The Films of John Carpenter: Dark Star (1974)
One of the better Holiday gifts I received this past season (ok, ok…I bought it myself with some of my Holiday money) was the book, “John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness” by Gilles Boulenger. Essentially a series of interviews that the author conducted with the famed filmmaker, the book covers everything from earliest inspirations right up to Ghosts of Mars (which was Carpenter’s newest film at the time of publication). It was while reading Boulenger’s book that I was struck with the idea for this series. What I plan to do over the course of the next several months is watch every John Carpenter movie currently available on DVD (which is damn near all of them), in chronological order, and record my thoughts and opinions on each one. I see it as an excellent opportunity to explore the career of one of the cinema’s most entertaining directors, and I’m looking forward to it in a big way.
The first film in this series is Dark Star, which started life as a student project in the early 1970’s, when Carpenter was enrolled at USC. Directed by Carpenter, from a script he co-wrote with fellow classmate Dan O’Bannon (who would go on to compose the screenplay for Alien), Dark Star is an ultra low-budget sci-fi comedy, pieced together bit by bit over the course of several years. Eventually, producer Jack H. Harris would get involved, with the intention of giving the film a general release. At Harris’ insistence, additional scenes were shot, increasing the film’s running time from just over an hour to 90 minutes total. Both versions of the film are available on the special-edition DVD, but thus far I’ve only seen Carpenter’s original cut of 1 hour and 8 minutes. Unfortunately, even at this shorter length, Dark Star tends to wear out its welcome rather quickly.
The storyline is one of the film’s most interesting elements. After spending years together in the farthest reaches of space, the crew of the spaceship Dark Star; Doolittle (Brian Narelle), Boiler (Cal Kuniholm), Pinback (O’Bannon), and Talby (Dre Pahich), are going a bit stir crazy. The only thing keeping them afloat is their job, blowing up unstable planets to clear the way for colonization, and even that’s starting to lose some of its appeal. Throw in an overly playful alien, bombs that can think for themselves, and a mainframe computer that’s less than helpful, and you have the makings of a disaster waiting to happen.
Dark Star is certainly not without its charms. I enjoyed the opening sequence, in which the crew receives a recorded message from earth, an obvious spoof of a similar moment from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This scene matches the tone and delivery of the original almost perfectly. Also, while the special effects are on the flimsy side, I have to say they were far more impressive than the ones found in most student films, and even better than some of what Hollywood was turning out around that time.
Another interesting aspect of Dark Star is that it gives the viewer a chance to see first-hand some of the inspirations that co-writer Dan O’Bannon utilized when writing the script for Alien, one of the greatest sci-fi / horror films ever created. For starters, the two stories share some similarities: both are about space travel as commerce, with crew members who view wandering the universe as nothing more than a job, with little time spent reflecting on the wonders to be found. There are more specific similarities as well, such as when Pinback is chasing the escaped alien, whom the crew treats as if it were a pet, through the ship. The scene is played mostly for laughs, but there is definitely a more sinister tone set in this sequence than in any other throughout the film, making it much like the ‘chase’ found in Alien. For those who enjoyed Ridley Scott’s space-bound horror fest, Dark Star will certainly prove interesting, if for no other reason than as a means to see where some of that film’s ideas first originated.
Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that many of Dark Star’s scenes played on much longer than they should have. For instance, in the sequence mentioned above, when Pinback is chasing the alien, he at one point ends up trapped while climbing through a hatch door in the floor of an elevator. The scene is funny to start, but has lost almost all of its appeal when it finally ends, by which time we’ve watched him, his legs flailing wildly as they stick out from the bottom, go up and down the elevator shaft a number of times. The alien creature itself is another weakness, consisting of little more than a beach ball with feet sticking out from underneath it. I know it was all meant to be funny, but I found it’s appearance more of a distraction than anything.
I admit I feel a little bad nitpicking on what is essentially a student film, especially one that is not, as stated above, without its charms. Ultimately, however, Dark Star is little more than a curiosity, a first movie from a director who would go on to make better films, and a co-writer who would pen a classic of both the sci-fi and horror genres.