Dark Star

This is the first in a small season of reviews of movies by director, producer, writer, composer and occasional actor John Carpenter.  Dark Star was the first film in Carpenter’s illustrious career, before he went on to make an assortment of popular and effective thrillers and horror pics, not least the original Halloween, The Thing and Escape from New York.  Never intellectual masterpieces nor Oscar winners, but Carpenter’s oeuvre always captured the imagination and stayed long in the memory.

Dark Star, a delightful spoof on self-important space movies, of which there were many before and since, was a movie made on a very low budget, and looks it.  Special effects would not convince my cats, but then that is part of the fun.  It looks like a student production, thrown together with a small cast and a can-do attitude.  From Wikipedia:

Director John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon wrote the screenplay. Six years later, the basic “Beachball with Claws” subplot of the film was reworked from comedy to horror, and became the basis (along with an unpublished story about gremlins aboard a B-17) for the O’Bannon-scripted science fiction horror classic, Alien.  

Working on an estimated $60,000 budget, Carpenter and O’Bannon had to make production design from scratch. In the “elevator” sequence the bottom of the elevator is actually rolling on the floor. The device used to roll the elevator base was a Moviola camera dolly normally used on the small sound stage in the old USC Cinema building (a former horse stable). The steering arm of the dolly can be seen in the “elevator’s” underside. Talby’s starsuit backpack is made from Styrofoam packing material – probably from a TV set – and his spacesuit chestplate is made from a muffin tray. The double rows of large buttons on the bridge consoles are ice cube trays illuminated from beneath. Sergeant Pinback’s video diary is an 8-track tape and the machine he uses to read it and record it is a microfiche reader. O’Bannon also starred in the film in the role of Sgt. Pinback.

Much of the special effects seen in the movie were done by Dan O’Bannon, ship design by Ron Cobb, model work by O’Bannon and Greg Jein, and animation was by Bob Greenberg.

The bombs are made from an AMT 1/25 scale semi-trailer kit and parts of a 1/12th scale model car kit; “Matra“, the name of the car brand, can be seen on some parts in some shots.[4] The space suits are made to resemble the space suit of the Mattel action figureMajor Matt Mason“, which was used in slightly modified form as a miniature for effects shots. Cobb drew the original design for the “Dark Star” ship on a napkin while they were eating at the International House of Pancakes.

The film featured the first hyperspace sequence to show the effect of stars rushing past the Dark Star vessel in a tunnel-effect (due to superluminal velocity) which was used in Star Wars three years later.

Somehow there is a charm in low budget features, particularly sci-fi.  Ed Wood‘s Plan 9 from Outer Space was objectively awful by any film-making standards, between amateurish acting, cardboard gravestones and Lugosi replacement who looked nothing like Lugosi. But still we love it!

$60k wouldn’t pay for the star’s caravan these days, but while the effects in Dark Star might have been cheap Carpenter’s debut demonstrates real talent and an understated humour that acts as a rich seam throughout his movies.  The humour is primarily given three outlets:

  • Spaceship crew going through procedures and talking in pure mock-space jargon, something included seriously in Star Trek and a host of other sci-fi epics.  Carpenter sends  up the genre exquisitely without ever deviating from the deadpan.
  • Bored men stuck in a confined space and irritating the hell out of one another.  Not the greatest acting you’ll ever see, but great fun nonetheless.
  • A crew member trying to make the “ship’s alien” behave, which alien is nothing like Giger’s gothic monster but a beach ball with duck’s feet who squeaks and twitters like Cousin Itt in The Addams Family.
  • Crew talking to and reasoning with the artificial intelligence systems in the computer (a la 2001) and especially a batch of very keen and eager bombs.  The fact that in the case of Bomb 20 (Adam Beckenbaugh) this dialogue descends into philosophy in order to persuade the bomb not to detonate and blow the ship sky high is a thing of sheer beauty, even if he ultimately fails.

For what it’s worth, the plot is almost irrelevant but try this for size:

In the middle of the 22nd century, mankind has reached a point in its technological advancement that enables colonization of the far reaches of the universe. Armed with artificially intelligent “Thermostellar Triggering Devices”, the scout ship Dark Star and its crew have been in space alone for twenty years on a mission to destroy “unstable planets” which might threaten future colonization.

The ship’s crew consists of Lt. Doolittle, Sgt. Pinback, Boiler, and Talby. Commander Powell, their superior officer, was killed by a faulty rear seat panel, but remains on board the ship in a state of cryogenic suspension. The crew perform their jobs in a state of abject boredom as the tedium of their task has driven them around the bend, with only each other, an increasing number of (sometimes comical) systems malfunctions (for example, an explosion in a storage bay has destroyed the ship’s entire supply of toilet paper) and the soft-spoken ship’s computer for company. They have attempted to create distractions for themselves – Doolittle, formerly an enthusiastic surfer, has constructed a musical bottle organ, Talby spends all his time in the ship’s observation dome watching the universe go by, Boiler enjoys smoking cigars and target practice with the ship’s laser rifle, while Pinback enjoys playing practical jokes on the other crew members, maintains a video diary, and has also adopted a ship’s mascot in the form of a mischievous alien “beachball” that refuses to stay put in the food locker and forces Pinback to chase it all over the ship.

Pinback’s video diary includes an earlier entry in which he states that he is actually liquid fuel specialist Bill Frugge, who accidentally took Pinback’s place on the mission after failing to rescue Pinback from committing suicide by wading into a fuel tank before the mission.

While navigating an asteroid storm, en route to their next target (the Veil Nebula), the Dark Star is hit by a bolt of electromagnetic energy, resulting in an onboard malfunction and bomb #20 receiving the order to deploy. With some difficulty, the ship’s computer convinces bomb #20 that the order was in error and persuades the bomb to disarm and return to the bomb bay. The bomb grumpily agrees to comply with “Ok, but this is the last time”. To the complete disinterest of his crewmates, Talby decides to investigate the fault. Discovering a damaged communications laser in the airlock, Talby dons a spacesuit to investigate. While attempting to repair the laser, Talby is blinded and inadvertently triggers a more serious problem, causing extensive damage to the ship’s main computer and damaging the bomb release mechanism on bomb #20.

On arrival at their target planet, the bomb is armed in the usual way, but then the crew discovers they cannot activate the release mechanism and attempt to abort the drop. Bomb #20 becomes belligerent and refuses to disarm. Its detonation countdown is in progress and it refuses to abort the countdown sequence. The other crew members attempt to talk the bomb out of blowing up. Doolittle revives Commander Powell, who advises them to teach the bomb the rudiments of phenomenalism, resulting in a memorable philosophical conversation between Doolittle and the bomb. Bomb #20 aborts its countdown and retreats to the bomb bay for contemplation, and disaster appears to have been averted. Pinback addresses the bomb over the intercom in an attempt to finally disarm it.

Doolittle has mistakenly taught the bomb Cartesian doubt, and as a result, later in the film, the bomb determines that it can only trust itself and not external inputs, states “Let there be light,” and promptly detonates. Pinback and Boiler are killed instantly. Commander Powell is jettisoned into space encased in a large block of ice, and Talby is taken away by the Phoenix Asteroids (a cluster of glowing asteroids he had a fascination with) to circumnavigate the universe. Doolittle, who previously expressed his love of surfing and how much he misses it, finds an appropriately shaped piece of debris and “surfs” down into the atmosphere of the planet, burning into an incandescent speck.

Go back in the career of any great director and you may find their own equivalent of Dark Star lurking somewhere, a low-budget movie displaying delightful promise.  It may be worth hunting down, though some will not be easy to find.

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