PictureDark Star was originally shot on 16mm. It was then re-shot with added material on 16mm and blown-up for 35 mm for its extended feature-length theatrical presentation. Most people reading this will already know that they shouldn’t be expecting miracles from a Blu-ray transfer. Which is just as well … because the 1.85:1 AVC transfer from Fabulous Films is a smeary, ragged looking thing. The grain that should be present doesn’t make much of an appearance, leading you to presume that DNR has taken an exacting toll. Where detail should be, there is muted surface texture, blunted definition and Vaseline-wiped resolution – and I’m not referring to the “fogged” pornography on the walls either. Depth is completely absent and the image is as soft and melted cheese.
Arguably, this was never going to look dazzling. But you only have to glance at the fantastic restoration job that has been afforded The Evil Dead to see the sort of improvements that could have been made. Fabulous Films, themselves, inform us on their already erroneous packaging (using the artwork from the film’s novelisation from Alan Dean Foster is a perplexing oddity in itself) that this transfer has been meticulously and extensively restored, manually, frame-by-frame. Well, it really doesn’t look like it, I’m afraid. We have zero finite detail and no visible grain – so, already, we aren’t seeing the authentic image.
Now, things aren’t all bad. Print damage has been cut down, although a few artefacts can still be seen, as well as many frame wobbles, and the image is certainly a lot cleaner than you will have seen it before. The colours now look brighter and more garish, which, rightly or wrongly, does add to the visual quality of the film. Not only do the lasers, the explosions, the electrical storm that spider-webs the meteor shower and the glorious nebulae that we travel past look far more vivid and bold, but the insignia on the whacked-out crew now beams with more pride than ever before. Even the beach-balloon alien has a more livid appearance, as do the bizarre star-shaped entities that swirl and float behind the panels in the “pet’s corner”. Luckily, evidence of colour smearing is kept to a minimum. Skin-tones are way off, mind you, though I doubt they were ever going to look natural in this sort of low-fi filmic environment.
Contrast is a mixed bag, as you would rightly expect from such limited and threadbare source material. It is dull, dour and bereft of all but the simplest levels of separation. The integrity of the blacks is never consistent either. They can be washed-out and anaemic at times, and they can also be, well, a little bit better at others. To be fair though, I don’t think you would be correct to assume too much continuity in either the contrast or the depth and solidity of the blacks when you think of how this ramshackle, thrown-together college project came into being.
You know, I really hoped for something special to have been achieved here, but Dark Star looks pretty poor even by the low standards that the source material is known for. And yet, personally speaking, once the film got underway and I found myself back with these intergalactic idiots I was able to ignore many of the transfer’s shortcomings. There's no mistaking that the film now appears far brighter and more colourful than previously, and this, in itself, is very agreeable.
Not what it should have been, then … but at least it has finally made it on to Blu-ray when it looked like it would never actually happen.
SoundIf the image is lacking in many ways – which is both understandable and, by contrast, unforgivable – then the audio remains consistently and authentically weak. This is, beyond any question, a lousy original soundmix that cannot be saved in any way by the DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track that we find here. Did I say 5.1, there? I’ve actually culled that from the back of the box. I don’t recall anything at all worth mentioning in terms of surround. I didn't notice anything going on that embellished or enhanced the mediocre sound design and primitive engineering. In fact, there is a huge possibility that nothing at all has been done to restore the audio at all.
Dialogue is exceptionally lousy – as it should be, I have to say. The original elements were shoddy and inferior and this abundantly shows. Voices are hollow and muted, lost and lonely and drifting in the fugue of a sound-design that lacks detail, integrity and separation. Some moments are muffled and blurry, but those who know the film and understand its inception will not have a problem as they should understand the unavoidable limitations. The voices of the computer and the bombs manage to inject some warmth and character, though. Oh, and the frosted, crunchy dialogue emanating from the freeze-dried Commander is decently reproduced. So it is just the “normal” human voices that seem to suffer. Effects such as laser blasts, planetary explosions and meteor showers struggle to attain satisfactory levels of volume and clarity, but I still love the little raspy clicks of the alien’s tapping claws and the clang of the steel plate that smacks Pinback in the face.
But the score can deliver some fun. Created by Carpenter in the moody and economical synthesised style that he would become synonymous with, the now-revered minimalist tones and themes have a furry, dated presence that shudders and struggles through the lossless interpretation. Perhaps the deep synth bass comes across best, with those ominous four central notes from the main theme shuddering through the speakers with a vintage warble of fuzzy electronica.
Otherwise, this is an old-sounding track that, quite frankly, struggles.
ExtrasBesides having two versions of the film to choose from – and I wouldn’t bother with the shorter Director’s Cut if I were you as it misses too much out – we don’t have much in the way of extra features. Who wouldn’t have loved a John Carpenter commentary track? But look at this – a vast, cleverly constructed and presented retrospective making-of that runs for almost two hours! You simply cannot argue with that, can you? Where so many releases would opt to cut this up into little bite-sized nuggets for those with ADD, this just lets rip with the full hit in one luxurious blast.
Entitled Let There Be Light: The Odyssey of Dark Star, this is a truly warts ‘n’ all documentary that delves not only into the creation of this cult masterpiece, but explores the culture and mindset of the UCLA film school that bestowed upon the medium so much talent, flair and imagination. Admittedly, this otherwise superb chronicle of the life and times of Dark Star, from guerrilla filming in filing cabinets and fabricating costumes from ice-cream trays to pilfering the negative from the vaults and going-it-alone to seek feature-film distribution, could have done with the mighty JC’s presence – we hear from him in disembodied snippets of quotes from archival audio interviews, though we never get to see the man – but the sheer wealth and depth and detail that that we get into leaves a great many dissections of other films way, way behind.
Almost everybody who can be available from the project is available and special credit should go to Tommy Lee Wallace, Brian Narelle, Ron Cobb, cinematographer Doug Knapp and Dan O’ Bannon’s wife, Diane, Jack Harris and visual effects artist Greg Jein, who provide a terrific and wilfully eccentric approach to exposing the secrets of such magnificent creativity on a miniscule budget. There’s behind the scenes footage and photos, sets, costume and effects examinations, script evaluations and whatnot, but this is best looked at as being a testament to the ethics of unbridled enthusiasm and make-do enterprise under the auspices of a highly hypocritical and self-centred institution that worked as both a godsend and a hindrance to the creation of a movie. It often seems as though no stone has been left unturned, and this is, indeed, a magnificent opus to insane creativity on a miniscule budget. You wish that every film could have this sort of documentary backing it up, but such is the depth of cult cherishment that Dark Star has gained for itself. We are treated to Dan O’ Bannon’s last interview and it is touching to hear from his wife that watching the film, which she does all the time, is like having him around. It must be quite unique, mustn’t it? I mean O’ Bannon is definitely playing virtually himself all the way through, and I can imagine that watching Pinback in action must be a real comfort to her.
We also get the Stills, Lobby Cards and Poster Galleries, Cast and Crew Biographies, the Theatrical Trailer and something that Fabulous probably thought was a great little Arrow Video-like supplement – a reversible sleeve with various poster artwork. Sadly, however, the imagery is terrible across the board.
VerdictYou can’t be a fan of SF Cinema and not admire Dark Star. Massive imagination and ambition on the very epitome of a shoestring-budget, and yet look at what John Carpenter and Dan O’ Bannon are able to bring from such humble foundations. The film is satirically hilarious, surprisingly atmospheric, both thought-provoking and anarchically scattershot, and it paints a view of the “jobbing universe” that would be become de rigour for the genre to recreate for decades to come. Both George Lucas and Ridley Scott took onboard the visuals, the style and the “lived-in” attitude that JC and O’B revelled in. Red Dwarf took everything else as well.
The story, such as it is, hits on practically every damn concept and theme that SF has ever concocted. Phenomenology, man. Who’d have thought it?
Taken as a hippy bird-flipping to the trippy audacity of 2001: A Space Odyssey – it works. Taken as a cosmos-bound proclamation of Dr. Strangelove’s wild flaunting of the superpower ideal, celebrating the daily grind of the bewildered underdog in the face of total annihilation – it works. And taken as fun flurry in the far-flung firmament – it works best of all. Carpenter’s indie-loving, beg, borrow and steal ingenuity ensures that the film carries an agreeable, hangdog aesthetic. Dan O’ Bannon’s own unique brand of insanity and eccentricity provides it with the most warped heart and soul to be found languishing in the sparkling halls of Science Fiction.
And these guys were all students!
Sadly, though unsurprisingly, the film looks and sounds poor on Blu-ray. It would have been pretty foolish to have expected miracles … but then, with the glorious and authentic transfers of The Evil Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we know that they can be achieved with a bit of love and tender care. Fabulous Films have evidently tried, but the film looks soft and denoised and, as such, lacks the grit and grain and texture it should have revelled in. Extras-wise, we should have had a commentary, but we can still savour the incredibly comprehensive and highly stylised and entertaining feature-length documentary which will please fans no end.
Dark Star remains an absolute classic, totally belying its limitations to boldly go where no student film had ever attempted to go before.
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