Even though John Carpenter’s low budget debut feature gently spoofs other films and television shows that are set in space, Dark Star is a wildly inventive science fiction movie too, and surprisingly influential in its own right. Some of the cheap-looking special effects, for example those depicting a spaceship speeding up by using a hyperdrive, have become staples of the genre since Dark Star was released in 1974, while Carpenter’s co-writer, editor and lead Dan O’Bannon famously went on to pen the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s Alien, and the roots of that film can be seen here.
The story is simple, clearly influenced both by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running. Dark Star takes the idea of an AI system going loco from the former and has some of the latter’s sense of isolation; where Bruce Dern’s Freeman Lowell kills his fellow crew members and makes do with the company of three service robots in deep space, here a four-man demolition team (O’Bannon, Brian Narelle, Carl Kuniholm and Dre Pahich) have largely tired of each other’s company, having been stuck in the same ship together for 20 years, and have been reduced to a bored, near-catatonic inertia.
In the mid-22nd Century the crew’s ongoing mission is to seek out unstable planets in the far reaches of the universe to facilitate future human colonisation. They destroy their targets by using artificially intelligent bombs, though the repetitive nature of this task has added to the general tedium experienced in their cramp quarters. These ‘truckers in space’ – one of the many ideas that was later used in the screenplay for Scott’s film – listen to piped-in country music and must contend with eating chicken-flavoured meals every day, one of the unfortunate results of the ship’s malfunctioning technology. This sense of the knackered ship breaking down provides a few laughs; at one point Sgt. Pinback (O’Bannon) records a video diary and complains that a self-destructing storage bay has left them without toilet paper.
There is none of the tightness of Ridley Scott’s film, and a very different sense of building doom, but there are several links between O’Bannon’s two screenplays. Dark Star‘s drawn out subplot, involving a rogue alien running around the ship (which, due to budget constraints, is actually a beach ball with hands and feet stuck on), was famously developed by the writer from comedy to horror in order to form the basis of his later story, even though HR Giger’s final design is a million miles away. And though there’s more to Dark Star than it being a mere Alien precursor, the parallels between its two tired, bickering crews and claustrophobia-inducing spaces are obvious.
Carpenter’s film, which was made for just $60,000 and was picked up by producer / distributor Jack Harris, is a far more lighthearted and ramshackle affair. Its charm lies partly in the cheap special affects (again, O’Bannon had a hand in these), which includes wobbly spaceship models dangling on string and the like, but much of it stands as testament to the crew’s creativity. That said, while Ron Cobb’s design for the main craft – initially drawn on a napkin – is necessarily simplistic, if we’re being honest it’s a stretch to imagine it sufficing as a home for these men for more than two decades.
The director’s career took off in the wake of this film, and although there have been critical and commercial failures along the way (with a sad, steady decline from the 1990s onwards), Dark Star is a fine example of his burgeoning ability both as a creator of low-budget B movies and as a composer, the synth heavy soundtrack offering an early glimpse of the style he would use in later scores (or that would dominate recent debut solo album Lost Themes). There is a wide-eyed passion for filmmaking evident here that, tied to the film’s spaced-out goofiness, makes for a winning and enjoyable combination. It’s cheap, short and threatens to come apart at the seams, but Dark Star is an entertaining sci-fi nonetheless.
Directed by: John Carpenter.
Written by: John Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon.
Starring: Dan O’Bannon, Brian Narelle, Carl Kuniholm, Dre Pahich.
Cinematography: Douglas Knapp.
Editing: Dan O’Bannon.
Music: John Carpenter.
Running Time: 82 minutes.