The Film: Dark Star (1974)

The Principals: Directed by John Carpenter. Written by Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter. Starring Dan O’Bannon.

The Premise: During a mind-numbing multi-year mission to destroy
unstable planets in the far-flung reaches of the universe, a weary crew (
Dan O’Bannon, Brian Narelle, Cal Kuniholm, Dre Pahichdeals) is already dealing with boredom and space madness when an accident shorts-out the spaceship’s
weapons system, causing one of their “smart bombs” to think it needs to blow up the ship. Now the crew must talk the bomb out of it. Plus deal with a pesky alien.

Is it Good: Considering that it was originally a student film, it is downright amazing. While the FX may be cheap, that just lends to the film’s charm. The star of the film is the script by Carpenter and O’Bannon, which is ostensibly a satire of film’s like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but is also full of legitimate science fiction ideas (some of which O’Bannon recycled to create Alien). Particularly iconic, I’ve always thought, is the image of the former captain, who was put out of commission by a horrible accident and is now frozen on the ship, yet still able to vaguely communicate in a fairly eerie and creepy fashion (that is him on the Dark Star poster).

The big highlight of the film – and the most generally referenced portion of the film – is the lengthy sequence in which
Sgt. Pinback (O’Bannon) tries to apprehend an escaped and mischievous alien life form being kept as a specimen on the ship. The alien is one of the most ridiculous looking special FX you’ve ever seen. Clearly made out of a beach ball – well, here, just look at it…

Parts of the film have some pacing issues, but this alien sequence displays some major talent, both in conception and execution. Despite the beach ball alien’s look, it completely works (shockingly so). And the Tom and Jerry-like escapade Pinback and the alien have is nothing short of wacky genius. It also features some innovative FX corner cutting that is as comical (once you spot it) as it is clever – namely the “elevator shaft” that Pinback becomes stuck in, which is in fact a horizontal hallway shot to look like a vertical shaft (with O’Bannon clinging for his life – to the floor). Gold.

For my money though, the best part of the film is Pinback’s revealing and smartly written video diary scene, which reveals to us that Pinback is not Pinback (he is some guy who put on Pinback’s jumpsuit and wound up boarding the ship before it took off, and now he’s been stuck out in space for years on end living another man’s horrible life). O’Bannon delivers a surprisingly nuanced comedic performance, and the whole scene is just a brilliant piece of existential comedy, worthy of Joseph Heller, and it serves to elevate the whole proceedings. 

Is It Worthy A Look: A must see for anyone who considers themselves a Carpenter or O’Bannon fan. The film is not for everyone. As I said, it can be slow in parts. Those who can hang will not walk away disappointed. If nothing else it is fun to see many of the seeds that would germinate in O’Bannon’s mind to become Alien years later.

Random Anecdote: The film was originally just 45 minutes long and shot on 16mm film. Producer Jack H. Harris, who gained the
theatrical distribution rights to the film, arranged for it to be
transferred to 35mm and paid for an additional 38 minutes of new footage to bring up the run-time.