Sunday, July 7, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #1: Dark Star (1974)

Dark Star may not be as well known as other science fiction films from the 1970s, at least not on the level of Star Wars or Alien, but its influence is everywhere. Filmed over the course of three years by USC students, it was the first feature film directed by John Carpenter. Dan O'Bannon co-wrote and acted in the film. Anyone who's seen Jodorowsky's Dune knows the film caught the eye of the Chilean filmmaker who was developing the ill fated adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune. Dark Star also sends up Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and other heroic visions of space travel like Star Trek.

The film begins with a four man crew in a claustrophobic ship. Their mission is to blow up unstable planets to clear the way for colonization. In their endless free time they bicker with each other and have the same conversations over and over. Crew member Boiler spends all his time on the observation deck watching the stars float by. Doolittle dreams about surfing.  Talby is about to lose his mind, while Pinback (O"Bannon) is an annoying know it all. The ship's leader Commander Powell was killed in an accident, but remains alive in cryogenic sleep. Meals are eaten out of liquid tubes. Space travel here is a never ending wave of monotony, an empty existence with no purpose.

In an extended sequence of physical comedy Pinback tries to capture the ship's pet alien that's literally a beach ball (a scene that would be recycled in Alien). Later a malfunction prevents a nuclear bomb from dropping and creates an existential crisis. Doolittle engages in a philosophical discussion with the bomb that recalls HAL from 2001, a simple dialogue evoking Cartesian doubt and Plato's allegory of the cave. A poignant ending ensues as the crew members meet their fate.

Dark Star provides irreverent humor of many varieties. Boredom can be funny, especially ennui in the workplace in films like Clerks and Office Space. Pinback keeps a video diary where he talks trash about the crew and admits to impersonating an officer plays like a precursor to youtube videos. When they revive Commander Powell he asks, "How did the Dodgers do?" The look of the spaceship is grungy and things break down constantly. Everything from The Simpsons to Spaceballs owes something to Dark Star. The sound design is also inventive, clearly influenced by George Lucas's THX-1138.

A true collaboration between O'Bannon and Carpenter, both had long careers in Hollywood. Alien has an almost identical plot reconfigured as a horror film with a bigger budget. Carpenter would have a remarkable run of films including Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Thing. O"Bannon would play a major role in 80s Sci-Fi movies in writing and special effects. He also directed the 1985 cult classic Return of the Living Dead

***1/2 out of 4

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