Looking back at John Carpenter’s Dark Star

John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon kicked off their careers in 1974 with the sci-fi comedy, Dark Star. Lawrence looks back at a low-budget classic...

pril 1974. Richard Nixon is in the last days of his presidency. The bloody war in South East Asia rages on. Abba win the Eurovision song contest with Waterloo. And Dark Star, a low budget sci-fi comedy, hits the screen.

Fast forward into hyperspace almost forty years and Dark Star has achieved a mighty cult status as a late night movie standard and a post pub classic. Made on a shoestring budget of $60,000 by film school graduates, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, Dark Star is now a major player in the sci-fi hall of fame. Its influence can be seen in many a space opera from all mediums, Red Dwarf, Sunshine, Hitchhiker’s and Carpenter’s own The Thing, to name a few. The film also proved the basis as a dry run for Alien, for which O’Bannon wrote the script.

Dark Star can rightly be awarded the seminal tag. Many films may lay a claim to it, but this one’s the real deal.

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The film is set in the year 2250 and follows the trials and tribulations of the crew of the Dark Star as they career around the galaxy blowing up ‘unstable planets’ that stand in the way of Earth’s space colonisation. The five astronauts have been stuck on the spaceship for twenty years already and are clearly bored and frustrated with each other’s company and the monotony of their existence.

Like the crew of the Nostromo, they’re a lonely unglamorous bunch of blue collar workers who are just doing their job. With only the soothing female voice of the ship’s computer (think ‘Mother’ with a few technical faults) to keep them company, insipid lounge music to listen to and bland space food to eat, they are slowly flipping out.

With their long hair, beards and handlebar ‘tashes the crew resemble more The Grateful Dead than the clean-cut, square-jawed action heroes of 50s and 60s sci-fi movies. By presenting us with hippies in space, O’Bannon and Carpenter are parodying a few myths of the sci-fi genre, of brave pioneers who boldly go where no man has gone before.

These spacemen can’t even remember their first names. Plus, since the ship’s stock of toilet roll blew up in a freak computer malfunction, they’re probably not the most hygienic of individuals either.

Each crew member, however, is fleshed out with their own unique characteristics. Lt Doolittle, the lead ranking officer, is a soulful ex-surfer who’s created a musical bottle organ, which he plays alone in his downtime in one of the ship’s many engine rooms. His main ally on board is space cadet Sgt Talby, who spends his time in the observation dome at the top of the ship.

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Watching the universe pass him by, Talby waits for a sight of the Phoenix asteroids, a cluster of stars that drift around space and “glow with all the colours of the rainbow”. Sgt Boiler is a cigar-smoking grunt who practices the ‘knife trick’ (as favoured by Bishop in Aliens) in his spare time, and who also likes to use the ship’s laser gun for random target practice.

Sgt Pinback (as played by O’Bannon) is a paranoid, victimised character that acts as the ship’s scapegoat. His only solace is in watching back the video diary entries that he’s kept throughout the voyage.

As the film progresses, it’s revealed that Pinback is actually on the ship by mistake. His real name is Bill Frugge, a fuel engineer whose attempts to save the original Pinback from suicide led to him being mistakenly identified as the astronaut just before Dark Star launched into space.

The final starman is Commander Powell, who accidentally died in another of the ship’s many system failures, but who’s kept alive in a frozen animated state in the ship’s hold.

Also on board is the ship’s mascot, Alien, a red spotted beach ball with webbed claws that holds court in the food cupboard and leads Pinback a merry dance around the ship at feeding time.

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In the film’s longest sequence, Pinback, armed with a broom, chases the Alien through air locks, passageways and into the lift shaft (shades of Alien again) where he ends up stranded and hanging on for dear life. It’s in these scenes that the film is at its most scary and this is down to John Carpenter’s direction. His unsettling camera angles and lighting, with shots of deserted corridors and hallways, combined with his eerie incidental music definitely creates a sense of real terror. When the beach ball jumps on Pinback’s head, face hugging and flapping at him with its claws, and the evil acid synths start to pound, you fear the worst.

While John Carpenter directed and scored the music to Dark Star, Dan O’Bannon seemed to have had a hand in most other facets of the film’s production. Along with acting, editing and co-writing the script, he was heavily involved with the special effects for the movie, in particular the flashing computer graphics that are screened on the monitors in the ship’s bridge.

The FX, animation, set designs and costumes in Dark Star are what you might expect from a student film in the early 1970s. They’re striking, but basic. For example, the spacesuit design follows very much the Blue Peter school of thought in its use of disused household implements. Look closely and you can see frying pans, vacuum cleaner nozzles and silver sticky tape.

The hyperspace jumps and meteor showers look to have been drawn as background animations with crayons, and the model work is a tad jumpy. In the main, though, the effects work and their simplicity serve to lend the film its satirical edge.

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The other effects gurus of Dark Star were Ron Cobb (who also worked on the Alien films), Greg Jein (Close Encounters and the Star Trek movies) and Bill Taylor (who also wrote the lyrics to the film’s Johnny Cash-esque theme tune, Benson Arizona).

Dark Star is very much a product of its time. Channelling the disillusioned ideals of the 1960s peace and love era with the darker, more paranoid mood of the 1970s, the film takes influence from a number of sources. O’Bannon was a big fan of anarchic psychedelic comics of the 60s such as The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and the graphic novels of Robert Crumb (he was reading Crumb’s Book Of Genesis when he died in 2009) and the mood of Dark Star is very much derived from these.

And it is a funny film, a mixture of slapstick and stoner shtick with a few bleaker more cynical laughs and some gallows humour to boot. Most alternative movies in the early 70s had either Watergate or Vietnam as subtextual themes and Dark Star is no different. For dazed and confused hippies in space blowing up planets, read naïve young soldiers drafted into the army to fight an unknown enemy.

As far as influence from other movies goes, an obvious mention goes to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dark Star spends much of its time lampooning Kubrick’s grand opus to good effect. The jump to hyperspace in the first few minutes is a reference to Douglas Trumbull’s Stargate sequence from the earlier film, although on a much smaller scale.

The ‘character’ of Bomb 20 is a direct nod to HAL, as is Doolittle’s space walk and his phenemological conversation to try and convince the bomb not to explode in the ship’s loading bay. It’s in these moments that Dark Star reveals a philosophical and almost existential edge.

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Director John Carpenter has referred to Dark Star as “Waiting For Godot in space” and whilst it never tries to seriously answer questions about life, the universe and everything, Dark Star is more than just a run of the mill genre spoof.

Post Dark Star, John Carpenter’s career rose rapidly. As director of horror and sci-fi classics such as Halloween, The Thing, Escape From New York and They Live, Carpenter cemented his name in the annals of movie history.

O’Bannon went on to work as an effects technician on Star Wars, then came Alien, and he also had a hand in Total Recall. He never worked with Carpenter again, however.

Both men have given interviews to this site and a new documentary on the making of Dark Star, Let There Be Light was shown at the Sci-Fi London Film Festival earlier this year.

The film’s legacy is a great one and it deserves to reside in any top ten list of outer space classics.

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