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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In Retrospect – 2001: A Space Odyssey

The year 1968 proved to be a particularly fertile one when it came to science fiction and apes.

A work of genius that will continue to enrapture us, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains one small step for Stanley Kubrick; one giant leap for cinema

A work of genius that will continue to enrapture us, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains one small step for Stanley Kubrick; one giant leap for cinema

Franklin J. Schaffner’s seminal Planet Of The Apes vividly brought Pierre Boule’s novel to the big screen and earned John Chambers a honourary Oscar for his incredible make-up effects.

Released in the US just days later, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey missed out on a similar award, as popular myth would have it, because the Academy judges believed the apes featured in the film were real rather than men in suits.

The Dawn of Man. Apes discover a thirst for violence in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Dawn of Man. Apes discover a thirst for violence in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Whether true or not, it serves as a fitting metaphor for the beguiling nature of Kubrick’s remarkable masterpiece, which remains devilishly confounding and awe-inspiring more than four decades on.

It’s the film’s (and by extension Kubrick’s) refusal to kowtow to those who can’t abide a mystery that is a big reason why we keep revisiting 2001 time and again in the hope of cracking the enigma; all the while knowing that it is a fool’s errand.

Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novella The Sentinel, 2001 posits the theory that mankind has been aided in its evolutionary journey by an almost infinitely superior alien intelligence, represented by imposing black monoliths. From imbuing early hominids with the transformative leap to discern that a bone can be used as both a tool and a weapon to claim territory from others and to kill, an identical monolith uncovered on the moon four million years later triggers mankind’s next step when it emanates a piercing radio signal towards Jupiter.

Dr Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) stares into the void in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Dr Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) stares into the void in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Discovery spacecraft is sent to Jupiter to investigate the signal with a crew including Dr Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), Dr Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and the ship’s computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), but as they near the planet the mission comes under jeopardy and the next step in our evolution awaits.

While there had been science fiction films of a serious nature before, 2001 represented a unparalelled leap forward not only for the genre but for cinema itself. Simply put, no-one had seen anything like it before.

Although certain aspects of the film feel dated (Pan Am is no more of course, while Hardy Amies’ costume design for the stewardesses, for example, has that retro-future look which pegs it to the Sixties), it’s incredible just how much stands the test of time.

The unforgettable HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The unforgettable HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Ever a stickler for the smallest detail, Kubrick was insistent the spacecraft seen in the film should be grounded in science rather than fantasy. Life onboard the Discovery is shown to be routine despite characters seemingly bypassing the laws of physics by appearing at different angles in close proximity; a remarkable feat achieved through the use of an ingenious set built around a centrifuge.

Represented by a single red glowing light, the film’s most effective piece of design also happens to be its most brilliantly realised character. Kubrick is able to imply so much in HAL’s demeanor by clever editing and a subtle shift in camerawork, whether it be paranoia, threat or desperation; all intensified by Rain’s delivery. When HAL informs a TV interviewer that “no 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error”, it’s akin to a character coughing and saying they’re alright before dropping dead 10 minutes later.

Staaaar-gaaaaate

Staaaar-gaaaaate

Douglas Trumbull’s pioneering special effects still look good today and must have been mind-blowing at the time, which probably explains why Kubrick luxuriantly devotes whole sequences to space planes docking or arriving on the moon. It’s safe to say that no film today would get away with spending so much time on such things, but there’s a hypnotic quality to watching these scenes as Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz washes over you.

The use of classical music is another of 2001‘s timeless qualities. Kubrick decided early on to strip the narrative and exposition back as much as possible (as opposed to modern day sci-fi films; I’m looking at you Interstellar), which puts more weight on the soundtrack’s shoulders. Older compositions sound like they’ve been written especially for the film, while György Ligeti’s eerily discordant works have a ghostly quality that creeps under the skin and lends its scenes an extra bite.

Little moments stay with you, such as when an ape casts a glance up to the moon the night before the monolith appears, foreshadowing what’s the come – so indelibly realised by the audacious match cut from the bone being tossed into the air to the space craft orbiting the Earth four million years later.

A rebirth of sorts in 2001: A Space Odyssey

A rebirth of sorts in 2001: A Space Odyssey

So, what exactly are the monoliths? Some have said they represent God (the ape touching the monolith is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s famous painting The Creation of Adam). Perhaps it’s best not to think about it too much, though. If in doubt, take a stress pill and read Roger Ebert’s wry analysis.

There is a wonderfully elliptical nature to the film that’s almost as perfectly formed as the monoliths. Just as we start with the Dawn of Man, so too do we finish with another birth in the form of the iconic starchild. Four million years may have passed, but we are just like that early hominid, casting our eyes up to the sky in fear and wonder.

A work of genius that will continue to enrapture us, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains one small step for Stanley Kubrick; one giant leap for cinema.

Blogathon Relay: The 10 Most Influential Directors Of All Time

The 10 Most Influential Directors Of All Time

One of the more pleasant surprises I’ve had recently was to have received the baton from the lovely Ruth at FlixChatter for the 10 Most Influential Directors of All Time Blogathon relay.

The Blogathon was the brainchild of John at Hichcock’s World. It’s a brilliant idea and John sums it up nicely: “I have compiled a list of 10 directors I consider to be extremely influential. I will name another blogger to take over. That blogger, in their own article, will go through my list and choose one they feel doesn’t belong, make a case for why that director doesn’t fit, and then bring out a replacement. After making a case for why that director is a better choice, they will pass the baton onto another blogger. That third blogger will repeat the process before choosing another one to take over, and so on.”

The baton has so far been passed to the following:

Girl Meets Cinema
And So It Begins…
Dell On Movies
Two Dollar Cinema
A Fistful Of Films
The Cinematic Spectacle
FlixChatter (Thanks for the banner logo Ruth!)

The original list had plenty of incredible directors on it, but as the baton has been handed down the list has become pretty damned impressive:

The 10 Most Influential Directors Of All Time

Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, Georges Méliès, Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick

Ruth’s addition to the list was Billy Wilder and her justification was thus: “I’ve recently seen one of Wilder’s best, The Apartment, and I could see why his films are so beloved. He imbued such wit in his films, a dose of cynical humor. He also has a way with actors, having directed no less than 14 actors to Oscar-nominated performances. He’s also a versatile writer/director, as he excelled in numerous genres: drama, noir, comedy as well as war films. He’s one of those directors whose work I still need to see more of, but even from the few that I’ve seen, it’s easy to see how Mr Wilder belongs in this list.”

So, Who’s Out?

Jean Luc Goddard

Jean-Luc Godard

Man, this was an almost impossible decision. Godard’s still making movies aged 83 and there’s no denying the influence of his work. Breathless remains a defining work of the French New Wave and his 1964 film Bande à part was stolen by Tarantino for the name of his production company. The more I think about it, the less I’m sure, but compared to the others on this list I feel Godard’s influence has slipped and, as such, he doesn’t quite make it. Sorry Jean-Luc, but I suspect you’d feel that lists like this are way too bourgeois anyway.

Now, Who’s In?

John Ford

John Ford

Reflecting on his masterpiece Citizen Kane, Orson Welles was asked who influenced what is still regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Welles’ reply was simple: “The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” He had reputedly watched Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach more than 40 times in preparation for his debut feature and he wasn’t the only one to have been drawn to the work of one of the most influential directors of all time.

An encounter with Ford proved to have a massive impact on a 15-year-old Steven Spielberg, who subsequently said of the great man: “Ford’s in my mind when I make a lot of my pictures.” Watch Saving Private Ryan‘s devastating D-Day landings sequence and War Horse and you’ll see Ford’s stamp front and centre.

Likewise, Martin Scorsese has cited The Searchers as one of his favourite films. Speaking about the film in the Hollywood Reporter, Scorsese said: “In truly great films – the ones that people need to make, the ones that start speaking through them, the ones that keep moving into territory that is more and more unfathomable and uncomfortable – nothing’s ever simple or neatly resolved. You’re left with a mystery. In this case, the mystery of a man who spends 10 years of his life searching for someone, realises his goal, brings her back and then walks away. Only an artist as great as John Ford would dare to end a film on such a note.”

The list goes on. Ingmar Bergman cited Ford as “the best director in the world”, while Alfred Hitchcock declared that a “John Ford film was a visual gratification”.

From the earliest days of film, through to the invention of sound and the introduction of colour, Ford remained a cinematic pioneer. Although best regarded for his westerns, he also made another masterpiece that defined a nation – The Grapes Of Wrath; while his incredible World War Two documentaries The Battle Of Midway and December 7th remain quintessential examples of the craft. For all this alone, John Ford should be regarded as The Great American Director.


 

Well, that’s me done, so now the torch passes to… Fernando at Committed to Celluloid. Good luck Fernando; you’re gonna need it!

Bringing ‘Unfilmable’ Books To The Big Screen

For as long as the movie industry has existed as a popular art form, books in all their forms have been the subject of cinematic adaptation.

Whether it’s an old or modern classic or a schlocky best-seller, literature has been the source of some of the most loved films in history.

Ang Lee's Life of Pi

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi

In spite of cinema’s basic, inherent function to take words from the page and visualise them there are certain books, some have argued, that are simply impossible to film and as such will never be seen on the silver screen.

Never say never, though, especially in the movie industry, as time and again the critics are confounded and what was once written-off as ‘unfilmable’ ends up going before the cameras – all be it to varying levels of success.

This has never been more true than today, with several adaptations of books that have previously been deemed too complex or challenging to work as films reaching our cinemas. Just recently, we’ve seen an admirable take on Jack Kerouac’s defining beat generation work On The Road by Walter Salles, Ang Lee’s version of Yann Martel’s beloved novel Life of Pi and a bold adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling epic Cloud Atlas by the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, while this month also sees the cinematic release of Salman Rushdie’s critically lauded book Midnight’s Children.

Michael Winterbottom's A Cock and Bull Story

Michael Winterbottom’s ingenious adaptation of Tristam Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story

This is hardly a new phenomenon, however. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial tome Lolita arrived in 1962 (the film poster even states “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”). Mike Nicholls faced major challenges bringing Joseph Heller’s satirical anti-war classic Catch-22 to the big screen in 1970, while more recently Peter Jackson finally delivered a truncated, but no less epic production of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to huge acclaim.

David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch

David Cronenberg’s unique Naked Lunch

Some directors have taken a more metatextual approach, including David Cronenberg who brilliantly weaved events from William Burroughs’ life into a unique adaptation of the writer’s drug-addled opus Naked Lunch. Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story inventively (and hilariously) acknowledged the difficulty of realising Laurence Sterne’s 18th century novel Tristam Shandy on screen by adopted the film-within-a-film approach, while Charlie Kaufman channeled his head-banging struggle to write a script for The Orchard Thief to ingenious effect in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.

As Cronenberg, Winterbottom and Kaufman/Jonze have proved, the book is merely the beginning of the process, it needn’t have to be the end. For years movies have been ‘printing the legend’ and playing fast and loose with ‘true’ stories, so why shouldn’t the adaptation of novels be any different?

Midnight's Children

The supposedly ‘unfilmable’ Midnight’s Children

As Lee has stated on adapting Life of Pi: “We can never write a book or make a movie as good as how it plays in the audience’s mind.”

Once published, a book no longer belongs to the writer, it becomes the intellectual property of each and everyone who visualises the words they are reading in their own heads. A film is just another visualisation of the material, it just happens to be the one that gets the most attention.

When the source is a graphic novel, problems can occur as the author/illustrator have already set down how it should look. Zack Snyder was on a hiding to nothing when he adapted Alan Moore’s seminal Watchmen, thought to be one of the medium’s most unfilmable works.

Mixed reaction greeted Zack Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen

A mixed reaction greeted Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen

Snyder tried to stay as close to Moore’s vision as he could, but compromises inevitably needed to be made, incurring the ire of both the author and some within the fan community.

Directors and screenwriters will invariably tell you it’s not their job to come up with an ultra-faithful translation of the source. An adaptation is exactly that, an interpretation of the material that should be taken on its own merits.

So-called ‘unfilmable’ books should be treated no differently; we can only hope screenwriters and directors continue to have the vision necessary to bring these texts to the big screen. After all, the books aren’t going anywhere.