Dark Star – John Carpenter – 1974

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At the beginning of John Carpenter’s Dark Star, a government official tells the crew of the ship via tele-message that their request for a radiation shield has been denied, as it would be too costly, despite the fact that a radiation leak has killed their captain. Thus begins what would be a career-long rail against the government and authority figures in the legacy of John Carpenter. In this one scene, of a man speaking into a camera he paints bureaucracy as greedy and incompetent.

Aside from this undercurrent of satire, this film has almost no likeness to any other film in the Carpenter canon. The film is dryly comedic and meandering, playing much like an episode of Red Dwarf. It’s clear to me that O’Bannon, (the writer with Carpenter), and Carpenter were like any sane person obsessed with Stanley Kubrick and were doing their best to combine the space saga sets and ideas of 2001 with the dry and silly humor of Dr. Strangelove. Look no further than the final scene of Dark Star which features Doolittle surfing into the atmosphere of a planet on a piece of debris which is extremely evocative of Slim Whitman riding the bomb in Strangelove.

The film is much more than the sum of its parts, which are a bunch of loosely strung together scenes and ideas shot on crude sets with amateur actors. But the writing and clever camerawork glues these bits into a mildly engaging experiment.

The ship is four guys drifting around the galaxy blowing up unstable planets then zapping themselves too far away to get caught up in the after effect. Is this a parallel to US foreign policy at the time? These clowns retire to a filthy apartment where the computer tells Pinback to feed the alien. Pinback goes to feed the alien, but the beach ball alien runs amok for what is the most fun sequence in the film. Nick Castle actually gives an extremely effective performance as a beach ball alien!

The characters in the film are not very well defined. All four of them are scraggly, bearded film school looking guys, which they were. Their attitudes are quite similar, despite being written with some general differences. This detracts from empathizing with them, but much like in Strangelove, and the men on the plane with the Bomb, these men are an extension of the government and they get what’s coming to them.

Before long the incompetence of the crew leads to technological malfunctions and a bomb set to go off is stuck inside the ship. Here we have a very funny scene that combines the satire of Strangelove and the robotic ethics of 2001 when Doolittle tries to reason with the bomb and convince it not to go off. This film is both absurd and a carefully constructed barb at the slavish dependence on technology. Can one reason with a machine? Should the lives of others be contingent on a robot’s ability to understand ethics?

The film can be laborious sometimes, but it is proto-Carpenter and proto-O’Bannon. Subtle it is not. As these guys got bigger budgets they were able to incorporate their influences with a softer touch. As it stands this collaboration between giants is lovely window into the past of filmmaking and a delightfully disturbing portal into a future where stupid astronauts have the power to blow up planets from space.

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