Dark Star

1974 | USA | Directed by John Carpenter

Logline: The plight of four astronauts in deep space whose mission aboard the Dark Star is to dispatch bombs to destroy unstable planets.

Galactic inertia and deep space ennui forms the backbone of this strangely endearing void of cosmic (a)musing. Following the trials and tribulations of Pinback (Dan O’Bannon), Doolittle (Brian Narelle), Boiler (Cal Kuniholm), and Talby (Dre Pahich), four astronauts bored out of their minds, clutching on to whatever small pleasures and inane dialogue they can muster, whilst they inch closer and closer to the end of their twenty year mission: destroying unstable planets within the galaxy that may have been considered suitable for colonisation.

Dark Star was John Carpenter’s film school graduation project. His completed version ran 68 minutes long. A Hollywood producer, Jack Harris, saw the student film and convinced Carpenter to shoot an additional fifteen minutes. Harris then released the sixty-thousand dollar movie in 1975 and this launched John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s successful careers. Carpenter edited and scored the movie, and co-wrote the screenplay with O’Bannon. O’Bannon also supervised the clever special effects (considering the budget limitations), so the project was very much a collaboration.

O’Bannon had intended the movie to be a comedy, but early audiences failed to appreciate its deeply sardonic sense of humour. The movie didn’t do very good box office, Carpenter would have to wait for the release of Halloween three years later to reap the big rewards. O’Bannon was very upset that he had failed to communicate a comedy, and subsequently his next project adapted an element from Dark Star – the alien aboard the ship – from being an amusement to being a nightmare; Alien (or Star Beast, as O’Bannon’s early drafts were called). Dark Star went on to garner a strong cult following upon its domestic VHS release (and in the wake of Halloween and Escape from New York).

The Dark Star is in the galactic sector of EB – base 2 – 90, eighteen parsecs away from Earth, a ten-year delay in communication. Commander Powell (an uncredited Joe Saunders) is in deep freeze having recently passed away. When Bomb #20 decides it doesn’t want to carry out its programmed duty, the astronauts are in a quandary. Doolittle requests advice from Powell’s half-living soul via a special electronic communiqué device and ends up on a spacewalk to discuss the finer existentialist points of life and death with the temperamental and insubordinate thermostellar device.

Talby, who spends almost all his time in the observation portal, talks dreamily of the Phoenix asteroid cluster. Pinback and Boiler squabble. Doolittle seeks solace adjusting his musical vibes. These men are terminally at the end of their tether. Only a mischievous alien creature that looks like a beach ball with clawed feet, and Bomb #20, are providing the men with any real connection with the universe’s rich tapestry, and life’s little ironies. But the stellar tide will soon turn, and Doolittle will ride that cosmic debris on the red wave of re-entry with abandon.

Dark Star is an unusual cult movie in that it is a universal censor’s rating of G: General Exhibition. There is no real violence, no profanity, no distinguishable nudity (the Playboy magazine pinups in the living room scene have been deliberately blurred in post-production), and no drug use. Yet Dark Star is by no means a children’s movie; even most young teenagers would find themselves bored and restless after ten minutes. Dark Star is for curious B-movie lovers and quirky sf freaks.