|Artwork courtesy MalevolentNate at DeviantArt.|
“Dark Star” is a weird film. It’s a weird film to start John Carpenter’s career on. As a director most associated with the horror genre, you wouldn't expect his first feature to be a stoner space comedy. It’s a weird film as a test-run for “Alien,” but both movies are undeniably tied together by their blue-collar astronauts, “Truckers in Space” premise. Generally speaking, the film is, for lack of a better word, “kooky.” It’s probably correct to assume that recreational drugs were indulged in during every stage of production.
Conceived by John Carpenter and writer / star Dan O’Bannon as their student film at UCLA, “Dark Star” has several enormously amusing elements in its favor. The entire idea of burnt out astronauts trying to pass the time on a long space flight is a pretty funny, subversive premise to begin with. One of the funniest reoccurring jokes in the movie is that the ship is constantly breaking down. There’s always something malfunctioning or in need of repair. It’s a decidedly unglamorous take on space travel. The computer’s voice speaks in an especially soft, friendly, conversational voice even when giving grave, awful news. Amazingly, there’s enough character in Cookie Knapp’s vocal delivery that the computer never comes off as ingenuine or sarcastic.
No doubt my favorite gag in the movie is Pinback’s video diary. In a series of one-sided interviews recorded over the course of years, the passage of time is shown by his various haircuts, we get a good idea of his degrading mental health. He complains about the other guys mistreating him and forgetting his birthday. He tells a particularly filthy joke, all of the dirty parts censored and removed. Dan O’Bannon’s performance shows a surprising grasp on comedic timing.
There are, in general, a lot of oddball, offbeat gags throughout, like laser cannon target practice or an astronaut getting suddenly sucked out of an airlock. A dead man preserved in a block of ice, talking in a dreamy tone, asks about sports when lives are at stake. The script in general features a lot of awfully clever dialogue.
This is a feature expansion of a short film. Sometimes this is very obvious. The entire beachball alien sequence seems to drag on forever. At first, it’s kind of amusing, just because the concept is so ridiculous. For such a silly creature, it’s actually performed with a level of characterization. But then the scene just won’t end. In particular the elevator gag goes on very long. It’s pretty obvious the entire sequence was just inserted into the movie to pad it out to feature length. Even then, it has inspired moments, like the beachball suddenly deciding to tickle Pinback at an inopportune time.
“Dark Star” actually has a brilliant ending. Despite being nihilistic, in the sense that everyone dies, it’s still strangely hopeful. The two main characters get what they want after all, in a round-about sort of way. Despite lagging here and there, “Dark Star” is perfect midnight cult viewing. I would never recommend the use of drugs to anyone but, while watching this film, a little booze or pot would probably add to the effect. [Grade: B+]