John Carpenter: Dark Star

So Filmwerk has decided to do the retrospective thing with the great John Carpenter, and in so doing we all get to re-watch some of our favourite Carpenter movies and share with you our musings on them. What we think made them great (or not so great), and why? And perhaps we’ll see if on what level (if any) they’ve withstood the ravages of time. So without any further ado, let’s get underway!

It is my duty and consummate honour to start things off with a real underrated gem of a movie. Essentially a sci-fi black comedy, Dark Star (1974) is famously known for being Carpenter’s 16mm student film which ended up gaining a respectable theatrical release. The details of exactly how this happened are a little sketchy depending on whose autobiography you read, but it involved additional filming and a transfer to 35mm to bring it up to feature length from its original 40 odd minutes run time. Both versions are available on DVD and personally I think I prefer the shorter cut, although I cannot for the life of me remember which one I saw as a kid (probably the feature length edit as I believe the shorter version was lost until recently).

Co-writer, effects man and principle actor Dan O’Bannon was quoted as saying that Dark Star was transformed from the greatest student film ever made to the lousiest regular film ever made. The point is well made, and I accept it in very broad terms, but I think the curiously eccentric O’Bannon is selling the film short in some ways. He also felt it was unfunny, which I absolutely don’t agree with. It’s very funny, and fascinating.

I grew up with Dark Star; it was a frequent video rental along with 2001, The Black Hole and Star Wars. I loved it, and I think it has more than proved its mettle over the years. Many sci-fi fans I know also grew up with it and hold it in very high regard despite the budgetary limitations and possible lack of full on gut-laughs. And well they should.

The movie has taken its rightful place (albeit a reasonably modest one) in the pantheon of sci-fi greats and has influenced many younger filmmakers and sci-fi writers in their work; no doubt about it. Right from the tag line ‘The Spaced Out Odyssey’, it’s pretty obvious that a large part of Dark Star’s make up is formed from a deep reaction to the self importance and grandiose sterile seriousness of Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001, released a few years earlier.

2001 was stately, high minded and showed a serene almost utopian future where everything in space is new, clean, pristine and beautiful. Carpenter and O’Bannon had this brilliant stroke of genius in imagining a ‘used’ future for Dark Star. They introduced us to a bunch of regular guys who, apart from the fact that they work in space, had nothing special about them at all. Apart from the fact that one of them was dead. This was the beginning of the whole ‘truckers in space’ concept that O’Bannon would revisit when writing Alien a couple of years later (more on that later).

This whole concept of the ‘used future’ was kinda radical when set in juxtaposition with the accepted and long standing cinematic tradition of space and space conquest going hand in hand with humankind’s noblest and highest minded progress towards a united utopian future. Dark Star presented us with a far more realistic appraisal of the likely future situation. Not particularly dystopian, like those presented by the likes of THX1138 or Logan’s Run, but just ordinary. It supposes that we would have the same strengths and weaknesses, the same pettiness and insecurity, the same dissatisfactions, disillusionments and disaffectedness with life, love and the drudgery of work that we often have now, and all that changes is the technology and location, or more obtusely; the year!

It’s fittingly 70s bizarrely enough. The decade is often remembered (in cinema) as the decade when Hollywood lost a lot of its classic razzle dazzle and joie de vivre and instead got pissed off and downbeat. Of course this was actually already happening at least by the end of the 60s. Naturally there were various causal factors: the crumbling studio system, and with it the end of the Hays code and relaxation of censorship laws, for example. More indirectly there was the overall effect of the collective come down after the swinging 60s. Many people felt a general disillusionment and distrust. It seemed like all that universal peace and love hadn’t actually changed a damn thing about the way the world worked and who benefits from it. Then there was Vietnam, the oil crisis and Watergate etc etc. All these things are reflected in the movies of the time, and Dark Star plays its own role in mirroring them, both within the sci-fi genre and in a wider sense.

Watching Dark Star again now is a kind of mixed bag. On the one hand, one can’t help but notice the inexperienced (but very natural) actors and budgetary limitations and their clunky effect on production values. However, growing up on a diet of low budget sci-fi TV shows like Dr Who and the incomparably worse Blake’s 7, I was used to seeing serious budgetary limitations on screen on a weekly basis. You just got on with it and let the story (if it was a good one) take you off to that lovely place where disbelief is in perfect suspension. This was something the best episodes of the original Star Trek did so well for instance. In comparison to Dr Who et al; Dark Star’s production sheen is not too shabby at all and the movie is still a great watch.

Carpenter positions his camera freely and creates interesting angles low and high, as well as using unusual positioning to mask budget fixtures and fittings while simultaneously creating extra interest in many of the otherwise very simple and claustrophobic sets. It’s all here, and some of the best set-ups you’d later see in Carpenter’s more well known films can be found in Dark Star.

For better or worse, it really is a product of its time, and as with all influential movies, its uniqueness is harder to detect and appreciate through the fog of nearly 40 years of influence (where would Red Dwarf be without it for example?).

At this point we need to mention Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). It’s well known that when Carpenter and O’Bannon went their separate ways after Dark Star, O’Bannon, unresolved about the effectiveness of the movie but convinced the germ of a great idea was buried in there somewhere, turned the basic premise upside down and began rewriting Dark Star as a horror. Friend and Writer Ron Shusett’s involvement in O’Bannon’s subsequent Star Beast treatment led eventually to what we know as Alien.

The two movies are of course on the face of it seemingly unrelated – in fact I grew up with both movies as firm favourite repeat rentals and I never knew the connection until much later on in adulthood. Interestingly circular is the fact that Red Dwarf creators Grant & Naylor always mention the inspiration for the series as coming from Alien; however it’s really Dark Star that’s the essential link.

Dark Star, an amazing movie then, both in and of itself, and also for what it did for the sci-fi genre in general, as well as its specific role as Alien’s progenitor. John Carpenter is launched upon the world stage, and goes on to direct genre classic after genre classic from Halloween and The Thing to Starman and Big Trouble in Little China.

I still love Dark Star, the constant 2001 mockings, the beach ball with claws. I mean where else can you see a talking bomb with a God complex? Fab!

A final word from Bomb #20: “Let there be light…”

Ben Pegley


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