Great Films You Need To See – Dark Star (1974)

Before he became a master of horror, John Carpenter went where no hippie had gone before with his gloriously goofy sci-fi debut that put the space into spaced out.

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star's slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star’s slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre

In the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (1972), science fiction had entered a new, grown up phase, one where contemplation and big ideas had replaced explosions and cheap entertainment.

For Carpenter and fellow University of Southern California student Dan O’Bannon, Kubrick’s masterpiece represented a summit they could never hope to reach. In response, they cobbled together $60,000 and made Dark Star, a film that may represent the mirror image of 2001, but has proved just as influential.

Pinback (Dan O'Bannon), Doolittle (Brian Narelle) and Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) - the crew of Dark Star

Pinback (Dan O’Bannon), Doolittle (Brian Narelle) and Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) – the crew of Dark Star

Without the budget to lavish on grand sets or grander special effects, Carpenter and fellow screenwriter O’Bannon came up with the inspired notion of injecting a dose of blue-collar mundanity to their vision of space travel.

Think about it for a moment; who would you expect to see being sent on a 20-year mission to blow up unstable planets in systems marked out for future human colonisation? Dark Star’s crew – Doolittle (Brian Narelle), Pinback (O’Bannon), Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) and Talby (Dre Pahich) – are the other guys; the ones who do the donkey work so that others more glamorous and well-paid than themselves can take all the credit.

State of the art special effects, ahem, in Dark Star

State of the art special effects, ahem, in Dark Star

This ‘truckers in space’ approach has been used in numerous sci-fi movies since, most notably in the O’Bannon-scripted Alien (1979), while Carpenter himself has elaborated on the blue-collar Joe Schmoe concept in The Thing (1982). Anyone who’s watched Ghostbusters will also spot where that film got its idea for Murray and co’s jumpsuits.

The shorthand dialogue and bored, petty resentments between the crew, especially from the highly strung Pinback, are completely plausible, as is their unkempt appearance. After all, with only each other for company, why bother cutting your hair or trimming your beard?

The solitary Talby (Dre Pahich) in Dark Star

The solitary Talby (Dre Pahich) in Dark Star

Shoulder-shrugging observations about the deteriorating state of the ship are another nice touch, such as Doolittle’s ship’s log report about the Dark Star’s stock of toilet rolls blowing up thanks to a computer malfunction; a previous explosion which has destroyed their sleeping quarters; and the ship’s complement of talking bombs, which have become increasingly unpredictable and are responsible for the film’s darkly humourous final act.

The mind-numbing length of their mission also suggests itself in nicely observed exchanges and asides (“chicken again!”), with Doolittle’s admission that he can no longer remember his own first name being an amusing case in point.

The cheeky alien beachball in Dark Star

The cheeky alien beachball in Dark Star

With only a shoestring budget to play around with, the decision to use a beachball to represent a squeaky-voiced alien the crew have adopted as a mascot is brilliantly inspired. Pinback’s increasingly desperate efforts to first feed and then track down the mischievous creature is its own mini-movie; half-slapstick and half-dramatic that drives much of the film’s middle section.

Surfing on a space wave in Dark Star

Surfing on a space wave in Dark Star

The limited finances are also evident in Dark Star‘s wonky special effects, which have an old-school DIY aesthetic that gives the film an anti-establishment feel in keeping with its theme of sticking two fingers up to the Man. Meanwhile, Carpenter’s otherworldly score (a long-running constant throughout most of his oeuvre) harkens back to the sci-fi movies of his youth.

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star‘s slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre.

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23 comments

  1. le0pard13 · March 9, 2015

    Oh, yes. Any John Carpenter fan should see this, and any who aren’t. 😉 Fine job, Mark.

    • Three Rows Back · March 10, 2015

      Any self-respecting cinema fan should see this! Thanks bud.

  2. ruth · March 10, 2015

    Wow I hadn’t even heard of this before! I suppose I should see 2001 first eh to fully appreciate it (no fret, it’s on my Blindspot of this year). I think the wonky special effects probably adds to its charm 😉

    • Three Rows Back · March 10, 2015

      Well, if you want to do it by date order then yes, you should watch 2001, although it’s not a prerequisite! There is a definite charm to this film that’s for sure.

      • ruth · March 11, 2015

        Oh it doesn’t have to be by date, but since 2001 is already on my Blindspot, might as well start w/ that. But I’m keen on checking this one out too! 🙂

  3. Stu · March 10, 2015

    Glad to read about this as I’ve had it sitting around at home for ages. I’ve never seen it and in the spirit of mutual kicks up the backside I should get round to it!

  4. I love this movie! I always found that even the low-budget effects had a certain charm to them and fit quite nicely with the dark humor of the film. The Beach Ball Alien is of course classic, and we can’t forget about that philosophical discussion with the talking bomb at the end. There was also something about that final scene that was really haunting and emotional, which also made it really fit the tone of the overall movie. Great review.

    • Three Rows Back · March 10, 2015

      Thank you John. Well said buddy. The final few minutes are crazy bonkers; hats off to Carpenter and O’Bannon for going for it. Very memorable 🙂

  5. Wendell · March 11, 2015

    Never even heard of this one, but it does sound very interesting. I’ve also seen enough Carpenter to kbow that it will be. Great review.

    • Three Rows Back · March 14, 2015

      Thank you buddy. If you like Carpenter you need to see this.

  6. Mark Walker · March 12, 2015

    Nice one mate. It’s been way too long since I’ve watched this. One of Carpenter’s strangest but good stuff all the same.

    • Three Rows Back · March 14, 2015

      Cheers Mark. It had been way too long since I watched this too.

  7. Jay · March 12, 2015

    You guessed right that I haven’t seen it and I shall put it on my list.

  8. Tom · March 17, 2015

    Christ man, this sounds terrific. And for once the really terrible special FX look just super enjoyable. I’m noting this one down, thanks for the enlightenment.

    • Three Rows Back · March 17, 2015

      No worries! If you’re a Carpenter fan (and what self-respecting cinefile isn’t?) then you need to see this!

      • Tom · March 18, 2015

        I do not respect myself bit I do enjoy Carpenter’s stamp 😉

      • Three Rows Back · March 18, 2015

        Ha ha!

  9. Victor De Leon · March 18, 2015

    Yes. Yes and Hell Yes!!! Great post! You, Sir, are a true and genuine JC fan. It shows in your very admirable writing style and insight. Dark Star is an amazing little film that no one has ever heard of, lol. Time for a re-watch! Amazing job 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · March 18, 2015

      Ah Vic, you’ve made me blush! I am indeed a huge JC fan, as I know you are. Until the late 80s he was untouchable in genre cinema. His album is ace too!

      • Victor De Leon · March 18, 2015

        You deserve the kudos 🙂 Love the new album. It’s a blast!

  10. Jordan Dodd · April 9, 2015

    Wow this sounds like my sorta thing, I can’t believe I haven’t heard of this! I must get ahold of it!

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