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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Dark Star (1974)

Original story and screenplay by Dan O'Bannon and John Carpenter
Directed by John Carpenter

Brian Narelle:  Lt. Doolittle
Cal Kuniholm:  Boiler
Dre Pahich:  Talby
Dan O'Bannon:  Sgt. Pinback
Joe Saunders:  Commander Powell (Deceased)

This was my first cult movie, and I stumbled across it when I was 8 or 10 years old (three decades, now...sheesh). Back in those days of yore, you couldn't actually watch a movie at any time you liked; you had to hope it would show up on television (usually on a UHF station but I lucked out in that Chicago's Very Own Channel 9 used to show a hell of a lot of movies over the full range of the cinematic quality bell curve) or live somewhere that would show it in an art house or revival theater. Danny Peary's first book on cult movies covered this era, with his second and third books on the same topic coming out in more of the VCR epoch. All of those books, incidentally, are highly recommended. I think I've mentioned them before on this very blog. He's one of the reasons

But even when I was nine years old I knew about this movie. I'd read about it in an issue of Fantastic Films, I think. Probably one that would have had Godzilla on the cover so I'd place it around 1984 (when Toho was making the movie that showed in America as Godzilla 1985). In the magazine I remember seeing the Don Stroud mask ad that had their unexpectedly popular Tor Johnson mask, articles about Alien and a new adaptation of Dracula, and something probably written as a tenth anniversary essay on Dark Star. I remember being creeped out by the staring face with wires coming out of it (that handsome lad is on the film's poster at the top of the review; that's the late Commander Powell) and going over the article again and again to glean understanding about this weird movie that was meant to be a strange workplace comedy set in space--and all the aspects of it being about the pressures and rewards of a job would have flown right over my head when I was in the fourth grade.

A couple-three years later I happened to turn on the TV and caught a weird scene in a movie where a bearded hippie in a jumpsuit stuck in the bottom of an elevator was straining to reach a button on its control panel. He finally stretches far enough to punch the number he needed and a polite female computer voice informs him that the explosive bolts on his plate will be going off in seconds, and he might want to get to a safe distance. Cut to the outside of the elevator, a booming noise and a waft of smoke coming from the door crack, and then the poor sucker in the jump suit walks out, looking like a post-screwup Wile E. Coyote. And somewhere in the back of my mind a faint bell began to ring. I thought I recognized the actor and remembered reading something about the movie. The weekly Chicago Tribune TV listings gave me the name of the film (and, as I recall, they gave it two out of four stars, a rating I disagree with in the strongest manner possible) and then it was time for a boy on a bike to grab up some of his allowance and hit the various video stores in Wheaton to see if any of them had a copy of this on tape so I could see the whole thing. And I did. And over the next several years, my friends from middle and high school got to see it too, because when you are in the cult for a movie you like to make your friends watch it so that you can make odd inside jokes about it later, and because you like it when people you like enjoy the things that you enjoy.

Which is why I'm reviewing this for you now. Over three decades from when I first became aware of the film, from me to you.

We get dropped into the middle of things at the start of the film; four guys on a massive space ship are trying to talk to each other over a malfunctioning buzzing intercom. Eventually it becomes clear that one of the four is trying to reach someone named Talby and that they need to know how big a nearby planet is. Then it becomes clear that their job is to destroy that planet with an unimaginably powerful bomb (complete with a chipper AI installed; it cheerfully confirms all its systems are working and happily anticipates being dropped on the planet so it can explode). The ship skips out of the area with some moderately convincing starfield effects, complete with attempts at red-shifting and blue-shifting the stars as they approach and recede. If nothing else, Carpenter and O'Bannon were using their extraordinarily limited resources to try and present a scientifically accurate look at FTL travel. The ship parks itself once it's out of blast-damage range, going from faster than light to zero in a half-second or so and the "unstable planet" behind them is blown to dust.

The computer congratulates them on a job well done and says there isn't anything left to destroy in this stellar region, so the men plot a course for another system where they can destroy more planets and we get the credit sequence to the film. The dialogue in this section reveals a few character bits; Pinback is enough of a romantic that he wants to name a new star that showed up on their long-distance scanners, Doolittle doesn't give a shit and Boiler isn't even listening. They set a course for a new system and get ready to obliterate another unstable planet, and Boiler hits play on the ship's sound system while Pinback sulks in his seat. Cue credits.

And here's where O'Bannon and Carpenter's view of their characters and the filmic world comes fully into play. Instead of the expected sweeping, brassy orchestral science fiction theme we get a country song about leaving your best girl behind while you travel at relativistic speeds away from her, so the time dilation effect keeps you apart even more effectively than the distance between the stars. It's like Red Sovine wrote the theme to Star Wars and the theme was scored for pedal-steel guitar and banjo. And it tells the audience exactly who these astronauts are:  they're blue-collar employees, not valiant explorers charting the universe and learning new things. They're shaggy-bearded, sullen jerks that giggle like children at the possibility of blowing up another planet and they've been stuck with each other in the cramped rooms and narrow hallways of the Dark Star for two solid decades eating synthetic food and looking at the same pinups and the same industrial setting for way, way, way too long.

The aesthetic of the film is a total rejection of the gleaming American space future that movies like Destination Moon were depicting in the fifties and televised science fiction showed in the sixties; in O'Bannon's next screenplay, an obscure art movie called Alien, the entire human cast are the equivalent of long-haul truckers rather than the dedicated bridge crews of the United Federation of Planets. And O'Bannon, according to bonus features on the disc, believed that whoever was paying for the Dark Star to be sent out wanted the job done first and the crew happy about ninth. There are no giant open rooms like on Star Trek; everything is cramped, overstuffed, and would require the bare minimum of life support for the crew. Which does make sense--if you're sending four doofi out on a two-decade bombing run across the galaxy, why would you design giant open spaces or pretty windows for them? They don't design garbage trucks to look good or keep the garbage men happy while they work, do they?

From here on it's a microbudgeted science fiction workplace comedy where Pinback--more or less the audience identification character--tries to extract some kind of enjoyment or satisfaction from his job and is thwarted by his own deficiencies as well as the lack of engagement from the three other surviving crew members. And to make everything worse, the Dark Star itself is falling apart after its years of service. Doolittle makes a log entry that mentions an accident that destroyed the ship's entire supply of toilet paper. Watching the film now it's easy to declare that Douglas Adams must have watched it at some point in his life; his viciously jaded take on systems that are meant to make things easier (and only cause problems after problems whenever they are implemented) meshes with this film perfectly, as does his view that space travel is insanely dangerous and best left to the professionals to screw up instead of the amateurs. It could also be that increasing use of automation and computer control of formerly human systems was just pissing people off in England and California around the same time, of course.

And soon enough there's a massive problem with the computer systems. During a random encounter with a magnetic asteroid field that just about has to the be inspiration for the iPad game "Space Team" (immediately before which the ship's computer takes a minute and a half to tell them they have 35 seconds to activate their defense systems manually), the AI for thermostellar device #20 gets a false signal to drop and the ship's master computer has to override its false-positive command and get it back into the bay. This works at first, but that bomb was designed to do one thing and one thing only, and it's extremely cheerful about finally getting to blow itself up.

While that literal ticking time bomb is in the background, the characters tend to do a lot of nothing, killing time on the ship while they wait to get to the Veil Nebula and vaporize another unstable planet. And soon enough it's time for Pinback to feed the semi-sentient alien they picked up some time ago ("Aww, I don't wanna do that..."), which leads to the central setpiece of the second act--Pinback versus the alien (which is clearly just a spraypainted beach ball being tossed around by a stagehand) in a Looney Tunes sequence that starts with the poor son of a bitch trying to swat the creature with a  broom to get it back in its cage and ends with him first dangling from the bottom of an elevator with a thousand-foot drop beneath him and finally stuck in the escape hatch at the bottom of an elevator trying to push the button to pop the explosive bolts at the corners of the access plate.

After this happens, Pinback takes the sensible view that he's taken just enough that day and trank-darts the alien. There's a quiet masterpiece of sound design and prop-throwing at this point, because when you poke a hole in a beachball alien with a dart, you get a sight gag for the ages.

Oh, right, the's been convinced to drop at the proper time, but now a series of cascading equipment failures means that it won't drop, but is programmed to explode at the proper time and the main computer can't do anything about it. A quick conversation with the frozen cadaver of Commander Powell leads Doolittle to realize there is only one thing to do--make the AI of the bomb doubt the validity of the detonation order by teaching it phenomenology in the handful of minutes left before it destroys the ship and kills everyone on board. Which he then tries to do, wearing a space suit outside the Dark Star so he can talk to the bomb face to face.

Nothing is more "1974 student film" in this movie than the idea of a quick run-through of Philosophy 101 being used to defuse a planet-demolishing weapon of total destruction. And even as the bomb is forced to conclude that it has no proof that the order was false data or correct data, it absorbs the concepts of phenomenology and tucks itself back in the bomb bay to think things over.

But now Bomb #20 expanded its own horizons more than the programmers thought, and things look pretty bad for Talby (ejected from the ship by accident), Doolittle (trying to rescue Talby), and Pinback and Boiler still on the ship. The ending's a bit of a bummer in true 1970s science-fiction style, with some ideas pinched from Ray Bradbury's rocket stories from the fifties while some crude but poetic-looking effects show up like Valkyries to bring a stranded spaceman along to see the universe until his air runs out.

I don't think I've watched this flick more than twice in the last 15 years, including the viewing for this review. I'm tickled with how much I remembered and how much I recognized (the muffin trays on the front of space suits and the backlit ice cube trays on the control panels show just how little money Carpenter and crew had to work with, but I think they spent their budget masterfully). And the movie lurches and sags in spots, which is really only to be expected when the filmmakers have never done this before and also turned a 55 minute student film into an 82 minute theatrical release (under the not particularly welcome auspices of B movie producer Jack H. Harris). But in all honesty, it's worth a spin. There's a lot of fun to be found in the sheer incongruousness of the dippy hippie spacemen working with the high-tech systems on the ship and the bomb dialogue is always a hoot. The crude effects have a certain amount of style and verve (O'Bannon went on to animate some of the computer displays in Star Wars before settling into a role of writer-director instead), and you get the feeling that everyone involved wanted to impress the viewer to the utmost extent possible. Roger Corman would have undoubtedly tried to pick these two up for a few quick horror or science fiction pictures but was beaten to the punch by Jack Harris, which is something that probably almost never happened to him.

And if nothing else, if you're a fan of the indie rock band Pinback but didn't know where they got their name, here's your explanation.


  1. Wow, these reviews are terrific, Tim!

  2. Thank you so much! That means a lot to me, because I've been reading and enjoying your reviews for years.

  3. inexplicably, related to the asinine concurrently produced Wm Hannah cartoon "valley of the dinosaurs" (see also 1974 series 'land of the lost' w/ nightmarish Sleestaks instead of adorable Schmoos.
    In both a white family are sucked into a dinosaur universe inhabited by blonde cave people, via rafting accident.)
    In VOTD, the cave dwellers' name for Dimetrodons - not dinosaurs -was pinbacks. DS, LOTL, & VOTD probably came out of the same social acid dip.
    Dimetrodons were synapsids, more like mammals, and like a 100mya before dinosaurs.