Space, nearly the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Dark Star, whose mission may never get completed.
John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star is a film fan’s love letter to science fiction. It both makes fun of the conventions of the genre, while creating a new type of sci-fi and comedy film. It also showed that young filmmakers, working on low-budgets could create works that can influence future generations and stand the test of time.
The trailer for this film gives the full setup: a planet smashing spaceship and crew, 20 years out in space, and something appears to go wrong. It looks like a low budget version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with potentially a wry sense of humor. It’s hard to tell the full tone from the trailer. The narrator says at the end of the trailer that they’re not “lost” in space, but “loose,” accompanied by an astronaut apparently surfing on a piece of space junk. Not really sure what this film has going for it, but let’s open up the vault for 1974s Dark Star.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Dark Star opens with an “incoming transmission”to the scout ship Dark Star from Mission Control in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. Watkins (Miles Watkins) informs the crew that they cannot afford to send any new radiation shielding out to the ship. He is also sorry to hear about the death of Commander Powell, and hopes the crew will make due. Eighteen parsecs away from Earth, the spacecraft Dark Star is continuing its mission to blow up unstable planets clearing the sector for colonization. Sergeant Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) relays information to the artificially intelligent Bomb #19 before releasing it to blow up the nearby planet. Lieutenant Doolittle (Brian Narelle) is so excited by this, he demands that Corporal Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) find him another planet to destroy.
Doolittle is concerned about their fourth crew member, Talby (Dre Pahich), who never leaves the observation sphere. He delivers some breakfast to the recluse and Talby tells him he prefers it up here since Commander Powell died. He hopes one day to see the Phoenix Asteroids, a beautiful, glowing, cluster of asteroids that circle the universe. Doolittle tells Talby of his longing to surf again, like he did on the beaches of Malibu. Boiler takes target practice with a laser rifle and the lid to the heating unit. Pinback disapproves, but is quickly called away when the computer reminds him it’s time to feed the alien.
The alien, which Pinback suggested be the ship’s mascot, looks like a beach ball with Creature from the Black Lagoon hands attached to it. When he goes to feed it, it gets loose and runs around the ship. Pinback chases the creature into the ventilation shafts, and goes back and forth with it. It finally ends up in the elevator shaft. Pinback gets stuck in the shaft and the elevator nearly hits him. He manages to get into an emergency hatch on the elevator but ends up getting stuck. The only way to free himself is to blow the emergency bolts on the hatch which singe him, but he makes it. Upset at continually chasing the creature, he shoots at it with an anaesthetic gun. It explodes like a balloon with a leak and dies.
Talby reports yet another shipboard malfunction to Doolittle, who seems unconcerned. So Talby goes to the Computer Room to investigate. The communications laser is malfunctioning so he does what he can to fix it. Putting on a space suit, Talby enters the airlock to work on the laser. It changes into test mode and blinds Talby, who accidentally walks in front of the beam knocking himself out.
Elsewhere during meal break, Pinback repeats the story of how he took the uniform from the actual Sergeant Pinback on Earth, when he went crazy and ran away. The others seem unconcerned with the story. Pinback reviews his video diary, which further fleshes out the story that he is Bill Froog, a maintenance worker, that decided it would be fun to stow away pretending to be Pinback. The diary also recounts the various slights against him that the other crew members have engaged in. He remains cranky.
Upon arriving at the Veil Nebula, Doolittle orders Pinback to launch Bomb #20, but it refuses. Doolittle seeks advice from the remains of Powell, who is wired up in a cryo-chamber. Powell suggests using phenomenology on the bomb. Doolittle puts on a space suit and exits the ship to converse with the bomb, which now is not sure if it’s alive. Talby awakens and is ejected from the airlock. Pinback continues to argue with the bomb, who suddenly realizes the only thing it can trust is itself and detonates. Doolittle and Talby float through space sharing their last moments together. Talby drifts into the cluster of Phoenix Asteroids, fulfilling his wish, while Doolittle jumps on a piece of debris from the ship and “surfs” into the atmosphere of the planet, disintegrating.
“This mission has fallen apart since Commander Powell died! Doolittle treats me like an idiot, Talby thinks he’s so smart, and Boiler punches me in the arm when no one’s looking. I’m tired of being treated like an old wash rag!” – Sgt. Pinback
History in the Making
Dark Star was the first film from acclaimed horror and sci-fi director John Carpenter. While his second film was an action/thriller remake of the John Wayne classic Rio Bravo called Assault on Precinct 13, he would then write, produce, and direct one of the most iconic horror films of all time–1978s Halloween. After another horror film with The Fog, Carpenter would re-enter the science-fiction arena with the phenomenal Escape From New York and a horrific remake of The Thing. While Dark Star doesn’t have some of the same panache as Escape From New York, or the thrills of his horror film, that same quirky sense of humor present in all his films is evident, for what is basically a long student film.
The late 60s and early 70s were the dawn of the new student filmmaker. Students like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Carpenter were busy studying film in college and then going out and making low-budget films on their own. Sci-Fi Saturdays has already looked at THX 1138 which is an extended remake of Lucas’ student film while he was at USC. Dark Star fits under similar conditions. It was created by Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon while they were at USC. When they realized that they could get the film distributed they shot and added extra footage to create the film that exists now. No longer were films created wholly in a studio system. Inventive young filmmakers with access to the necessary equipment would now be able to create low budget sci-fi and horror films, and forever change the shape of the genres.
Dark Star is obviously a riff on 2011: A Space Odyssey. A comedic parody of what would have been the last, biggest sci-fi film remembered by audiences. But the film is not a spoof. It doesn’t take the situations and make fun of them. It does, however, tell another humorous tale of a long-term space voyage, which ends in disastrous consequences. Being low-budget, and a comedy, Dark Star opened the future for other humorous films and TV shows about space. Series like Tripping the Rift and more likely Red Dwarf, which seems to share a similar tone as Dark Star–including sharing the title of an interstellar object.
While space films like 2001, or Silent Running may have more realistic portrayals of space, Dark Star presents what might be more like “truckers in space.” What would working people do when confined on a small ship where things go wrong constantly. They would be quirky, and take up target practice with the ship’s weapons. They might yearn for the old life they had on Earth. And they might just go a little crazy as well. These elements are all taken tongue-in-cheek for the most part, but at no time is the humor from the movie part of the characters, like with Abbott and Costello. It all comes from the situations that they get put in. Another sign of the changing times and attitudes of the 70s.
Previous sci-fi comedies were all a little lighter in tone, but Dark Star is–well–darker. It has no character whose bungling is the source of the humor (like previously seen in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, The Absent-Minded Professor, or The Nutty Professor). The characters are all ego-centric and serious signalling a shift in the tone of the comedy . Pinback, who the audience later finds out is just a fuel technician who stole his suit, is the standout character, getting the most screen time. He is also blessed with a dry wit. He talks, plainly, about how the real Pinback “jumped into one of my vats of liquid fuel.” It’s not quite the situational humor of Fred MacMurray.
But Dark Star still has its share of sight gags and physical comedy. Like Jerry Lewis, or Lou Costello, Pinback’s character provides some of the best scenes for physical comedy. The elevator sequence is the obvious choice, with his character falling into the shaft and hanging on the ledge as the elevator car stops inches from his nose. He then must try to crawl into the car through a hole that is too small, and figure out a way to extricate himself from that jam. It’s goofy and silly, but probably the stand out sequence in the film.
The Science in The Fiction
Dark Star has a more accurate relationship with science and science-fiction elements than many other films. There’s reverence by the writers for known science theories, such as relativity. Early on, the characters note that they’ve been in space for 20 years, but have only aged 3 years. This suggests that the ship travels much of its time at or near the speed of light. There’s the frozen body of Commander Powell who seemingly is able to still keep in contact with the crew by being placed in cryostasis. This seems to be inspired by the fictional accounts of a similar process in short stories by Philip K. Dick. And then there’s the alien.
Instead of putting a person inside a costume, the filmmaker’s used a beach ball with a pair of monster hands attached to it as their alien. This provides comedy, but also imagines a world in which alien life forms do not always appear as bipedal humanoids. It also serves as the inspiration for many other alien-hunting movies aboard spaceships, such as any film in the Alien franchise. The filmmakers also chose give the bomb’s an AI (again, similarly to 2001’s HAL) but made at least one of them achieve sentience. Bomb #20 questions the nature of its reality and changes its mission. The farcical nature of this creation seems very much like the inspiration for future non-standard robots such as Marvin the paranoid android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The Final Frontier
The ending of the film, with Doolittle riding the piece of space junk into the atmosphere of the planet seems extremely odd, but is most likely a dual nod to Stanley Kubrick. Since much of the film has nods towards the ship, computer and crew from 2001, the last sequence with the astronauts exiting the ship is no different. But the surfing spaceman is not an homage to Bowman’s journey through the stargate in 2001, but to Kubrick’s previous film Dr. Strangelove, where Slim Pickens’ character rides the bomb like a bucking bronco as it descends through the skies to start World War III. The imagery and composition are extremely similar, and would fit the tone of both films perfectly.
Dark Star has become something of a cult film, and that’s probably the best place for it. In a modern world of sci-fi parodies like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Orville, and Galaxy Quest, the film sits on one joke for quite a long time. The jokes don’t seem that funny, and the elevator gag seems to go on for an excruciatingly long time. But, it was a learning experience for the filmmakers and the audiences of the time. As stated before, Carpenter would go on to create some amazing horror and sci-fi films, while Dan O’Bannon would go on to co-author maybe the most frightening sci-fi/horror movie of all time, Alien, as well as Lifeforce and the adaptation of Total Recall.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.