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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Dark Star

This film started out as a film school project for two film college students: John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon. Both would go on to create landmarks of 1980s cinema, Alien and the many Halloween films. Dark Star (DS) is a dark comedy sci-fi with some subtle social commentary. It caught the attention of Hollywood producer Jack Harris (of The Blob fame). Harris convinced Carpenter and O'Bannon to shoot some additional footage so the boys' 45 minute project would be feature film length. They did, and DS was released to theaters in the spring of 1974.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The ship Dark Star has been on its mission for 20 years, although the crew has aged only three. Their mission is to destroy unstable planets in distant solar systems that might someday get colonized. Aboard the cramped ship are Lt. Doolittle, Stg. Pinback, Boiler and Talby. Their commander, Powell, died earlier, from an exploding seat back. The four find an unstable planet and go through the familiar routine to drop Bomb #19. They do, then hyperspace a safe distance away before it explodes. En route to the next system, the crew go about dealing with abject boredom. Talby stays in the observation dome, watching the stars go by. Boiler occupies himself with target shooting (n the hallways) with the ship's laser rifle. Doolittle reminisces about his former life, especially surfing off Malibu. Pinback is a moody gadfly trying to be sociable, but only achieving annoyance. Pinback goes to feed the alien they rescued/adopted. It's a mischievous beachball thing, which escapes. Pinback has to pursue it through the cramped passages. A tranquilizer dart actually kills it by deflation. At the next unstable planet, the boys go to drop Bomb 20, but while downloading to the bomb its programming, the laser comm link was interrupted by Talby who was trying to work on a malfunction. The bomb then won't drop, but its detonation sequence continues. The three boys are in chaos to find a solution. Pinback and Boiler fight over whether Boiler should shoot out the link pins. Doolittle consults with "dead" Powell, kept in a cryogenic vault below decks. The "spirt" of Powell (after some self-absorbed distractions) tells Doolittle to talk to the bomb about phenomenology. Doolittle dons as space suit and goes EVA to talk to the bomb. Boiler and Pinback wrestle over the laser in the hallways. Doolittle talks phenomenology with the bomb, causing it to doubt its order to arm. The bomb puts itself back in the bomb bay. All seems fine. Doolittle tries to enter through the airlock, but this just ejects Talby who was lying in there. Doolittle jets out to rescue Talby. While he's away, the bomb starts thinking it is God. When it gets to "Let there be light," it blows up. Talby drifts away and is "taken" by the glowing Phoenix Asteroids. Doolittle, drawn back to the planet, surfs down on a hunk of ship debris, ending in a fiery poof. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Of course, it's a comedy, so it's fun. Some of the humor is physical and slapstick (like the naughty beach ball alien). Much of the humor is dry and subtle (like the "dead" Commander Powell not being very worried about the bomb going off in a few seconds (he's already dead, you see), so kvetches on and on about not getting many visitors.)

Cultural Connection
John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon would go on to make significant names for themselves in 80s cinema (and beyond), so it is intriguing to see what amounts to the "school project" film.

2001 Homage -- DS, as a project, was begun just two years after Kubrick's 2001 had rocked the sci-fi world. DS's plot is not especially similar, except for the deep, lonely space mission setting. One scene, however, is obviously an homage. When Talby is woodshed out of the air lock and goes spinning off into space, Doolittle goes after him. It would be hard not to see the paraphrase of Kubrick's scene in which Dave goes after spinning Frank. Where Kubrick's vision of deep space was clean, crisp and almost spacious, Carpenter and O'Bannon made theirs cramped and malfunction-prone. Where Kubrick's astronauts were nobly exploring "where no man has gone before," Carpenter's astronauts amounted a blue-collar demolition crew on an underfunded banal job. An interesting "compare and contrast."

Proto-Alien -- The scene in which Pinback (O'Bannon) hunts for his lost alien, was the additional footage inserted to bring DS up to Feature Film length. Viewers will note how no other actors are really involved in the scene, making it easier to graft in mid-story. Note too, how the beach ball alien thread has no bearing on the overall plot. It's just filler. It is, however, a prototype, of sorts, for O'Bannon's later epic, Alien (1979) -- just from a decidedly comic point of view instead of the horror point of view.

HyperWoosh -- Note the "woosh" of the star field as the Dark Star jumps into hyper-space. This seems like one of the first feature film occurrences of this visual effect prior to Star Wars ('77) making it famous (and ubiquitous). Perhaps not coincidentally, Dan O'Bannon was on the effects crew of Star Wars, providing computer animation and optical effects.

Sophomore Self-God -- The collegiate roots of DS are humorously on display in the "phenomenology" banter between Doolittle and Bomb 20. The whole "how do you REALLY know" gambit is straight out of Philosophy 101 lectures. In a rather penetrating bit of social commentary on the upcoming "ME Generation," Carpenter has his ego-isolated, self-aware bomb decide that if IT is all there is, then it must be God. Pretty deep satire for a comedy.

Bottom line? DS lacks big-budget polish for sets and special effects, so if that sort of thing is a turn-off, then avoid DS. It's a pretty elaborate class project, but that's still what it is. Viewers that can get past that, will find witty writing and actually pretty good acting, given the college-boys cast. DS as sci-fi comedy, is worth seeking out.

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