Cult Crap: Dark Star (1974)


Dark Star ~ A Review

Author: Aleks Loesch 

Director: John Carpenter ~ Year: 1974 ~ Length: Depends

*That’s not the ship seen in the film…

It’s rare one gets to write about a student’s film on a par with established directors and in many ways, it’s a film as successful as the ‘pros’. This a student with a difference, who in addition to co-writing, directing, producing, scoring and filming a genuinely fresh and original sci-fi movie for its era, he had the fortune of being in the right place at the right time to get his graduation film picked up by a real, big-league producer and handed extra moolah to extend it to feature-film length. This student was the now veteran director John Carpenter. Dark Star is a dark, somewhat nihilistic comedy-come-psychological-come-philosophical film set in space.

When Carpenter started this production, he was still studying film. It does show and yet it genuinely adds to its charm. It feels lovingly made despite its pessimistic, perhaps ironic outlook and refreshingly sincere low-budget style. Secondly, as a result of its quirky production, several different versions are knocking about. An original cut, which Carpenter took to film festivals (how it got noticed), the cinematic release cut, with extra scenes filmed and added, and a director’s cut in which Carpenter and co-writer/actor Dan O’Bannon banged their heads together and arguably finished the film they set out to make, sans-erroneous extra footage they hated from the cinematic release and with updated special effects. The important thing here is that it doesn’t matter which version you watch. I’ve seen all three and they’re all excellent.

I really believe that the film is a success not just thanks to its talented creators, but to the time, place and atmosphere that contributed to the strange nature of its creation. Conversely, it summates the zeitgeist of the era in which it was made – we have disillusioned hippies longing for a return to normality. It’s like the Manson family murders and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown his response to the recent horrors in his personal life, and that of culture and society around it. The 60s were drawing to a close and the 70s were so far proving little better. It was not the best of times to be had in America. Coincidently, both films premiered in the same year just two months apart. Generic and thematic differences aside, as a viewer we face the same distress and disillusionment in each. Chinatown and Carpenter did not go through the tragedy of having his wife and friends brutally murdered, but you will still find this downbeat, brooding angst under the comedic, rhetoric skin in Dark Star as well.

Unlike Chinatown, this is still a student film. It’s rough around the edges. As with many aspiring filmmakers, Carpenter crammed it full with loosely connected ideas. There’s Dr Strangelove… in Space!, and Hippies… in Space!, and you will find a kind of Bromance… in Space! thing happening alongside the mellow nihilistic sentiments. It doesn’t always work, at times it’s all over the place thematically, with various philosophical concepts splattered throughout. But it works overall and I can get past the ill-conceived, tepidly-cooked ideas. Space exploration is depicted refreshingly in a film like this. It’s space-industry, the guys working out there are blowing up unstable planets to create an interplanetary expressway and they are bored. Their job is dull, and between somewhat tiresome moments of interstellar-demolition, it’s mundane. The protagonists are professionals, they’re not the idiots of Red Dwarf but they aren’t of Aryan model-mensch stock that you will find in more vulgar films either. Because they are so normal, the comedy keeps you bounding on with laughter – unlike Spaceballs, they aren’t whacky (aside from an inflatable-beach-ball-come-alien mascot they have running around). Carpenter makes it work just like how Stanley Kubrick made Dr Strangelove succeed – through absurdity.

The only other film I can think of that shares Carpenter’s stance on the cosmos (beside from the obvious influences from Kubrick) is the more recent film Moon by Duncan Jones, except that the dramatic aspect has been replaced with comedy. It’s an unexpected pairing that results in a lot of laughs just out of how strange the situation seems. I’m glad that even such a concept actually exists; the film adds something to the genre.

At then end, the protagonist’s situation gets stranger. Intelligent bomb stranger. Intelligent bombs are not an intelligent idea. One almost self-detonates when a short-circuit explodes on board. The ship’s safety-rating is closer to that of a 30-year old oil rig than Starship Enterprise. It’s bad. They haven’t had toilet roll in years thanks to a previous accident and now this! Luckily, the ship’s computer persuades the bomb not to detonate, but the bomb remains frustrated and engulfed in deep-thought. Our protagonists know little of the situation at this point, more from being disinterested than earnestly ignorant, and they keep on with their hobbies; water-organs, laser-gun target practice. That is, until it’s time to blow up some Alderaan. Another malfunction means that Bomb can’t drop. But Bomb thinks differently now, Bomb is a character.  Bomb doesn’t want to disarm. Despite their best efforts and their best-applied philosophical logic thanks to their defrosting, cryogenically frozen commander, Bomb won’t stop and, well… cue the credits. But it’s possibly one of my favourite endings ever. Watch it, you will see what I mean; perfect tragicomedy… in space!

It’s just an enjoyable film right down to its core, it’s got some meaty content and it’s not superficial. With a quirky set made from egg boxes and ice cube trays, SFX that George Lucas later copied adopted a few years down the line, and a whole host of other little gems , it’s also just exciting to see the first film of an accomplished director and writer and be able to see the first little seeds of talent that (rightfully) makes him so heralded today.

I really recommend this film to anyone, but especially if you’re a sci-fi puritan. It’s still got your challenging content; it’s just been warped in humour.

Author: Aleks Loesch, January 2014.


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