Blog Directory CineVerse: Dark Star: a dark horse but lightweight sci-fi

Dark Star: a dark horse but lightweight sci-fi

Monday, July 12, 2021

Sandwiched uncomfortably between the chasm that was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977), John Carpenter’s fledgling directorial debut Dark Star attempts to put a comedic touch on previous Kubrickian ideas while also foreshadowing the blue-collar space truckin’ sensibilities of Alien. It’s a bit of a cosmic mess, and the low-tech visual effects, amateurish acting, and abrupt tonal shifts do little to improve matters. Still, Dark Star is a film rippling with interesting ideas, imagery, and memorable bits that will be explored in later genre pictures. Our CineVerse band took a test flight last week and came away with the following impressions (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here):

Similar works

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Star Trek
  • THX 1138, which also began as a student film
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • Ray Bradbury’s short story Kaleidoscope
  • Alien
  • Star Wars
  • Moon
  • Sci-fi comedies like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Spaceballs

What did you find unexpected, distinctive, or surprising about Dark Star?

  • This looks to be just a few rungs above a student film on the production value, acting, and screenplay scale. Filmmakers John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon began this production as a short while they were college students; they were given more money by a producer to add more scenes and pad out the length to feature film runtime, with a final budget clocking in at around $60,000. Despite this paltry price tag, the collaborators were able to accomplish some impressive feats, even for 1974 film standards and special effects expectations.
  • The influences here are obvious (especially Kubrick works), but Dark Star also would have inspired Star Wars, Alien, and subsequent sci-fil films, especially with its depiction of traveling through hyperspace and its notion of an escaped alien loose on the ship wreaking havoc.
  • This is a rare work of sci-fi comedy. On its surface, this seems to be a sobering drama, but quickly we pick up comedic sensibilities, jokes, and humorous bits, which makes it easier to accept the budgetary and visual effect shortcomings.

Themes at work

  • Existentialism (exploring the nature of the human condition and existence), epistemology (investigating what distinguishes justified belief from opinion), and applied philosophy (like Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”). Doolittle arguing with a sentiment bomb capable of artificial intelligence, trying to dissuade it from detonating based on logic, serves as a spoof of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its exploration of AI’s ability to surpass humans.
  • Ennui, regardless of the setting or milieu. Director John Carpenter described this story as “Waiting for Godot in space,” and “truck drivers in space.” These are everyday, blue-collar Joes who have grown bored with their mission, despite its huge significance and the grandiosity of their surroundings. This isn’t some noble quest or giant leap for mankind; these are clock-punchers hired to pave a clear path on the cosmic superhighway.
  • Cosmic irony. Having to rationalize and debate philosophical notions with a sentient but stubborn bomb, destroying rather than exploring new worlds in a routine of mindless violence, being millions of miles from Earth without toilet paper, and getting humiliated and outfoxed by a silly extraterrestrial gasbag of a pet are among the sardonic statements being made by the filmmakers, who seem intent to de-glamorize the supposed allure and prestige of space travel.
  • The inability to escape our inherent human condition. It is in our nature as humans to destroy things, argue, fight, become bored and complacent, take things for granted, and abuse or neglect what we regard as lower life forms.
  • The hard work required to achieve rugged individualism. Slant Magazine reviewer Simon Abrams wrote: “The fact that there’s no logical way to not emotionally malfunction aboard the Dark Star speaks to the film’s central egocentrism: everybody has to do everything themselves, even the Smart Bomb that obliterates the ship after it reasons that it is, in fact, God: ‘The only thing that exists is My Self’…Dark Star remains one of the best expressions of that quest for personal freedom because it was principally created by two artists that define themselves by their own fierce intellect and staunch individualism.”

Other films by John Carpenter

  • Halloween
  • Escape From New York
  • The Thing
  • Starman
  • They Live
  • In the Mouth of Madness

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