Dark Star (1974)

D: John Carpenter
S: Dan O'Bannon, Dre Pahinch, Brian Narelle

Trippy parody of 2001 ­ A Space Odyssey from director John Carpenter and writer Dan O'Bannon is most interesting as a preview of the subsequent careers of the two. A cheap and fairly enjoyable exercise, it hardly ranks among the classics of the genre, but it has pleasures to offer those able to get past its defiant lack of budget and goofy early seventies sense of humour.

Four astronauts assigned to destroy unstable planets as a prelude to galactic colonisation encounter a variety of problems, human, mechanical and alien while discussing surfing and phenomenology. There's not much of a story, but the film cheerfully proceeds from incident to incident in their everyday lives until it reaches a crisis when a sentient explosive device threatens to destroy the ship.

There are some interesting things in the script which prefigure O'Bannon's Alien, particularly the demystification of the occupation of space travel. Like the truckers in the later film, these are not clean-cut All-American explorers of the beyond. These guys are as often locked in petty squabbles about their food rations and the necessity to listen to the same stories being told over and over again by a paranoid crew member as they are going about their job. They all wear heavy beards and long hair (though this may have as much to do with the fashion of the time as the very obvious point that these men don't have any need to groom themselves in outer space) and frequently act like frustrated children. One uses an emergency laser gun for target practice and plays games with an alien creature he has adopted as a mascot (essentially a beach ball with latex claws), another sunbathes belowdecks and makes petulant entries in his video diary, another relishes the prospect of blowing things up and ignores the efforts of his crewmates to conduct their mission with a modicum of professionalism. When the existential conversation comes, it is not so much about rationalising man's consciousness as a series of vaguely inerconnected musings by men bored out of their minds by the cosmos.

Carpenter directs with reasonable student-level skills (this was an expansion of a student project) and manages to mount a moment or two of suspense and eerie horror. But this is really more of a comedy, if even that, and this alone makes it interesting for fans of his later work. Characteristic visual arrangements such as the use of enclosed space and darkness are here more a matter of necessity than choice, but they reflect the director's later concern with such things for more affective purposes. It is awkwardly paced, but mercifully short. It does not so much build to a climax as suddenly arrive at one, even though the script dabbles in some foreshadowing throughout. Carpenter would not fully come into his powers for a couple of years yet, but he handles Dark Star about as well as could have been expected.

This film is best suited to those in with a high level of tolerance and a sense of humour about amateurism. It is ideal cult material: a weird little opus which you can thoroughly enjoy if you know what to expect but which is not about to turn up in film text books except as a footnote. Mind you, there may be an argument for placing it alongside the more recognised works of sci-fi cinema of its era, as it certainly provides a counterpoint. But at the end of the day ths film is either fun or it is offensively bad, and your reaction very much depends on your expectations.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.