Review of Dark Star (1974)

30 Oct

Dark Star (1974) is a comedy/sci-fi/thriller film, which is the feature-length debut of John Carpenter, who is the director, producer and co-writer on the film.

Directed by John Carpenter (Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), Escape from L.A. (1996)).

Written by John Carpenter (The Fog (1980), They Live (1988)) and Dan O’Bannon (Alien (1979), Total Recall (1990)).

Starring: Dan O’Bannon, Brian Narelle, Cal Kuniholm, Dre Pahich and others.

From the first moments it’s apparent that the budget of the movie was extremely low. It is basically a student film stretched to a feature-length. So I feel wrong criticising this kind of movie to harshly, but at the risk of sounding like an asshole, I do think that sometimes if you know you don’t have the budget to pull off your ambitious project, you should consider the possibility of toning down the special effects. It’s better to have one amazing special effects shot than a crapload of shitty ones. Thankfully or sadly, this movie has both.

The outer space scenes look rather jarring, because when the spaceship kind of stops, it just freezes and hangs in the space, so it seems like you’re looking at a freezeframe, which I am not sure that it isn’t. Maybe it’s just my brain that has this standard set-up inside, when I think of spaceship moving through space, I instantly flash back to the opening shot of A New Hope. And that’s an unfair and high standard to judge a pre-Star Wars movie with a way smaller budget.

We are introduced to some astronauts in a spaceship called „Dark Star”. Ka-ching! (That is the sound that plays in my head, whenever I hear the title of a movie appear in the movie) The astronauts banter a bit and then decide to listen to some country music as they look for a star to blow up. Oh, ok. I guess that inspired the movie Space Cowboys.

They reveal that the astronauts have been on a solitary space mission for 30 years. The incoherent banter, country music and a scene with a beach-ball made up to be an alien suddenly make so much more sense. Or does it? Even though they’ve been out there for a while now, they all still look like a bunch of scruffy-bearded 30-year-olds.

The movie hasn’t aged well, it feels incredibly dated, but you can sort of forgive the movie’s silly, cheap effects, sets and props, because it’s all mostly played for laughs. And at times shows genuine inventiveness, like a terrific scene taking place in an elevator shaft, which is obviously shot in just a hallway, yet done cleverly enough to provide enough of the illusion, for us to suspend our disbelief.

The film is basically a comedic portrayal of how boring and with that also insane it would be to be out there alone with a few guys for so long. There’s a scene where they attempt to tell some old stories, but it’s been so long that they fail to both recall them correctly or find a pair of ears that have not heard them before. I’d like to think it’s a completely serious take on what their mission is like, just through their perspective it all seems wacky.

It doesn’t feel like a John Carpenter movie very much, the score is great as is usual for his films, but it invokes a very different feeling. Although this isn’t the most polished movie, but for a shoe-string budget directorial debut from the 70’s it shows a lot of promise, although, I can’t imagine anyone seeing this and then expecting something like Assault On Precinct 13 or Halloween or later on The Thing, but it’s clear that a fair amount of talent and intelligence is present.

Yes, it’s a pretty smart movie, the humor is no slapstick packed gag blast. It’s played on the absurdities the genre’s limitless possibilities present and inserts polar opposites for comedic effect. The ship’s captain has died some time ago, but is still held in a state of suspended animation and the crew is able to communicate with him, which leads to a scene where one of them does this and I thought the scene was kind of creepy. In another instance there’s this intelligent bomb, which itself is pretty silly, but then it has this conversation with a crew member and it goes to either a satire of or an actual philosophy lesson on rationalism and empiricism. The ending is both morbid and funny as well.

Overall, I enjoyed some parts of it, didn’t at all care for others, recommended for those interested in Carpenter’s early stuff, not recommended if you think a guy literally surfing through space isn’t for you. It’s better than that Fantastic Four movie, though.

Pictured: What inspired Alien. I’m not even joking. This is it.

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