Dark Star (1974) | Beyond the Starfield

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Before there was Star Trek the Motion Picture, before there was Alien, even before there was Star Wars, there was Dark Star.

Directed by John Carpenter, and written and co-directed by Dan O’bannon, Dark Star was a very early student film effort at the University of Southern California, that slowly turned into a feature film project once it left the college grounds. Initially coming in around sixty eight minutes or so, extra scenes were written and photographed with a budget of just $60,000, and equipment that amounted to a small set of 16mm cameras and crude cobbled sets. But through trial and error, a long arduous 35mm blow-up process, and about 4 years of on-and-off work, a final cut lasting and hour and twenty three minutes was completed. And it managed to make it out into the theatrical circuit, though with a less than hopeful audience reaction.

The film Dark Star features a group of four men—Lt. Doolittle (helmsman), Sgt. Pinback (bombardier), Cpl. Boiler (navigator), and Talby (target specialist)—who are canned up in a fairly large but cramped space ship, traveling across the galaxy where they destroy unstable planets in the middle of habitable zones by dropping bombs onto them and blowing them up. The majority of the film focuses on the crew of the space-craft, Dark Star, as they travel to a new system—the Veil Nebula—where another planet has been identified for demolition. But along the way, they run into some technical difficulties, which may spell doom for the crew. At the same time, Sgt. Pinback, played by the writer, Dan O’bannon, gets into a long chase sequence and physical brawl with what looks like a pimpled beach-ball with lizard claws, but is intended to look like an alien creature, which Sgt. Pinback had taken aboard to serve as the ship’s mascot. This of course constitutes the majority of the scenes which were added on to the original sixty eight minute run to make it feature length.

The entire film ends, as you may have surmised, with the entire crew being blown up themselves, and a few crew-members being flung out into the void of space, where they will inevitably die of some other strange circumstance.

Today I’d like to start off brand-new category on the equally brand-new Cinema Warehouse blog, which I’d like to call “Beyond the Starfield:” where I will be covering the strange, the fanciful, and the awkward entries within the space-based science fiction genre. Any and all space adventure film are subject to criticism here. But I am hopeful that I may find a few that are worth watching a few times over, perhaps simply for their glorious cheese-factor.

For our first entry, we look at a film that is a pioneer in many ways to numerous projects that will come after it, and I will be discussing those quite heavily a little later on.

Primarily, Dark Star is a comedy. It was designed that way, it was performed that way, and it plays that way. Although I would have to say that while it is clearly a comedy, I don’t think ole Dan O’bannon was much the genius for comedy. The wit and punchlines featured here are not as sharp or clever as content featured in say… something like Get Smart (1965), or a Mel Brooks film around the same time. And I think if one was aiming to write a comedic film about space travel, you would pick out the things about space travel that could obviously be really funny if approached from the right view-point. But that really never happens here. I’ve seen jokes about space travel and space exploration handled much better in numerous other projects. But in this case it seems that the film’s story was designed first, and then the humor came as a side or after-thought, rather than building the story and the comedy at the same time.

For instance, having the computer systems and even the bombs themselves given a personality program inside them could lead to all sorts of trouble and confused lines of communication, which it does. But I would think if we really wanted to take this thing all the way, we could have had a scene where the computer system is causing havoc to someone trying to take a shower, or a bath, or just trying to take a dump, and the ship’s systems are going haywire. Maybe causing the toilet to suck too fast. Or the shower nossel is going everywhere but on the person’s body.

Or what about the idea of having someone at the controls of an advanced mining laser, just haphazardly shooting asteroids out of the path of the ship? The guy at the controls could be so use to his job and so focused on shooting every single thing in his line of sight, that he doesn’t realize one of the things he just shot was a cargo shuttle bringing in important supplies for the Dark Star to take up to restock its food and amenities. And so now the entire crew is stranded with no more food, no more toilet paper, and you see a few rolls of paper just flying away from the ship, crystalizing in the negative 450 degree temperature.

The two main things you could say are going for the film over all, even if the writing isn’t so hot, are the visual effects, and the performance of Dan O’bannon himself, as Sgt. Pinback. Watching the documentary on the film’s recent Blu-ray special edition release, you can tell that everyone who worked on the picture loved and still loves Dan O’bannon’s portrayal of Sgt. Pinback, because there’s just so much fun, so much energy, and so much quirky humor that is essentially Dan O’bannon himself, that you can’t help but love to watch him mug for the screen in every scene that he’s in. And in fact, Dan shows up more than any other character in the film, because he was simply the main person that John Carpenter could grab ahold of in order to write new scenes around. And I have to agree that Dan did some very great work and expressive acting during his scenes, especially during the long and complicated elevator shaft sequence, where Dan was actually suspended horizontally along the sound-stage floor, but amazing looks so convincing as a man being suspended from the ceiling. The entire sequence it quite remarkable in how well it fools your eye and your other senses.

As for the visual effects, I have to give props to the effects department, and Dan O’bannon once again, for pulling off some very charming and effective shots with what little equipment or techniques they had available to them in 1973 and 74. Much of it was actually done using hand-drawn animation tables and just plain old inked and painted cels: which, if used as they are used here, can turn out some very enjoyable and fanciful images, especially with the computer light board effects and screen read-outs that were designed. Not to mention the brilliant hyper-drive zoom effect; which was done with long exposures dollying into a series of splatter paintings.

Much of it was indeed crude, and looks extremely low budget, because of course it was. But I think if you’re like me, and you appreciate the skill and craftsmanship that it takes to do anything frame by frame, especially when it has to be composited with different strips of film, you learn to appreciate the inherent charm, the heart, and the dedication it must have taken to put these final images up on the screen. And they by no means look so cheap that they were lazy. Cheap and Lazy usually means that it’s total crap. But Cheap yet Time-Consuming means that no matter what it took to complete, and no matter how it looks, you should be able to appreciate the time, the love, and the effort put into it: you believe in the final result no matter what it ends up being. And I think that can be true of just about anything.

There really isn’t much else to say about Dark Star as a film or a story, as much of it is taken up by long takes and long winded conversations that aim to simply eat up screen time. The film also doesn’t go by fast, but by the end you just feel like not really a whole lot happened in the last hour and a half, and you feel like so much more could have occurred within that time.

But after learning about the film’s development, and who ended up being a part of the production way back in 1974, I think it’s fair to say that Dark Star has served as inspiration for a great many things to come along in the last few decades.

For example, the idea of making a film about space-travel a comedy likely helped inspire books like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as well as shows like Red Dwarf. I of course have no proof of this for Hitchhiker’s, although the fact that both the ship’s computer on the space-ship Heart of Gold, and the voice of the Dark Star’s bomb #19 and #20 are very similar in performance and personality. However, there is confirmation out there that Dark Star influenced a radio sketch program called “Dave Hollins: Space Cadet,” which later turned into Red Dwarf. How’s that for some fun trivia.

Similarly, I think it’s fair to speculate that because both Dark Star and it’s spiritual successor, Alien, also written by Dan O’bannon as it turns out, could have been precursors to the gritty and “lived-in” style of productions like Firefly and the anime hit Cowboy Bebop, not to mention Star Wars just a few years later in 1977. But I think Dark Star has a greater influence on Firefly and Bebop, along with perhaps Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars with its Cowboy cargo ship pilot, because Dark Star is perhaps the first sci-fi space film to fiddle with the idea of mixing country-western music and ideas in with a modern futuristic setting. And there is plenty of country-western music in both Firefly and Bebop to fill up a Jukebox in southern Texas, as I’m sure we’re all aware.

And who knows. There could have been some influence given towards the Dirty Pair anime franchise, Futurama, and the modern space western cartoon known as Wander Over Yonder, which is full of almost nothing but campfire country songs sung by a twangy-voiced tenner.

There’s even a chance that certain small images or short scenes could have been influential on both Disney’s The Black Hole, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which both came out in 1979.

There’s a scene in Dark Star, where the ship comes up on an asteroid field that will surround the ship in a matter of seconds, and so the ship goes into a protective state with a shielding surrounding the hull. This asteroid field specifically has a very translucent and orange color to it, likely due to the optical printing process utilized, and yet it has such a striking resemblance to the peachy orange color of the albeit fake looking asteroids that fly past the ship near the climax of The Black Hole. This asteroid field also has a magnetically charged electrical field coursing through it, which bears a strong resemblance also to the scene in which Spock travels into the V’ger orifice, where he comes upon an electrical conduit that courses bolts of electricity through itself. And there’s also a similarity here to when V’ger shoots out these balls of energy which engulf both ships and matter that come to close to the energy cloud, and these ships are covered in electrical pulses which both disassemble and digitize these objects into nothingness and informational bits.

Later on, although one could argue a stronger influence from 2001, there is a scene where Lt. Doolittle exits the Dark Star while wearing what he calls a star suit, that also has the familiar jetpack with the side-arm joystick handles on it. And just before the end of the movie, a crewmember known as Talby gets shot out of the aft airlock, at which point Doolittle attempts to fly after him in order to bring him back to the ship. I’m sure the jetpacks were a standard commodity by that point during space exploration in the real world and on real NASA missions, but despite its short time on screen, I can’t help but think there must be a small influence there for when Spock flies into the V’ger orifice, and when Kirk flies out to pick up Spock ones he begins to fly back in an unconscious state.

I think it’s important from time to time, to just step back once in a while and appreciate just how influential so many seemingly insignificant films have been to pop culture in later years. Because if Dark Star has led to even half of the things that I think it has, it just makes me cry inside at how amazing of a legacy that leaves for its creators. And I dearly hope they know what they’ve accomplished.

I mean, I can’t say for sure, but I dearly hope Ridley Scott at least understands how important his film Blade Runner was to the inception of both Akira and Ghost in the Shell, and how both of those eventually influenced The Matrix films. It’s a few Kevin Bacon steps away, but even so, that’s an enormous foot print in the annals of film history to have made with just a single film. So even if you were just to make one single film in your whole career, if it simply managed to do what both Dark Star and Blade Runner have done, I think anyone could die happily.

Lastly, I would like to express both my appreciation for this film, and my appreciation for all of the wonderful people who were a part of this project, and who moved on to a great many other things that influenced both me and millions of other movie goers.

As it turns out, this film once again comes into my life at a good time, as many other things have been lately, because I just graduated from film school just this past week, and am now trying to complete my Senior film that I shot while attending there, in order to get it into the festival circuit by the end of this year. So learning about, and seeing the fruits of these different young filmmakers who were just starting out at what was the new renaissance of filmmaking and film history appreciation is of great inspiration and poignant meaning to me.

I have to thank John Carpenter for being a man who wanted to make a science fiction film as his first project, as my own Senior film is an outer-space epic. I must thank Dan O’bannon for being a man willing to do all he could to help the project in all aspects, including acting in the film himself, as I can easily empathize with all of that. I am a writer, I am a director, I am an actor, and I am a visual effects artist, as well as a general artist and painter. And I have to thank Brian Narelle (Lt. Doolittle) for being both such a skilled technical animator on this film, as well as one of the artists who would go on to work on the infamous cult animated film Twice Upon a Time for George Lucas: a film I unfortunately have yet to see, but am hoping will finally get put on DVD soon. I hear there’s a re-release in the works.

I also have to thank Dan (rest in peace) once again for being such a creative and broad reaching individual with his choice of projects, because he actually went on to pen the script for both Heavy Metal and Total Recall: two films which I think defined the gritty sci-fi generation back in the day, and still serve as unique time-capsules for modern film buffs and film enthusiasts. And of course, more importantly, Dan went on to write the script for Alien, which was both a spiritual successor of scenes and elements that didn’t work in Dark Star, but worked out so much more effectively in the completely horror-based world of the Nostromo space craft, and its larger cast of characters.

Not much else to say, really. Other than, “See ya later, space trucker.”

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