Monday, February 27, 2017

DARK STAR (1974) - ***1/2

Rated G
Running time: 70 min.
Release date: April 1974 (Filmex L.A.)
Box office: $60,000 

Editor's note: This is a review of the original 70-minute cut of Dark Star, not the padded 83-minute cut.

The premise of Dark Star had its beginnings during film school for director John Carpenter and screenwriter Dan O'Bannon. Both individuals would go on to varying levels of fame in the movie world, with Carpenter being responsible for many science fiction/horror films, such as Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York and The Thing. O'Bannon would go on to write such screenplays as Alien, The Return of the Living Dead and Screamers. Everyone must cut their teeth somewhere, and Dark Star was just such an opportunity for these two. It should be noted that Dark Star plays more as a comedy, and I viewed it as such. The story is original and creative, and Carpenter does wonders with the low budget. There is a good reason why this film became popular after the fact. It wasn't seen by many people upon its initial release, mainly because it was marketed as a straight science fiction tale with the end result that it confused many viewers who did not find it funny. Now, years later, it is a popular cult film, having been re-discovered and appreciated for its use of low-key humor. Dark Star is a hidden gem of a film.

The crew of the Dark Star have been on a mission for over twenty years, responsible for bombing unstable planets in far-away parts of the universe, in order to make colonization safer for mankind. However, having been in space for twenty-plus years, there are cracks in the seams of their collective psyches, not to mention cracks in the deteriorating ship. The film opens with a message from home base, informing the crew that the radiation leak on-board will not be fixed but they're doing a helluva job, dang it! The crew consists of Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle), who laments the loss of his surfboard; Sgt. Pinback (O'Bannon himself), who may or may not be someone else entirely, thanks to a video diary viewed later in the film; Boiler (Cal Kuniholm), the navigator; and Talby (Dre Pahich), who spends his time in the ship's observation dome, watching the universe pass him by. Oh, there is also the frozen body of Commander Powell (Joe Saunders), who passed away some time ago, but thanks to technology, is still able to communicate with the crew. They must deal with such distractions as an alien that resembles a beachball with clawed feet, and free-thinking smart bombs that they are able to communicate with. There is a humorous scene where Pinback chases the alien throughout the ship and eventually into an elevator shaft. Meanwhile, one of the bombs believes its purpose is to explode, with or without deployment. This leads to another funny moment, as one of the crewmen goes outside to have a philosophical conversation with the bomb. The plot is very original and creative and peppered throughout with low-key and subtle humor. The gags are intelligent and your appreciation of them will depend on your own level of sophistication. 

The reported budget was somewhere in the vicinity of $50-60,000, which just enables a director to use those funds creatively. John Carpenter does just that, creating an outer space atmosphere that is filled with tight spaces, plenty of bleeps and bloops and glowing buttons and computer screens. The limitations of the tight budget may show on exterior shots, but then again, the film's charm makes us forget about that and focus on the story at hand. The visual effects are cheap but well-made, especially in regards to the "alien". It is essentially a beachball painted like a tomato, but it contains personality. The alien here would be the inspiration for the alien in Dan O'Bannon's story for Alien, although that alien would be a more serious subject than the beachball. We get our first recorded instance of the hyperspace sequence showing the effects of stars rushing past the ship. It is pretty effective and would be perfects by Star Wars just a few years later. Cinematographer Douglas Knapp does a good job of lighting the parts of the ship that should be lit and then darkening the areas that need to be dark, such as the storage area for the alien, and the observation dome. Overall, the budgetary constraints were overcome by Carpenter and his team with convincing results.

The cast does not contain a professional in the bunch, but they are able to maintain a consistently low-key tone throughout, matching the tone of the film. The situation onboard the ship is most boring and probably desperate, and although the cast is not always able to convey this, it could be argued that the lack of emotional depth is a by-product of the crew being in space for twenty years and are quite detached. In comparison to the rest of the production, the acting ability of the cast is the low point, although it is quite moot when the film is enjoyable. Also of note is the score, composed by Carpenter himself. The use of synthesizers provides just the right note for a comedy taking place in space. Carpenter would incorporate his synths in his later films, to greater effect also, but you can hear how he connects the desperation of the crew with the music.

With the film's strong points being the story and the directing skill of Carpenter, especially in terms of making cheap effects look convincing, Dark Star is mostly entertaining. The skill-level of the amateur cast is forgiveable thanks to Carpenter's ability to bring the humor and story into focus. O'Bannon's screenplay is intelligent without being blunt. Come into this film prepared for a comedy and you could easily enjoy it's breezy 70-minute running time.

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