‘Wanna blow it up?’ John Carpenter’s Dark Star
"In case no one can hear you, laugh!" That’s the advice on the back of the DVD packaging for Dark Star, a movie celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. The quote, which parodies the original tagline for Alien, sounds like a weak advert for Scary Movie 9: Terror Beyond The Stars, and on its merits one could be forgiven for expecting the film that carries it to be a broad comedy full of puns about the captain’s log, black holes and re-entry. Dark Star, however, is cleverer than that.
Made over four years on a budget of around $60,000, this one-time 16mm student short was the calling card for two young filmmakers, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon. Expanded to feature-length, transferred to 35mm and released theatrically in 1974, Dark Star tells the compact tale of a small group of astronauts - Doolittle, Boiler, Pinback (played by O’Bannon himself), Talby and Powell - who’ve been sent into deep space to seek out and destroy unstable planets to make way for colonisation. And despite the film’s technical deficiencies (not-so-special effects and some less-than-stellar acting), it flies the line between comedy and science-fiction with precision.
Hitting cinemas in the same year as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein - two much-loved Mel Brooks productions that parody, respectively, westerns and 1930s horror movies - Dark Star ought, in theory, to have completed the triumvirate. The elements are all there - the movie references (in particular to 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its sentient, malfunctioning machinery) and surreal flights of silliness (such as an alien in the guise of a beach-ball trying to tickle a man to death) - yet its melancholic mood, languid pace and lack of grandstanding dare the viewer to take it seriously as a piece of conceptual 1970s sci-fi, not a million light years from 1972’s Silent Running.
If Douglas Trumbull’s slow-burning cry for ecological awareness is boiled down to its core components - blue-collar workers in space - Dark Star adds the adjective ‘bored’, which as any parent knows is often dangerous. Boiler’s dumb glee when he finds a planet that fits his mission’s remit - “wanna blow it up?” - is the engine of a tale that, at its heart, is cautionary. Reaching for the stars is all very well, but we’ll never escape the human condition. In the language of the day, and without wanting to spoil the ending, well, Dark Star’s conclusion feels like karma, man.
While such misanthropic musing helps to give the film weight, it does miss-sell it somewhat by omitting to mention that it’s also very funny, capable of providing gently pleased smiles and surprised belly laughs. At its centre is a scene of slow-burning slapstick, as Pinback chases the ship’s pet alien into a lift shaft, only to find the tables quickly turning. But the subtler moments of comedy, many of which drive home the boredom and dehumanising aspects of long-term space travel, play equally well. “What’s Talby’s first name?” asks Boiler. “What’s my first name?” replies Doolittle, a look of dawning horror on his face.
Speaking of horror, Dark Star sowed a seed that would, by the end of the decade, burst bloodily from John Hurt’s chest in Alien. The referential quote mentioned at the beginning of this piece was presumably inspired by Dan O’Bannon’s involvement in both films. According to legend, the story for Alien, which O’Bannon co-wrote, grew from the cultures of Dark Star’s malevolent beach-ball. O’Bannon later co-authored the screenplays for Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, and turned director for 1985’s The Return Of The Living Dead, which he also scripted.
John Carpenter, of course, went on to become one of the 20th century’s best-loved genre filmmakers, mixing big commercial hits such as Halloween and Escape From New York with less-blockbusting, though no less entertaining, fare such as Big Trouble In Little China and They Live. For many fans, his best film is snow-covered shocker The Thing. A commercial flop on its original release in 1982, this ground-breaking movie is currently rated by users of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) as the 16th best sci-fi film of all time, a whopping 31 places ahead of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, the critically successful, Oscar-winning, top-grossing film of that same year.
Meanwhile, the influence of Dark Star can still be felt in movies such as Sunshine, Danny Boyle’s 2007 film about a mission to reignite our dying Sun, which, as well as having the obvious parallels (a crew sent on a long-haul space flight with the aim of ‘going nuclear’), doffed its cap to Carpenter’s movie by having a key character called Pinbacker. Dark Star’s most obvious spawn, however, is Red Dwarf, BBC2’s sci-fi sitcom that was recently reborn on comedy channel Dave. The show’s co-creator, Doug Naylor, acknowledges that Dark Star sparked the idea for the format - a comedy set in space - and both film and TV series depict life among the stars as largely domestic.
Unusually for a John Carpenter movie, Dark Star has yet to get a lavish treatment on DVD. The front cover of the 30th Anniversary Special Edition, from 2004, boasts that the transfer is anamorphic, but it’s not. Though both theatrical and extended versions of the film are present (the latter running 10 minutes longer), they’re in need of an audio/visual clean-up, and there’s no Carpenter commentary.
With no sign of an upgraded release, it looks like the film’s 35th birthday will be celebrated quietly, which is probably to its benefit.
Dark Star is a movie that’s best discovered rather than unveiled. It really doesn’t need fireworks - not with the blinding glow of an exploding planet in its rear-view mirror.