John Carpenter in Review: Dark Star (1974)
Plot: A space-faring crew investigates planets for colonization when things start going wrong.
The title Dark Star refers to a scout ship currently being manned by a small crew for a 20-something year long trip to investigate planets for colonization. Part of this mission is getting rid of the planets that are unstable and may pose a threat to further colonization. To get rid of these threats, they use a series of artificially intelligent bombs. The movie starts with a video transmission of someone presumably of ground control giving them an update. This includes an apology for the loss of their mission leader who died during an accident on the mission. They currently have his dead body on ice in another part of the ship.
The movie seems to have been made on a shoestring budget, and like a lot of movies on that kind of budget, they tend to get cult success. The inside of the ship is a mixture of charmingly rudimentary designs and some truly impressive feats (at least for the limitations they had). John Carpenter was incredibly ambitious. He didn’t hold back on including an alien presence, laser guns, and scenes taking place outside of the ship in the vastness of space. All of this comes with varying levels of success, mostly on the lower end of the spectrum, unfortunately.
Scraping by the best you can also means getting whatever actors you can. The cast of Dark Star is definitely not up to snuff. Since its cult success, it has been described as a comedic take, but due to the obviously bad performances, it is kind of hard to tell if it was the original intention. That said, it definitely made me chuckle. The AI bombs were quite funny in a Douglas Adams kind of way. They were just conceptualizing the world when they are activated leaving them very flustered before having to be blown up. Most of the comedy revolved around the character of Pinback. He thought it would be a good idea to have a mascot so he adopted an alien. This alien happens to be a beach ball with claws and doesn’t end up having a really big role. Its main purpose was to get Pinback into a very Three Stooges-esque incident with an elevator. All of which was kind of funny.
The rest of the crew was basically just spacey. Just because they talk slow about their feelings and childhood memories, it doesn’t add depth. Pinback was the only one who really had depth. There is a great scene where we see a number of Pinback’s video diary entries all in a row. We see how the mission has changed him, and then he revealed a deep secret that was actually kind of interesting. So interesting, it sucks that it ended where it began. I guess it is no surprise that Pinback ended up with all the funniest moments and best character moments considering he is played by co-writer Dan O’Bannon. O’Bannon would later take the alien aspect of the story and make it into the screenplay that would become Alien. But make no mistake, this is NOT Alien.
Dark Star is a ok for a student film. It scratches the surface of some cool ideas and visuals, but it lacks the oomph to really drive the overall movie home. The poor acting and special effects along with the underwritten screenplay ultimately make this movie a chore to watch.