Judge Mike Rubino has fought a few beach balls in his day.
Our review of Dark Star, published May 16th, 2003, is also available.
"I do not like the men on this spaceship. They are uncouth and fail to
appreciate my better qualities."
It's hard to imagine that a man wrestling a beach ball could have such a profound effect on the future of science fiction. And yet it's absurdity like this, found within a student film-turned-theatrical feature, that opened up the doors for John Carpenter (director of Halloween) and Dan O'Bannon (screenwriter of Alien).
Since its release in 1974, Dark Star has garnered a rabid cult following (is there any other kind?) which ultimately led to this feature-packed two-disc "hyperdrive edition." Whether or not the film deserves all this acclaim is another matter entirely.
Facts of the Case
Truckers in space. That's how John Carpenter continues to describe this four-man team of planet destroyers. Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle), Sgt. Pinback (Dan O'Bannon), Boiler (Cal Kuniholm), and Talby (Dre Pahich) are a space colony scout team on a seemingly endless mission to destroy "unstable" planets. They've been out there for 20 years so far, and they're beginning to get a little unstable themselves.
Dark Star began as a student film by Carpenter and O'Bannon while at USC. Having completed a 68-minute version of the film, the two were asked to film additional scenes for a theatrical release.
To paraphrase a line from the DVD's feature-length documentary, Dark Star is a very impressive student film, but an underwhelming theatrical film. It's a testament to the unbridled creativity found in student moviemaking, free from all the business/marketing influences that can water down an original idea—an idea like a bomb going through a philosophical awakening.
Like THX-1138 before it, Dark Star is a sparse and brainy sci-fi film. If it isn't apparent, this one's a little funnier. Halfway between a satire of the over-important 2001: A Space Odyssey and a precursor to the brand of quirkiness Carpenter would insert into a lot of his films, Dark Star is an acquired taste. In one sense, seeing three bored astronauts hang out in space (and a fourth who isolates himself in a bubble on top of the ship) is like watching paint dry with stoned college kids; occasionally, when things actually happen, the movie offers up some clever gags: Sgt. Pinback wrestling the incredible fake beach ball alien, Lt. Doolittle talking a bomb into self-awareness, and Talby's run-in with de-pressurization are inspired pieces of comedy.
The idiosyncratic humor may have resonated more back when the film was first released, and it suffers from the same problem most college writing has: it was good at the time.
The film isn't devoid of merit, of course. Carpenter's style is in its infancy, but even still he and O'Bannon produce some striking images and novel special effects. The film took years to make and had virtually no budget, but this fact's only apparent in key scenes (notably the unconvincingly horizontal elevator shaft scene with Sgt. Pinback). It helps that the creative team was packed full of talent from USC determined to make things look as professional as possible even if they were just filming in a broom closet.
Dark Star developed quite the following back in the '70s, and is now finally getting a special release sure to make fans proud. The film's transfer isn't all that spectacular (the movie itself was originally made in 16mm and then converted to 35mm for its wide release), but it has been re-mastered to look about as clean as possible. The disc also comes with both Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and stereo tracks.
The two-disc set is crammed with special features, including the excruciatingly informative two-hour documentary Let There Be Light: The Odyssey of "Dark Star", a fan commentary track, the original 68-minute version of the film, and a written introduction by O'Bannon (who passed away in 2009). There's also new interviews with actor Brian Narelle and Dark Star novelization author Alan Dean Foster, an interactive 3D tour of the ship, and some trivia. Needless to say, it's an impressive set.
Dark Star's influence in the world of cinema shouldn't be understated: it inspired O'Bannon to write Alien and led Carpenter towards Assault on Precinct 13. It's a fairly intriguing student film, with impressive effects and lots of gumption. But the film is also an unrefined piece of exclusive geekery that certainly isn't for everyone. Beyond being entertaining, Dark Star serves as an excellent example of what student filmmakers can achieve.
Not that guilty, really.
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