VCI Home Video // 1974 // 83 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // May 16th, 2003
Don't give me any of that intelligent life stuff! Find me something I can blow up!
Science fiction and horror fans are well acquainted with John Carpenter, the auteur who brought us such films as Ghosts of Mars, Escape from New York, Halloween, and my favorite piece of his work, Big Trouble in Little China. Prior to those more well-known efforts, he made a number of short films, including scriptwriting duties on The Resurrection of Bronco Billy, which won an Oscar in 1970 as Best Short Subject -- Live Action. Dark Star is one of his earlier directorial efforts, a student film from his days at USC.
Carpenter's partner in crime was Dan O'Bannon, who co-wrote the screenplay with Carpenter and stars in the film as the hapless Sgt. Pinback. O'Bannon went on to writing duties on such popular films as Heavy Metal, Total Recall, The Return of the Living Dead, and Ridley Scott's original Alien.
Dark Star was originally developed as a student film project at USC, but this wacky sci-fi comedy soon took on a life of its own, and has developed something of a cult fanbase.
The crew of the Dark Starhas been wandering through space for twenty years. Their job is to destroy unstable planets in order to make star systems safe for human colonization. The problem is, over the past twenty years the ship and her crew have grown plenty unstable themselves. A short circuit has killed their commander, they've been reduced to living in the food storage locker because their crew quarters have depressurized, and a recent malfunction has blown up the entire ship's supply of toilet paper. Needless to say, they are not the happiest crew in the fleet. Everyone's nerves are frayed; each member of the crew takes refuge in his own brand of eccentricity. Probably the most disgruntled is Sgt. Pinback (O'Bannon), whose main occupation on the ship, in addition to general malingering and complaining, is taking care of the alien the crew has adopted as a mascot. His adventures chasing the alien (a large red beach ball with feet) after it gets loose make up a large portion of the film.
When the crew of the Dark Star find unstable planets that must be destroyed, they drop artificially intelligent bombs to carry out their mission. These bombs usually respond cheerfully to orders and do their duty without question. However, Bomb #20 has a stubborn streak, made worse by a malfunction in the ship's computer. It threatens to destroy the ship, and Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle), the senior surviving officer, must engage it in a discussion of existentialist philosophy in order to prevent a tragedy.
Will Pinback recapture the alien? Will the bomb destroy the ship and crew? Will Doolittle ever get to surf again? These answers and so much more are a part of the wacky world of Dark Star.
Probably the most interesting revelation in the whole running time of Dark Star comes as Sgt. Pinback chases his wayward alien mascot around the ship. Roger Ebert and others have commented that every elevator in the movies has an escape hatch on the top, and none of them outside the movies do; here we learn that in space, the escape hatch is apparently on the bottom of the elevator.
Beyond this cosmically important revelation, Dark Star does not have a lot to recommend it. The plot is nonsensical and disjointed, the characters vacillate between comatose and irritating, and on the whole it is a painfully cheesy and low-budget affair. Don't get me wrong -- it has its moments, and in some parts it is hilariously funny, but there's a lot to sit through to get there.
The DVD presentation does what it can with this source material, and manages to achieve a surprisingly respectable result. There are two cuts of the film; explanatory notes on the back of the case explain that Hollywood producer Jack Harris convinced Carpenter and O'Bannon to shoot around 15 minutes of additional footage in order to give their film a theatrical release; both this extended version and the original student film are provided through the magic of seamless branching. Well, not quite seamless -- the disc does hang up a little bit when skipping scenes for the shorter version of the film; it's not terrible, about on the level of most layer changes, but it does demonstrate some of the limits of seamless branching as a workable technology.
When we consider the more conventional aspects of the DVD presentation, the limitations of the source material become more evident. The transfer is better than one would expect for an almost 30-year-old student film, but is still quite flawed. The image is nice and sharp most of the time, but there are a number of nicks and scratches and quite a bit of grain. Colors are washed out and lifeless, and shadows show no gradation or detail at all, just a sort of uniform murkiness. Edge enhancement is not too noticeable, except for in a few scenes where is it atrocious.
The audio has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 for this release. If that seems like overkill for an aging student film, you are probably right. The sound is hollow and muffled throughout the film, and the bass has been cranked up to make up for the overall lack of punch. It's about what one would expect, but putting this old wine into a 5.1 bottle was pretty much just silly.
For extra content (other than having two cuts of the film), this DVD contains a theatrical trailer, and biographical sketches for Carpenter and O'Bannon.
Dark Star's main value is probably as a sort of artifact, rather than as a piece of filmed entertainment. While much of the film is of questionable merit, the most interesting revelation concerns the development of John Carpenter's directorial style. Even in this low budget, slightly silly exercise, his command of filmmaking technique is impressive; he is able to use his considerable framing and editing skills to create a real sense of claustrophobia and tension within the corridors of the Dark Star. He also manages some fairly decent special effects for what he has to work with, although they are laughable amateurish by today's standards. Heck, he's even able to give a cheesy beach ball alien personality. It is almost entirely to Carpenter's credit that this fairly ridiculous flick holds any interest at all. For film buffs, this is an important look into the development of a well-known director.
Beyond the insights into Carpenter's history, Dark Star is very much a cultural artifact of the early 1970s. The look and design of the ship and its controls has a feel of 1970s high tech in much the same vein as Space: 1999 or Battlestar Galactica or even Star Wars. Perhaps more importantly, there is a sense of weariness, a sense of decay and despair that seems to reflect the societal mood of the times. The crew of the Dark Star have what should be the greatest job anyone could hope for, as crew of a modern, powerful spaceship flying across the cosmos. However, they are relegated to a seemingly pointless, mundane mission, their amazing ship is falling apart at the seams, and they have lost all contact with the people and places they loved on Earth. They are disillusioned and disaffected, and their future seems hopeless. They occupy their time with meaningless activities and repetitive conversations. It appears that their pointless mission will lead inevitably to their own destruction. On the whole there is a sense of enervation, a sense of great potential gone to seed. What better metaphor is there for the general public sentiment in the United States in the 1970s?
There isn't a lot of serious acting going on in Dark Star, but perhaps Dan O'Bannon deserves mention. His Sgt. Pinback is the biggest malcontent and whiner of the lot, and O'Bannon is able to establish his character very early on in the movie with just a few well-placed looks and gestures. Of course, his success is also due in large part to Carpenter's construction of the film which gives him opportunities to create his character in the opening seconds with no reliance on dialogue at all.
Dark Star begins and ends with a catchy little country music tune over the opening and closing credits. "Benson, Arizona" was composed by none other than John Carpenter, with lyrics by a guy named Bill Taylor. It's hilariously incongruous with the rest of the film, but it's one of the little pleasures of this DVD. I'd almost recommend checking out the movie on that basis alone, but that would be a serious abuse of my judicial powers. Suffice it to say that I'm listening to the song on a continuous loop as I type this review.
Case dismissed! Dark Star's ultimate guilt or innocence largely depends on one's point of view. If one views it in terms of a normal movie experience, it will be a disappointment. On the other hand, taken as a historical artifact and as an ambitious, well-done student film, it holds a certain amount of interest.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Two Versions of the Film Via "Seamless" Branching
* Theatrical Trailer