Everybody has to start somewhere and in the case of deliriously influential film director, John Carpenter, the start was a forty minute student film made while at the University of Southern California that was eventually given financing to be expanded into a full feature. However, due to the fact that Dark Star is something of an important nexus point in genre history, it wasn’t just Carpenter who jump started an incredibly prolific career as he was joined on his spaced odessy by Dan O’Bannon who, after toiling as a co-writer, actor, editor production designer and visual effects technician, before altering cinema history himself by writing Alien, directing Return Of The Living Dead and being visibly connected to a wealth of other, noticable projects.
As fertile a seed as Sam Raimi’s similarly home-made The Evil Dead, Dark Star’s edges are as visibly rough as a rusted hacksaw, but thanks to the super-strong injection of fatalistic humour and a wealth of ideas, the movie is still able to keep on space trucking to this day.
Twenty years into their mission to fly around space, blowing up unstable planets that may impede mankind’s colonization of other worlds, the crew of the ship Dark Star are practically at the end of their frazzled rope. Their craft is practically falling apart around them, a recent explosion has destroyed their entire supply of toilet paper and after Powell, their commanding officer, died after an event involving a loose wire under his chair, the remain crew has started to go around the bend.
Next in command, Lieutenant Doolittle is holding things together by his fingernails when all he wants to do is to be surfing in Malibu, the reclusive Talby has retreated almost entirely into the ship’s observation dome, staring for hours at the passing stars and nebula and Boiler just wants to shoot things with a laser. However, straining social niceties to their limit is Pinback, a self-important, attention hungry, try-hard who attempts to raise morale with shitty practical jokes (nice to know rubber chickens are still a thing in the mid-22nd century), sulks when they inevitably bomb and prattles on for ages about the fact that he’s not even the real Pinback and he’s just a technician who took his place after the actual crew member committed suicide.
On top of the crushing monotony, teeth grinding social interaction and a hopelessly outdated ship, other problems that randomly break up the boredom is the mischievous antics of the ball-looking alien Pinback has insisted should be the ship’s mascot and the fact that the AI equipped bombs that have to be literally talked out of exploding while still in Dark Star’s bay. As all these factors slowly build to a head, can the crew manage to keep their heads as all semblance of professionalism collapses in on itself.
Taking the Dr. Strangelove approach to space travel and relentlessly mocking how absolutely fucking maddening it would be cooped up in a malfunctioning ship with a group of people you don’t much care for, Dark Star gleefully tackles the hideous banality of office politics, when your office is hefty amount of light years away from home. Gradually stripped of basic creature comforts such as cohesive leadership, a proper bed (due to a previous meteor shower, the living quarters are also uninhabitable, so the crew live like animals in a makeshift space with porn on the walls and junk all over the floor) and even toilet paper, these shaggy haired hippies stare deep into the void and get a steaming bowl of apathy for their troubles.
Essentially tapping into the same themes of “hippies have mid-life crisis’ in space”, Carpenter and O’Bannon’s deliciously cruel sense of humour makes Dark Star essentially the nihilistic little cousin of Silent Runnings as it keeps hurling existential problems at the hapless astronauts like an angst-powered baseball pitcher, making them frantically try to continue a thankless existence they can’t fucking stand. It’s wickedly dry stuff, but those who have enjoyed the earlier seasons of Red Dwarf will no doubt recognise similar aspects to this quartet of humans floating around deep space while fighting the urge not to kill each other.
The intriguing ideas for sci-fi tinged jokes come impressively thick and fast for, what essentially is a glorified student film and apart from malfunctioning bombs that have to be taught phenomenology to stop themselves prematurely exploding due to cartesian doubt (“What concrete evidence do you have that you exist”) we also have the dead commanding officer whose remains are in cryogenic suspension who can still be questioned for important (if rambling) advice. On top of that, we also have the middle section of the film which sees O’Bannon’s whining Pinback go hunting for his pet alien throughout the bowels of the ship that feels eerily like a comedic dry run for similar scenes seen in Ridley Scott’s Alien.
If the rather primitive look of the film seems a little off-putting, it’s something that’s worth pushing through despite some effects that admitedly stack up unfavourably even when compared to 1930’s Flash Gordon serials let alone stuff like Star Wars (the reason the beach ball shaped alien looks like a spray painted beach ball is because that’s what it obviously is), but it’s the movie’s wit and smarts that carry it through to deserved, is obscure cult glory.
However, deep frozen commanders and armpit tickling, thrift store aliens aside, what truly makes Dark Star resonate is its ending, which (spoilers) closes out its comedy of errors with imagery that turn a lonely death in space into almost a triumphant act. Reduced to an existence that’s almost unbearable, the detonation of the entire ship (thank the God complex of Bomb #20 for that) causes both a space walking Doolittle and Talby to be flung in opposite direction without any hope of rescue. Talby is swept up travelling cluster of asteroids to be whisked all over the universe while Doolittle uses a piece of wreckage as a board to surf into the atmosphere of a local planet where he’ll burn up and become a shooting star.
As the throaty warbling of a Country and Western song, “Benson Arizona”, plays over the soundtrack as both men approaches their respective fates with a sense of wonder, it gives this dog-eared, cheapjack, sci-fi comedy a genuinely emotional finish that remains deeply touching.
It’s a glowing testament to both Carpenter and O’Bannon that they could accomplish so much with so little and it remains a confident statement of intent for two filmmakers who would go on to regularly change the face of genre cinema as we knew it.
Dark Star, bright future.