Dark Star

Dark StarSynopsis: What would you be like after 20 years aboard the Spaced Out Spaceship…

The cult sci-fi classic by John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, presented in a new Special Edition just as the filmmakers originally intended.

In the mid twenty-first century, mankind has reached a point in technological advances to enable colonization of the far reaches of the universe. DARK STAR is a futuristic scout ship traveling far in advance of colony ships. Armed with Exponential Thermostellar Bombs, it prowls the unstable planets. But there is one obstacle that its crew members did not count on – one of the ship’s thinking and talking bombs is lodged in the bay, threatening to destroy the entire ship and crew!

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Dark Star 6.75

eyelights: the innovative make-do approach of the filmmaking.
eyesores: the weak script. the muddy audio.

“Don’t give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.”

‘Dark Star’ is a 1973 student film by John Carpenter. It was made from scratch on $60,000. It follows the (mis)adventures of the crew of scout ship Dark Star, whose task it is to seek out and destroy unstable planets. Infused with a humourous undertone, we find the crew dealing with talking thermonuclear bombs, keeping inflatable aliens, and space surfing.

A cult hit, it was then featured at various film festival and purchased by producer Jack H. Harris for theatrical release. At a mere 68 minutes run-time, the film was too short, so Harris had an extra 15 minutes filmed and added to the picture. This version deeply upset Carpenter (and co-creator Dan O’Bannon) who later edited it back out for home video.

‘Dark Star’ is clearly influenced by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ at a few instances, as well as the work of Philip K Dick and Ray Bradbury, thematically, but it’s impressive to see that it has also been an influence – in particular, the little-known motion picture classic ‘Star Wars’ (ex: the light-speed travel), and the radio show ‘Dave Hollins: Space Cadet ‘ (which led to TV series ‘Red Dwarf’).

It may even have inadvertently influenced ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes‘: Pinback goes to feed an alien that he’s keeping as the ship’s mascot, and it looks like a big red balloon with feet. This is pure speculation on my part, but the sight of the red inflatable alien reminded me of the red inflatable tomatoes. It’s also slapsticky, silly stuff: he ends up being attacked by and chasing it.

Of course, Carpenter and O’Bannon were making it on scraps – so maybe they were just making do by using a balloon. And yet , in other instances, the filmmakers were clever enough to create space suits that looked “Major Matt Mason”, the Mattel action figure so that they could use the toys for miniature shots. They also used toys to make parts of the life-sized suits, such as the helmets.

I wonder what lapses were due to budgetary issues or lack of filmmaking ability. For all the clever ideas, there are ill-conceived ones, like the elevator shaft with only one ledge on any side or any level – just where the character finds himself. Then there’s the matter of the size of the elevator hatch and the dropping floor – which makes no sense whatsoever from a practical standpoint.

‘Dark Star’ defies logic quite frequently, but it also defies many scientific principles – such as gravity. It all starts with the thermonuclear bombs being dropped outside planetary atmosphere, just falling without propulsion, and it ends with Doolitlle using a piece of debris to surf his way through a planet’s atmosphere to land there. Um… really? Who thought that one up?

As one can expect from such a meager production, the film is full of technical issues. The editing is abrupt, for one, making the viewing experience slightly jarring at times. And, of course, the sets and special effects are quite poor. But, given that it was made in the ’70s, and that it was a student film, it’s actually impressive how much bang they got for their buck.

Ever resourceful, Carpenter decided to score the film himself – a practice that would become common in his career. His minimalist and repetitive music is eerie in a ’50s sci-fi/horror kind of way. It’s good but slightly inappropriate in tone. But there’s a funny country tune during the opening credits that makes up for it, adding a touch of tongue-in-cheek humour.

The 1999 VCI DVD is plagued with audio issues, however: the dialogue is muddy and the music is comparatively loud. It had been remixed in 5.1 for some reason, but it was poorly done. In fact, it is so horrible that, without subtitles to fall back on, a lot of the dialogue remained unclear to me. I obviously missed a bunch of jokes along the way, which is a shame.

Furthermore, the  audio editing suffered from dumbing down from the theatrical cut to the “special edition”. For reasons that escape me, whoever edited this thing allowed for the music audio effects to cut abruptly when scenes were cut out – they were obviously meant to carry over through the picture, but this should have been fixed when the film was edited down.

Still, warts and all, it was interesting to finally see John Carpenter’s film debut. It’s not genius (as its die-hard fans would have you believe), but it’s certainly an amusing number. It’s particularly impressive to see what could be achieved with lots of ingenuity and elbow grease, for lack of anything else. For that reason alone, I must admit that I’m a bit of a fan.

Date of viewing: January 17, 2014

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