I know that I wrote that I consider Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) to be John Carpenter’s debut film. But how could I not review his true first feature, that is the precious Dark Star directed in 1974 when he was still a film school student? I had to do it, and here I am doing it!
It as been defined as the hippie response to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but I think that the creators’ intent was different. Carpenter wrote the screenplay together with Dan O’Bannon, who would later write a film that would redefine science fiction: Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). It’s interesting to see here the embryonic ideas that led to such script. At the same time, it’s fun to identify the typically Carpenterian elements of Dark Star: the soundtrack composed by the director himself, for instance; his typical dolly movements; the ruthless satire towards the authorities which is evident in the initial message sent from Earth to the Dark Star in which the astronauts and their needs are ignored while their work is hypocritically praised; and, finally, the exploration of human madness, in this case that of this crew wandering around the Universe in search of planets to blow up.
Here’s a brief sum-up of the plot: the Dark Star is a spaceship armed with powerful bombs that has been around for twenty years looking for unstable planets to disintegrate in order to facilitate human colonization of the Universe. Commander Powell (Joe Saunders) died in an accident, so Lieutenant Doolittle (Brian Narelle), who dreams of returning home to surf, is in command. As for the other three crew members, they are the following: Boiler (Cal Kuniholm), who’s beginning to show signs of instability leading to acts of violence; Pinback (the same Dan O’Bannon) who doesn’t like his serious colleagues; and Talby (Dre Pahich) who isolates himself from the rest of the crew in its dome at the top of the ship.
The movie length is just one hour and twenty minutes but it manages to include a struggle with a playful alien, one with a dangerous lift, and finally a discussion with a bomb with existential doubts. But the really amazing thing is how influential this film has been for the subsequent science fiction (and not only) cinema.
Not pretending to be exhaustive, let me list some of the reasons behind the importance of Dark Star. First of all, Pinback trying to trap the alien by following him into the depths of the ship reminds of Harry Dean Stanton in his unfortunate hunt for Jones the cat in Alien. And Talby shot from the air lock anticipates the fate of many a xenomorph in the Alien saga. And what about Boiler playing with a knife like Bishop (Lance Henriksen) will do with Hudson (Bill Paxton) in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986)?
And the tributes and references to Dark Star don’t end there. For example, Danny Boyle used the name Pinback(er) in his wonderful 2007 movie Sunshine. And it’s no coincidence that Dark Star’s Pinback uses a tanning bed with large sunglasses, something present also in Sunshine with its astronauts obsessed by the light of the star they are going towards. And maybe it’s just me, but I believe that the rock music used by Zephran Cochrane during the launch of the Phoenix in Star Trek: First Contact (1996) is a reference to the country rock song listened to by Pinback and colleagues after the destruction of the planet number 19.
And going beyond science fiction, how not to mention the parallel with The Return Of the Living Dead directed by O’Bannon? Here, Doolittle talks with the deceased Commander Powell, just as in the 1985 zombie movie the characters talk to one of the undead who provides them with a chilling description of life after death.
And the space surfer reminds me of Heavy Metal, a great animated film released in 1981 inspired by a series of comics in which maybe there wasn’t exactly a space surfer, but there were Californian Cadillac convertibles travelling from planet to planet. But we could go beyond cinema and mention the rock band called Pinback who even used some film’s dialogues in their songs…
I’m not saying that all the ideas of Dark Star were original. In fact, some of them were taken from pre-existing science fiction writings by authors such as Philip K. Dick (the cryogenized dead) and Ray Bradbury (the death as a shooting star). What I’m saying is that Dark Star represented the launch pad for two significant careers in the world of the seventh art, those of John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon. Both, for different reasons, would then struggle to feel welcome in the world of Hollywood. Even if only for this, I think that it’s imperative to watch (and rewatch) Dark Star.
Maybe I digressed a bit too much in this review, but with a film like this it’s hard not to do so. It’s a unique cult movie, it was made by two brilliant minds, it’s fun and at the same time it’s also surprisingly profound. Think of the phenomenology of the finale with Doolittle trying to solve the existential problems of a sentient bomb… and who knows, maybe the second Pixies’ album is called Doolittle as a tribute to the Dark Star character? Ok, ok, let me stop here, Ciao!