238. Dark Star (US 1974)

Director: John Carpenter

Starring: Brian Narelle, Cal Kuniholm, Dre Pahich, Dan O'Bannon

Cinematography: Douglas Knapp

Original Music: Carpenter

Story/Script: Carpenter/O'Bannon

Bit Part: Nick Castle (Carpenter’s screenwriting collaborator on Escape From New York) as Beach Ball Alien.

FACT: O’Bannon went on to write Alien: Carpenter went on to direct Ghosts of Mars – one of the worst science fiction films ever made.

 In one line:  Astronauts on a long-term mission seek out unstable planets and destroy them

Summary

Dooliittle, Boiler, Talby and Pinback cruise the outer fringes of the universe looking for unstable planets to destroy. It is the 22nd century and technological advances have allowed such areas to be colonised.

Dark Star is now into the twentieth year of its mission. Its original commander is dead, although he is occasionally revived from his cryogenic stasis when the situation demands. The other four astronauts are bored of their routine. Boiler is the uncommunicative bully; Doolittle, the reluctant new leader of the mission wants to get home to his surfboard; Talby is a dreamer who sits in his observation bubble watching the stars and waiting for the reappearance of the mystical Phoenix asteroids. Pinback is a low IQ maintenance man who joined the mission by accident.  

The crew of Dark Star use ‘exponential thermostellar bombs’ to destroy the unstable planets. When a communications laser malfunctions, it sets off a chain of reactions which leads to ‘Bomb Number 20’ refusing to return to its bomb bay or to deviate from its planned mission of exploding.  

Doolittle walks in space and follows the dead Commander Powell’s advice to use ‘phenomenology’ to convince the bomb to think for itself and refuse the erroneous command.  

  Doolittle/Bomb20 Conversation

Doolittle’s teaching is ironically successful.

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 “Never trust a hippie,” said John Lydon.  

Carpenter’s hippie riposte to 2001 has lots to admire, but it’s a film that thinks itself a little cleverer than it actually is. The film started off as a student project - and often it shows. The effects were tarted up and half an hour of action was added to beef it up to theatrical release length.  

The film’s title is an obvious clue to its director’s early leanings and influences – as well as being an astronomical phenomenon, Dark Star was a crowd pleasing favourite of the ultimate horrible hippie band The Grateful Dead. Dark Star’s crew are long haired beardies obsessed with the dead (Commander Powell); the mystic nature of the universe (especially the ‘far out’ light patterns of the Phoenix asteroids); horrible musical instruments (Doolittle’s bottle orchestra); popular philosophy and the cosmic nature of surfing.  

Boiler (Kuniholm) is more the bullying jock than the peaceful hippie of modern folklore and Pinback (O’Bannon) is the comedy Shakespearian lower-order foil, but Doolittle, Talby and even the dead Commander Powell are the genuine articles.  

A lot of the comedy in Dark Star wasn’t that good to start off with and thus has aged even more pronouncedly than the threadbare special effects. There are terrible longeurs throughout the film and O’Bannon is not just unfunny, but often plain embarrassing. Nobody offered O’Bannon any more comedy roles after seeing his ‘Pinback’. The ‘classic’ beach ball alien encounter is equally turgid and must have seemed hilarious to the guys at the time.  

Dark Star has its moments, though. The encounters with the cryogenically frozen Powell are genuinely eerie and Carpenter’s use of minimalist electronica to evoke the vastness, loneliness and scariness of space are often very effective. The planet destroying sequence and the ship’s hyperspace escape (mainly created by flashing coloured lights) are unusually effective and there are a number of excellent exchanges of dialogue (particularly between Doolittle and Talby) about the essential sadness of the human condition which make up for some of the lamer comedy sequences.  

The ending’s an homage/rip-off of Kubricks’s Doctor Strangelove, as Doolittle finally gets his chance to return to his surfer origins.  

Not the most satisfactory of films, but enjoyable in parts and it does make you think about how Carpenter, an  advocate of hippie ideals, became the staunch advocate of non-PC nonsense as is evidenced in his later films.

6/10