The Genius Of John Carpenter's Dark Star

A brilliant premise in relation to cinema's love-affair with space travel - but what if a space ship was not full of swashbuckling heroes or hidden monsters but actually a bunch of useless arseholes?
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A brilliant premise in relation to cinema's love-affair with space travel - but what if a space ship was not full of swashbuckling heroes or hidden monsters but actually a bunch of useless arseholes?

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Filmed on a budget of $60,000 dollars, Carpenters film tells the story of a bunch of crewmen sent to the far reaches of space to destroy unstable solar systems. The year is 2200 and having created a state of ultimate technological advancement, the human race has is sights built on bigger things, mainly colonisation.  The five man crew of the 'Dark Star' have embarked on this mission armed with 'thermostellar triggering devices', to clear the path for future generations. As we join them, they have already been on the mission 20 years and things aren't exactly going to plan. One of them, a cryogenically frozen Commander Powell is already dead for instance. We learn that he has been the victim of a faulty rear seat, but that's not the crew’s main problem. Boredom. The four-man crew of the Dark Star are literally losing their minds in the dark recesses of space.

They try and conquer this in a manner of ways. Doolittle, a slacker surfer type has made a musical bottle organ for himself. Talby on the other hand spends his time in the ships observatory watching the universe. Boiler, another member of the crew is a keen smoker of cigars and wiles aways the hours using the ships lazer gun for target practice.  And finally Pinback, the ships joker. He maintains a video diary on the ship and had adopted a mischievous, alien beach ball, which refuses to obey him, driving him slightly mad in the process.

For its sheer lack of ambition and laid back feel, 'Dark Star' was obviously a film for its times. Within it's running time, there are no philosophical answers or symbolic monsters lurking in the shadows. It's a marihuana road movie set in a different atmosphere. The astronauts themselves resemble a stoned slacker band on the make, lurching from one catastrophe to the next. When an explosion occurs on the ships storage bay, it's the entire ships supply of toilet roll that gets destroyed, not the engine room. It's hard to judge whether Carpenter was trying to make a statement on the glut of catastrophe flicks of the day or whether the lack of budget forced him into using everything around him as a prop. It's probably the latter. The film, co-written by Don O' Bannon (sergeant Pinback in the movie.) was originally only intended to be 45 minutes in length but was padded out so it could be given a general release. Both Carpenter and O' Bannon were film school graduates at the time and took on multi roles in the making of the film. Carpenter wrote the score, directed and shared screenplay duties with O' Bannon who also had a hand in the editing of the film. For both men it was no doubts it was an exercise in finding their film making feet.

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They needn't have worried however. In a surprisingly tight section of the movie, 'Dark Star' shows a deftness of touch that echoed a bright future for both men. Here, it's revealed that sergeant Pinback is actually an imposter, who in trying to stop the original crewman committing suicide has actually ended up taking his place on board himself. It's a classic character switch that would echo a bigger budget film O' Bannon would write a few years later entiled 'Alien'. The outline of that film in fact is all over 'Dark Star' The scenes of Pinback chasing and being chased by an alien life force around the corridors of the ship are a huge influence on the blockbuster clearly. For Carpenter too, the spectre of another film would be name checked in film. 'Space Odyssey', Kubrick's dystopian fantasy, released six years earlier is alluded to in the shape of the ships computer 'mother', Mother is a more sympathetic voice than Kubrick’s 'Hal' but nonetheless little help in alleviating the men's loneliness and isolation in space or in preventing the impending Armageddon they find themselves hurtling towards in the final part of the movie.

Here, Dispatched to their next target (the veil Nebula) and in the middle of an asteroid storm, the crew doesn't realise a malfunction has occurred on board and that bomb 20 has been ordered to deploy. Although Mother manages to solve the problem, a typically botched repair job by Talby results results in him being blinded in an explosion and bomb 20's trigger mechanism being damaged permanently. Forced to revive a cryogenically frozen Captain Powell, he tells the crew that they must engage the bomb in a philosophical debate, which leads to an existential debate between Doolittle and the bomb that satires the po-faced intellectualism of science fiction brilliantly.

A typical barmy ending ensues (which I won't spoil here), but needless to say as a whole Carpenter and O' Bannon had created a movie that has gained a huge cult following over the years and been influential in the genre. Red Dwarf for instance seems to be the obvious choice in its style and owes it a great debt, but for all it's low production values, 'Dark Star' - actually stands out as a hugely original piece of film making anyway. It's the only decent comedy ever made in the outer reaches of space, a Citizen Kane to the lamentable 'Spaceballs'. In space it seems, only beach balls can hear you scream.