In Space, No-one Can Hear You Giggle.
John Carpenter’s Dark Star … or how I learned to stop worrying and love Bomb #20.
Three years in the making, John Carpenter’s exquisite collaboration with Dan O’ Bannon remains one of the best examples of seat of your pants filmmaking. Famously the student film to admire and cherish in the immediate wake of THX 1138 from the game-changing college wunderkind of George Lucas, Dark Star is undisputedly one of the most bonafide and exemplary productions to earn the age-old and all-too-easily bandied-about epithet of “Cult Classic”. It now comes to UK region B coded Blu-ray courtesy of Fabulous Films.
Gadding-about the galaxy on a completely useless mission to destroy unstable planets with their onboard arsenal of thermonuclear devices, the crew of the starship Dark Star are zonked-out, doped-up, burned to the wire and utterly bored out of their hairy skulls. Their commander has already been blown-up in a fluke accident with his seat and his remains now reside in cryogenic suspension. A meteor-hit has led to a malfunction in the bomb-bay. Mutton-chopped Boiler (Cal Kunholm) has stupidly stuck a flick-knife in his finger and is just itching to use that laser-rifle on something … anything. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) is content to live completely up to his name unless Pinback (Dan O’ Bannon) can find him a system target-rich with worlds that he can send into oblivion. Talby (Dre Pahich) just wants to stargaze all day, every day … even though that is all they’ve got to look at anyway. Their pet alien wants to cause some mischief. Bomb #20 is getting miffed at the erroneous detonation commands that he keeps receiving courtesy of the meteor malfunction, and is intending to just blow up anyway … even if there’s no planet in his sights. Pinback doesn’t like the men aboard the ship, but he likes sitting next to the Commander’s homicidal seat even less. And the crew are still out of toilet paper.
“Don’t give me any of that intelligent life crap … just give me something that I can blow up!”
Aye, these space-hippies sure aren’t cut from the same cloth as Bruce Dern’s astro-gardener in Silent Running, are they?
Dan O’ Bannon was writer, producer, editor and star of the convoluted and ambitious project, and a great many other things besides, and although we think of Dark Star as being a John Carpenter film, he really ought to be given a great deal more in the way of accolades than he actually tends to receive. Without his prodigious creativity and work-all-night mindset, Carpenter would probably still be making the film today.
The story is typically simple, and the joy of looking back at its inception today is seeing how the staple concepts and styles of both of its creators were fashioned so meticulously and perhaps obliviously amid the chaos of film-school smash ‘n’ grab.
Carpenter loves his isolated protagonists battling against a hostile predicament. He loves his hippies and social misfits becoming reluctant heroes. He loves the fairly accurate notion that the authority – the Man - is just an ass, and a treacherous one at that. He adheres to the ethic that things only happen when the working-joe makes them happen. To wait around for official aid is to grow old and die. And he loves to use the visual set-piece as that Western-cum-Hitchcockian narrative device of internalised entertainment – the mini chapter that acts like a film-within-the-film. With Dark Star he would, of course, commence with his steadily stylish system of self-scoring with the simplest and cheapest of musical tools – the synthesiser. Dan O’ Bannon’s equally in-yer-face ethics are also brimming over the top of their pet project. The staunchly anti-social doctrines of “you snub me once and I’ll hate you forever!” that were rife inthe counter-culture aftermath of Flower Power are embodied in the central character of accidental stowaway, Pinback. Surely nobody other than the ingenious, antagonistic O’ Bannon could have brought him to life so indelibly, and the quirky, turn-on-a-dime attitude of someone who is steadfastly aghast at the antics of his fellow Man is perfectly channelled from the real-life oddball’s own obscure worldview. O’ Bannon would later help to instigate Alien, of course, which was basically a lavish, bigger budged remake of the ideas behind Dark Star, and he would turn his creative hand to the amusingly horrific societal stab of Dead & Buried as well as the blackly comical punk zombiethon, The Return Of The Living Dead – all of which contained huge elements of his own skewed psyche.
The video diary sequence in which the long-suffering Pinback looks back over his previous entries is simply gut-busting … and as perfect an entry into the filmmaker’s warped mind as you could wish for. O’ Bannon had a reputation for being a difficult person to get along with. Highly articulate and riotously opinionated at the best of times, he had a somewhat Jeckyll and Hyde ability to turn from nasty to nice and to nasty, and back again, even during the course of one sentence. This diary montage perfectly captures these elaborate mood-swings. The segment when he struggles between bouts of hysterical laughter to recount telling Doolittle a joke, that Doolittle ultimately doesn’t get, and all of his obscenities and gestures are censored to leave only about five or six words left unmolested, just creases me up every time. Look at the magical moment when his repeated pleas for the rogue Bomb #20 to disarm and return to the bomb-bay are coldly disregarded, and Pinback is reduced to a quivering, baby-like wreck. Priceless. And let’s not forget his party-piece with the rubber-chicken and the googly-eyes on springs!
Stuck on a deep-space mission with him for years on end – you’d kill him for certain. But for the duration of such farcical escapism, he is the golden ticket.
Everyone in film-school at the time was enamoured with Kubrick. And both Carpenter and O’ Bannon saw enormous potential in riffing upon its epic premise. Their script would also see computers becoming proudly sentient and snootily dangerous. Debates would be formed about the very nature of Man’s place in the universe and, in a terrific subversion of the Arthur C. Clarke/Kubrickian discovery, Dark Star would reveal that Man was pretty much redundant, and that even a bomb could attain a level of omnipotence in the face of such epoch-carved buffoonery. Ray Bradbury’s story Kaleidoscope was also a driving influence, especially upon the film’s dizzyingly poetic climax, but it was this battered and rusted garbage-filled retaliation to Kubrick’s gleaming, super-sterile glide across picturesque tracts of space to the accompaniment of classical muzak that was most obvious and pertinent. With the prissy Bomb #20 refusing to go back inside and commencing his own apocalyptic detonation sequence, it would seem that the only course of action left is a last-ditch attempt to bamboozle his egotistical arrogance with a philosophical debate about phenomenology. It is a wonderfully ironic pivot on Hal 9000’s homicidal intelligence. Further arresting the development of Kurbick’s cosmic analogy of evolution, we see the happy hippy, Doolittle, riding a piece of Dark Star’s debris like a surfboard on a last ride into obliteration, tipping the hat, also, to Slim Pickens who famously bronco-busted his way to earth on an atom bomb in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
If Kubrick was the mesmeric guide that infused these movie-making nerds with the desire to think outside the box, it was still George Lucas who was their champion. We enjoy smacking the Bearded One around these days, but he had enormous power even before he began work on that galaxy far, far away. His very presence was like a drug to these guys. If Kubrick was showing them what was possible to achieve in Cinema, he was the one who showed them that they could do it too.
For Carpenter it would a definite learning curve. He would learn, unequivocally, that he couldn’t trust the studio system. And the most freedom he would ever have would be in the creative Eden of independent filmmaking, barring The Thing, of course. But even the grand umbrella of UCLA would prove to be a devious and backstabbing entity.
“You are false data. The only thing that exists is myself.”
“Um, snap out of it, Bomb.”
Furious over UCLA’s hidden copyright clause – the very thing that denied him and his fellow filmmakers the luxury of actually holding their own well-deserved Oscar statuette for the celebrated 1970 short, The Resurrection of Bronco Billy – Carpenter took (or, rather, stole) the negative for the film he had slaved over and hawked it around for a distributor willing to give it the full theatrical treatment. He knew that UCLA would absorb his and O’ Bannon’s film and take all the credit for it as a “college project” like they had with Resurrection. Well, that wasn’t going to happen this time. Given a week in cinemas for a paying public, he figured their little Sci-Fi oddity would live or die on its own merits. Jack Harris was the man to give Dark Star its big break. He specialised in ultra-low budget genre product, recognising raw talent when saw it and providing the avenue to let future stars shine. He had already unleashed John Landis and Rick Baker upon an unsuspecting world with Schlock! and with a personal affection for the more outlandish and the fantastical, he sat through the Carpenter and O‘ Bannon production … and, straightaway, realised that something was missing. He needed more footage to take the rough cut up to proper feature-length and he needed more damn story and incident. He liked the vibe, but that wasn’t enough to sell the picture. So Carpenter and O’ Bannon went back into their baby and devised the entire middle section of Pinback versus the Alien, as well as a few other tweaks and modifications. They called back their cast and crew and, shooting now with the full knowledge that the film would garner a 35 mm presentation, they thought bigger, bolder and more cinematically from the get-go.
And they delivered something that certainly aims high … and, against the odds, actually hits the target more often than it misses it.
Without the alien set-piece, Dark Star is interesting, but dry. With it, though, the movie is able to both break new ground and to twist and toy with all the genre preconceptions that audiences had gained from things like Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth, 2001, Star Trek and Silent Running. It is a jubilant set-piece in a film that, in defiance of budget and logic, is something of a milestone in science fiction. In one cripplingly funny sequence, Carpenter and O’ Bannon completely derail all pretentions that Man has about claiming the stars and whatever we may find amongst them. Our place in the universe is firmly established … and we have no more authority within it than The Three Stooges.
O’Bannon’s hard-done-to Sgt. Pinback is an amalgamation of Inspector Clouseau, Frank Spencer and Mr. Bean. He is the supreme personification of the eccentric (even back then) filmmaker – his nuances, his sociable and frequently unsociable foibles, his anarchist lampoonery and, essentially, his “distracted” brilliance all coming to the fore in one of the greatest characters ever to grace a starship, which Pinback has done so only by accident – and you can only wonder at what comical delights O’ Bannon would have delivered had he been able to continue a career on that side of the camera. The entire hunt-the-alien sequence is an absolute delight of visual gaggery, goofily subverted horror and dramatic suspense, and death-defying slapstick. Pinback becomes a galactic Harold Lloyd as he hangs off the undercarriage of a lift that keeps going pointlessly up and down the shaft – you want him to live, but you also can’t resist seeing him in yet more peril.
The beach-ball alien with its up-market Halloween store claws – actually replicas of the webbed hands of The Creature From The Black Lagoon – is a sensationally absurd creation. There is that classic line from David Clennon’s spaced-out Palmer in Carpenter’s later The Thing in which he perfectly captures the audience’s response to one of the shape-shifting alien’s guises – “You’ve gotta be f*ckin’ kidding!” – which seems to be the most obvious response when confronted with this intergalactic from the same vision of this preposterous entity. A 99 cents beach balloon, spray-painted and granted life and personality by Nick Castle, who would later portray The Shape in Halloween and go on to direct The Last Starfighter, becomes the raspberry-blowing, Pinback-harassing hero of the entire show. Like an escaped chimp, this thing – which the ship’s computer infuriatingly reminds Pinback he insisted be brought onboard to act as a mission mascot – becomes the catalyst for the film’s mood-stretching narrative metamorphosis from observational satire to purely hellish slapstick. The fact that Pinback’s insane cat-and-mouse game with it becomes as scary as it does ridiculous is a remarkable feat of directorial skill and a supreme evocation of mood and setting. There are hints of Die Hard with the clambering in and around a reverberating steel elevator-shaft, and Basil Fawlty levels of sheer frustration as every tactic that Pinback employs to ensnare the alien is thwarted and flung back in his face. There is a Monty Python-esque feel to the combination of all-out farce and genuine jeopardy that would evolve in later years and subsequent movies into a pure comic-book style of dramatic mayhem. Put an eye-patch on Pinback and tie a gypsy tourniquet around his leg and suddenly you’ve got Snake Plissken hanging down the wrong side of the big prison wall at the end of the 69th Street Bridge in Escape From New York. Inflate Michael Myers and paint him up like a blood-orange and you’ve got the cunning alien goofball, vanishing stealthily from sight and then suddenly materialising behind his harassed prey with supernatural ease.
“He’s drifting away from the ship without his jetpack.”
“Can you dig that? I always knew that guy was weird.”
Without Dark Star, we wouldn’t have had the economy-class interstellar comedy of the Beeb’s phenomenal Red Dwarf, which is, without a doubt, the Thatcherite downtrodden British equivalent of Carpenter’s satirical sideswipe. That is fairly obvious. But then we need to think about how the Millennium Falcon makes that jump to hyperspace because Lucas, who was only in the building across from the “Dark” project certainly saw what soon-to-be renowned model effects and art designer Ron Cobb and FX man Greg Jein were devising to create the impression of ultra speed through space. He also nicked the notion of that “lived-in” aura of battered hardware and the “been-through-it-all” attitudes of the space-farers. Plus, and this one is the biggie – we wouldn’t have had Alien either – in any capacity at all. O ‘Bannon, disavowed and left as forlorn as Kane’s chest-burst and jettisoned body, was the man who wrote the original screenplay that fired-up Fox’s imagination, although action guru, Walter Hill, would so conveniently take the continued praise for. And if you look at Dark Star, and not even closely, you will see, very damn clearly that it is a pure template for the trials and tribulations of the doomed crew of the Nostromo. Yes, Scott’s classic 1979 chiller was inspired by the pulp SF guilty pleasure of It! The Terror From Beyond Space combined with the visual mood of Bava’sPlanet of the Vampires, but the bored truckers-in-space mentality, the careless treatment of an alien entity, the female personification of the spaceship’s central computer (voiced by Cookie Knapp in the first of many bogusly warm lady-voiceovers in Carpenter’s movies), the deliberately doomed nature of the plot and the angsty, argumentative banter of a once close-knit but now irrevocably collapsed group dynamic that seals the airlock door down on the deal. It was here that the idea of used and decrepit, frequently malfunctioning technology would begin. Han Solo’s MOT-failing space-lozenge, the Nostromo’s shield-losing instability and condescending tones of Mother, and the dishevelled animosity of Outland’s Con-Am 27 were born in the Carpenter/O’ Bannon supernova.
“What a beautiful way to die … as a falling star.”
Dark Star may be hailed as a comedy, but it is also one of the best depictions of the undoubted monotony of any space mission that isn’t commanded by Captain James T. Kirk. It is wild and harebrained and imaginative and insightful and clever and daft and trendsetting and full of the fruitlessness of it all … and, yet, bursting with raucous inspiration and the cheerful, end-of-the-world optimism that occasionally dared to poke its head up over the trenches during the bleak seventies. The apocalyptic ending, with its Phoenix Asteroids coming by to escort the star-crossed Talby on a voyage of discovery around the universe is so utterly bewitching that you forget how preposterous it is, revealing a lyricism that actually moves you. But most of all it is incredibly entertaining and full of the little visual tricks and narrative sleights of hand that John Carpenter would go on to employ so skilfully over the next decade in movies as rich and as genre-establishing as Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape From New York andThe Thing. It sits very comfortably alongside Monty Python And The Holy Grail, The Life of Brian, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and Airplane as being so clever and so funny at the same time that it becomes altogether greater than the sum of its parts and trail-blazes its way to iconic status.
Low-rent, irreverent and hopelessly addictive, Dark Star is an accidental masterpiece.
I feel obliged to advise you, even though nobody from Fabulous Films has bothered themselves to, that the film contains some scenes of intensive bright flashing lights and strobe-effects that could, possibly, cause distress to some viewers.
I should also point out that there are hairdos on display that could cause even more distress!
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