Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: John Carpenter & Dan O’Bannon
Starring: Dan O’Bannon, Brian Narelle, Cal Kuniholm, Dre Pahich
Imitation and ridicule can be seen as a form of appreciation, especially when the end result pays its tributes by the end. Much of this occurs in the small-budget Dark Star, which allows a famous director to get his beginnings as a filmmaker and have some fun with creating a claustrophobic and comedic space adventure.
In the 22nd century, humanity has begun to colonize different planets in the universe as space travel has become more feasible. A group operating the Dark Star vessel are sent to destroy unstable planets, which could threaten the colonization of other planets. Now 20 years out in space, the impacts of this mission begin to have adverse effects on the crew members.
Some films just make you chuckle from the silliness they display and Dark Star certainly falls into this category in the way it pokes fun at the science-fiction genre while also making an interesting observation about the perils of isolation. The men aboard this ship were brought together for a specific task, which may have been easy for them to complete when they started, but 20 years of seeing the same faces and working through an endless universe of planets begin to drive them a bit mad. This idea partly informs what we see as an audience as the story progresses. What we see may not be real because of its improbability, but it sure does feel real to the men on this ship, which adds to the entertainment value.
This film certainly takes influences from other science-fiction films from before its time with 2001: A Space Odyssey being one of the more obvious examples. It takes the seriousness of something like Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece and uses it in a comedic sense for the purposes of the film. The most glaring one comes with the inanimate objects speaking to the crew on the ship. In the 1968 film, it becomes the most terrifying aspect, while Dark Star makes the stakes large but it occurs in a truly comedic way. At this moment is where the film reaches its apex. I mean, when you have the men on-board trying to speak to a bomb and it starts quoting Decartes’s philosophy, what more can you do?
Just looking at the film will show the lack of budget it had, as it was made for $60,000. John Carpenter used every bit of it to try and show how these men would be in a space vessel. A valiant effort, as most of the action, occurs with the men in the ship conversing. Just thinking about the beach ball alien they have in the ship makes me chuckle because of the low-budget idea, but it works for the tone established in the film. The simplicity of it makes it endearing and shows this film was put together through creativity and passion by those involved. Those efforts should always be appreciated.
While their mission involves using technology, much of the action occurs between the men as they have to put up with each other’s nonsense. It opens up the question of how much people can put up with strangers, even if they have been together for 20 years at this point. Being in a space vessel looks like it can feel incredibly cramped, especially with every bit of oxygen being at a premium and patience running very thin. The practical jokes they play on each other does have some comedy but I had this underlying feeling of tension that one of them may finally lose it in a mental capacity. I am not sure how much I could take being stuck in a vacuum with people I may not even like.
Serving as John Carpenter’s first feature film, Dark Star establishes the serious storytelling he can blend with his comedic sensibilities. The dark humor utilized suits him so well and we can see in his future works that he had this ability from the very beginning. As one of the major horror directors, he allows space to be a horrifying void of nothingness. Certain scenes show what can occur if a mistake gets made by the crew when they escape the hatch.
Put together with plenty of heart and not a bountiful amount of money, Dark Star gives us the origins of one of the most iconic genre directors we have ever seen. The early seeds certainly get planted in this feature to show what he can do with even a slightly larger budget. He knows how to make it work with what he’s given and it shows in the darkly comedic space romp. Plenty of fun with a tinge of horror to top it off.