Dark Star

cast: Dan O’Bannon, Brian Narelle, Carl Kuniholm, and Dre Pahich

director: John Carpenter

82 minutes (PG) 1974
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Fremantle / Fabulous DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Paul Higson

Thirty years have passed since the release of John Carpenter’s first feature film, Dark Star. Thirty years and yet, Carpenter had already collected his first (and only) Oscar, that for his 1970 short film, The Resurrection Of Bronco Billy. So 1974 it is, and before another 10 years are out he has completed six cult classic feature films, continuing with Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, and concluding with The Thing. Another 20 years on and we can wonder at his achievement in what with age becomes an ever-shortening space of time. There is no disputing his role in many of those films, nor in that first feature, but I can’t help but feel that Dark Star was the work predominantly of not one but two men, and the presence of Dan O’Bannon on screen as Pinback goes further to enforce that sense and opinion. O’Bannon co-scripted the film, was the production designer and supervised the visual effects, on so tight a budget, the onus was on him to perform some minor miracles. His importance to the project cannot be underplayed. The dialogue was rarely as political and the humour never to be as sharp in a Carpenter film again. Of the four leads it is O’Bannon who is the natural comic, his actions and face eliciting several thousand moments, a torrent of entertainment value, an acting talent maligned, only for ill-health and that love of storytelling to seal his fate in scriptwriting.
From the opening VDU call to ‘Attention!’ this compact science fiction amusement arcade keeps you transfixed as the stoner crew of scout-ship Dark Star cruise the Universe in search of unstable planets, destroying them with megaton bombs, ageing at one seventh of the rate family are back home, supplies and space dwindling, the craft malfunctioning as a result of wear, electrical storms and negligence, but the four so set in their slacker ways that they blank out any of the dangers until it is too late. Commander Powell is already dead and in a cryogenic state, with the captaincy handed over to the mildly arrogant Doolittle (Brian Narelle). Pinback is opposed to this, being the next highest ranked, even though he is not really Pinback, as revealed in an anecdote that he recounts on average every four years, but is truth a field maintenance technician who jumped into Pinback’s suit on the day of flight to rescue the real Pinback from a suicide attempt in a nervous breakdown. Talby (Dre Pahick) rarely leaves the viewing deck, never losing his fascination for space, while Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) gets through by misbehaving and deliberately winding up Pinback.
In the pre-title sequence we have seen them ordinarily destroy one unstable planet in Galactic Sector EB2 90 with a chirpy bomb, then simply roll onto the next potential location. An electronic storm damages the ship somewhat more, activating the bomb bay systems and bringing out of dock Bomb #20 that is not too pleased about aborting its one mission in artificial life. Nonetheless, it returns to the bay and the emergency is over. Pinback feeds the ship’s mascot, the only lifeform encountered in their space travels, a large beach ball with clawed feet, bitter at captivity and equally out to torment its keeper. The lifeform initiates a deadly game of cat and mouse. When the bomb leaves the bay for a third time, this time under crews orders, a new deadly fault occurs and it refuses either detach or halt the countdown. This was a bomb that when previously told it was summoned in error had responded, “Oh, I don’t want to hear that!” It’s not going to take no for an answer now. Doolittle, under the advice of the dead commander, leaves the craft to talk the bomb out of its suicidal destiny, with several unexpected results.
Four years in the making, a planet destroying star-ship and the universe recreated in a garage, Dark Star stands as metaphor for a dysfunctional America, an insouciant generation, a post-Vietnam country low on morale and a crumbling socio-political environment, governed from afar by those who don’t care, far enough away out of the plan to constitute making no trouble. It is as relevant now as those making the mint send the grunts out in the tough conditions to make the tough decisions perhaps not to come back with some vague idea of making planet Earth a safer place when the threat taken out couldn’t be more remote or phantom. The constricting space, shrinking all of the time, the loss of the possessions in an accident in their quarters, with nothing but infinity to distract them has a numbing effect on them. The discovery of a new galaxy is met with ennui, the act of destroying planets is work-a-day and nothing but threats to their mortality instils action in them.
The engrossing centrepiece to the film is the lift shaft episode, a sequence of remarkable ingenuity, that again, must largely be attributable to O’Bannon, who in his various capacities was responsible for the design, the larger props and plays the only character on film throughout, the ordeal is his. O’Bannon is on his back through most of the sequence, the wall clearly shifting between concrete and other textures dependent on the shot, the only clues to out how it was achieved. It is well storyboarded, manipulating the garage space to look a considerable length in the edit, the camera is upside down for some of the shots and when Pinback is trapped in the floor of the lift towards the end of the sequence, he and the lift body are on their side, with a well-hidden board supporting his spine and posterior, leaving him sufficient freedom to thrash his legs around. Film students should be forced to work out the sequence technically and dimensionally, reconstruct it in storyboard or, better still, in model form, in order to understand the feat, the inventiveness, the art and illusion of perspective, thereupon to be left in thrall.
The pre-credit sequence is unusual insomuch as it runs the length it does. At nine minutes and 35 seconds it is one-eighth of the running time, and would have provided the first real shock for the audience of the day, agog that they could have failed to notice that the credits had not yet begun. This is O’Bannon again seemingly, who ran the pre-credit sequence to his later directorial outing The Return Of The Living Dead to a similar length. Many of the crew went on to become directors in their own right, and in one credit frame we find that the camera assistant is Nick Castle (director of TAG: The Assassination Game), the associate assistant director Tom Wallace (Halloween 3: Season Of The Witch) and production assistant, Terence Winkless (who took charge on the 1989 film, The Nest).
This is a five-star film. Unfortunately, it sits in a two-star package. Ask a body what they would have liked to have seen as supplementary information, they would perhaps reply a breakdown of the lift ordeal sequence, in investigation through storyboards, photographic, diary and scripted evidenced, or a making-of documentary and commentaries from Carpenter and O’Bannon. None of that, I’m afraid. There is a second director’s cut of the film, which is the film we know only in a shortened form! That screams of pointlessness and unless you are willing to watch the director’s cut in its entirety there are no shortcuts to determining the difference, as the scene access simply reverts you to the complete version. The biographies by Robert Ross are brief and John Carpenter’s pages are too obsessed with painting him the in-joke king. There is little more of any interest.
The picture quality is muted, the colours faded, though this does not distract from the enjoyment of the film and there was a little bit of stubbornness a few seconds before the end of one sequence, rescued only by the scene selection, then there is break-up just before the close of the film; certainly, this may be the review copy only. In the den, the locker storage facility that had become their sleeping quarters there are poster pages from the men’s magazines on the wall that, in order to grant the DVD release a PG rating, have been digitally blurred which will not go down well with anyone wanting the film 100 percent intact. One leaves the disc asking when the special edition disc can be expected. If already collected on video you might want to wait for it, if you don’t have Dark Star, but know the film, you will likely long to see the film and want this inferior release anyway.