Dark Star (1974)

Dark Star (1974)

“Don’t give me any of that ‘intelligent life’ stuff. Give me something I can blow up!”

Synopsis:
A team of astronauts — Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle), Boiler (Cal Kuniholm), Talby (Dre Pahich), and Sgt. Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) — who’ve been sent on a 20 year mission to detonate “unstable planets” deal with both boredom and life-threatening emergencies during their time in space.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Astronauts
  • John Carpenter Films
  • Satires and Spoofs
  • Science Fiction
  • Space Opera

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “this emerging cult hit” — the “debut effort of director John Carpenter and screenwriter… Dan O’Bannon” — “actually began as a thesis film at USC,” and “has long been the textbook example of how to make a quality film on a shoestring budget.” He refers to it as “a splendidly inventive, hip, irreverent space satire (a parody of 2001) that provocatively illustrates how astronauts, when confined to their spaceship for too long, become irretrievably ‘spaced out’.” He goes on to argue that “this dehumanization theme is much better realized here than in Carpenter’s The Thing” (but we have vastly differing opinions on that flick, so I won’t carry that discussion any farther).

I would agree that “seeing these astronauts in their sorry state at the film’s beginning” makes us “concerned not [only] about what will become of them but about how they became that way.” They are “neglected or, more likely, forgotten by earth base”, and are now in a “radioactive” ship with “their toilet paper long gone, their minds wandering in various directions,” flying “through infinite space on an endless and now pointless mission to blow up (with talking bombs, no less) unstable planets.”

What a dreary, torturous existence! As Peary points out, how these four men “spend their time is the gist of the film,” so it’s a good thing we’re given plenty of droll comic relief.

Peary argues that while “the film has traces of amateurishness, it is brimming with ingenuity… and quirky humor,” with a highlight “a long sequence in which O’Bannon’s witless character tries to feed an alien they’ve taken aboard” — which is played as “pure comedy” but is also clearly “the genesis of Alien, for which O’Bannon also wrote the script.”

Peary analyzes the film in further detail in his Cult Movies 2 book, where he notes that both of Carpenter’s pre-Halloween (1978) films — this and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) — have unique cult followings that are “quite separate from each other.” He points out that Carpenter at this early stage in his career “was obviously much like the innovative astronaut Doolittle, who fills up two rows of hanging bottles with varying amounts of water to create a makeshift vibraphone”:

… just as Carpenter “used everything at his disposal to complete a ‘legitimate’ film… despite having little money for production values.” His strategies included using “interesting opticals and animation effects;” building “an eighty-foot shaft and flip[ping] his camera on its side to make Pinback’s elevator-hanging scene seem believable and exciting”:

… “allow[ing] for a monster that is no more than a beachball with claws because he can use it for humor as well as suspense; vary[ing] the visuals by including several sequences in which characters appear on television monitors and seem to be addressing the viewer”:

… and “giv[ing] voices to the ship’s computer (a sexy but motherly female) and the bomb about to be detonated (a fussy male), thereby adding two characters to the film.”

I’m not a personal fan of this film, but I concede its effectiveness and can understand how and why it would have appealed to audiences of the day. There are a number of clever moments (my favorite is “Doolittle’s phenomenological discussion with the bomb”):

… and I would agree with Peary that this film can be “an inspiration to aspiring independent filmmakers” as a “surprisingly non-indulgent [film] for a new director.”

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Impressive use of a super-low budget

Must See?
Yes, once, simply as a cult favorite.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

Links:

One thought on “Dark Star (1974)

  1. First viewing (5/2/22). A once-must as a cult movie of note.

    Carpenter has quoted Variety magazine’s review, which called ‘DS’ “a limp parody of Stanley Kubrick‚Äôs ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that warrants attention only for some remarkably believable special effects achieved with very little money.” Turns out that review is both accurate and inaccurate.

    Parody is something that *other people* do to your work. In this case, it would be something that a writer (O’Bannon) was doing to his own work, ahead of time.

    The references in the film to ‘2001’ are clear but – and this is where the film is genuinely a comedy – the writers are having fun riffing on the way that more-regular guys (esp. surfer dudes, to a degree) would talk in that same situation. And the more ‘everyday’ speech patterns come not only from the astronauts but also from the robotic devices.

    It’s a mistake thinking of this film as only a comedy because it’s a mixture – and there is almost genuine terror in the lengthy elevator shaft sequence.

    While not all of the film works, most of it does – on its own low-budget terms – and film fanatics are likely to appreciate and get a thrill from this sort of ‘knowing’ project. Personally, I rather enjoyed it.

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