do watching it in 2011. The first time I saw this was at the local science fiction convention Boskone in the mid-70’s with a bunch of sci-fi fans, who howled at all the sf in-jokes. I’ve watched it again in the 80’s with sf friends and enjoyed it nearly as much. I watched it a third time in the late-90’s by myself and found it more philosophically enlightening than funny. Time has an odd way of changing the way you react viscerally to a film.

I actually think the low-budget helps the film. The cramped sets make the spaceship feel more real than the larger sets of 2001. The messy crew quarters and the general lack of organization of the ship’s interior feel more like real space travel than most big budget films. The only film that tried a similar look was the first Alien film, which as you mention was written by Dark Star’s co-writer Dan O’Bannon.

I think you overstress the term hippy to describe the crew of the Dark Star and their general habits and philosophical attitudes. This film was shot by college students in the early 70’s and I’m just old enough to remember that students of this time all dressed and acted pretty much the way the crew of Dark Star does. We didn’t consider ourselves “hippies”, which was already a term that was becoming passé by then. We just considered ourselves “cool”.

I’d probably still rate Dark Star higher than you, but mostly for its significance as an early sf independent film. BTW: I’d rather re-watch Carpenter’s still entertaining Dark Star than Lucas’s dull and depressing THX-1138.

Franco Macabro said...

Agree with you Fritz on how time can change how you view a film, watching Fight Club the other day, I got a very political vibe from it, which had never happened before!

But yeah, Dark Star does get philosophical, specially in those scenes where that character is looking out into space, or when the other character is talking to Bomb #20. Its ending is even more out there.

You are right, the cramped space of the sets is closer to real life space travel.

Didnt mean to offend hippies from around the world, I was just referring to their long hairs and their spaced out conversations. In a totally unrelated note (or is it?) I dont remember so well, but dont they smoke weed on the Dark Star? I seem to remember a scene..but hey, hippies are cool in my book cause I consider myself a moder day hippie myself!

I gave it a 2 1/2 out of five, because even though its a very creative film, and I applaud what they did with so little, I think it does have one or two pacing problems, the beachball alien though funny, kind of left me wanting something cooler looking then an inflatible beach ball.
And you know, sometimes it feels like we are not on a spaceship, but on a very cheap set.

But hey man, the film has got it's charm, I dug it lots! Thanks for your comments Fritz!


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