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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Dark Star’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you luck out the first time, when your initial film is da bomb…

Dark Star (1974)
Distributed by: Bryanston Pictures
Directed by: John Carpenter

There are whole movie collections out there filled with films set in space that were shot on the cheap.

Most of these were ‘B’ pics if the film makers were lucky, while some of them struggled to get an ‘F.’ These films have sets that looked like they were cobbled together from what were the cheapest pieces they could get at the hardware store. Most of these films have encounters with the wonders of the universe shot in near darkness, so that on one can see how cheesy they look when lit. And in these pics, you get talent going on screen that give you the impression that they just aren’t qualified to be going on this mission.

But in one case, you get all of the above, and damn if it isn’t spectacular…

The film opens with transmission of a beamed message from Earth Base Mission Control to the scout ship Dark Star, out in Galactic Sector EB-90. We get a briefing from a Mission Control officer (Miles Watkins), who lets the crew of the Dark Star know that Earth’s got their back as he smarmily informs them that their request for radiation shielding has been denied. Even though their leader, Commander Powell, was a casualty from the exposure that the shielding would have prevented, they can’t send a supply shuttle out there thanks to budget cutbacks.

We learn from the briefing that somewhere about 18 parsecs out there (taking place during the mid-22nd century according to an earlier version of the film, a detail excised from the final cut), the ship Dark Star is on a mission to make it safer for human colonists to take to the stars. They’re tasked by Mission Control to eliminate unstable planets so that they don’t become navigation hazards or fall out of orbit onto anyone.

Their ongoing mission: To seek out strange new worlds, to find new life and maybe new civilizations, and then to blast them into itty bitty pieces…

To that end, the crew of the Dark Star employ thermonuclear bombs with AI detonation systems. They actually talk to the bomb before it goes off and… well, goes off. They never explain why they chose to employ these devices, although the appeal of being able to use “smart bombs” was probably too hard to resist…

The bombs are likely/probably far smarter than the crew of the vessel. We see in the command section Lieutenant Doolittle (Brian Narelle), who became captain after Commander Powell’s radiation exposure. Alongside him are Boiler (Cal Kuniholm in his only credited role) and Sargent Pinback (Dan O’Bannon, who also edited and did production design for the film, along with writing it with Carpenter), both of whom despise each other more than they despise their leader…

They, along with their “crow’s nest” observer Talby (Andreijah “Dre” Pahich in his only credited role, with his lines dubbed over by Carpenter), who spends all his time in the navigation cupola, have been at this for four years now. It’s gotten to the point in the mission where after Doolittle uses the 19th bomb in his arsenal (all before the credits roll), he just looks for a new world to destroy with all the gusto of someone absent-mindedly reaching for another potato chip in the bag they’re eating out of.

En route to the Veil Nebula to blow up another planet, we see how dysfunctional this crew has become. Their quarters are a mess, and they barely tolerate each other. In all likelihood, Pinback would have killed at least Boiler had they not found an alien that’s essentially an air sac with claws, which suggests to viewers a beach ball and a pair of fright gloves (which it was).

He raised the little alien as a pet, which goes badly the way that all animals found in the wild and taken out of their surroundings ultimately do:

The crews’ bugs are actually a feature, here. The film is an intentional comedy about unprepared and dysfunctional people facing mission creep, unable to keep it together as things go wrong out where no one can help them, let alone save them from themselves. About the only competent member of the mission is Powell, who is stuck in a cryogenic storage unit after his radiation exposure (played in the film by Joe Saunders in his last credit), and he’s been on ice for so long he’s not that much of a help, frankly.

Which is a problem for the crew on this mission: In addition to alien beach balls, ennui, depression, and incompetence, they have to deal with a computer that’s not very user friendly, as well as a twentieth warhead that may be too smart for its own good…

It’s easy for casual fans of Carpenter and O’Bannon to forget that their first released feature was a comedy. You can see much of what made both of them famous further on, especially Carpenter’s score, in this early triumph for them. This becomes apparent when you realize how O’Bannon’s scenes with his “pet” become the direct inspiration for Alien and its sequels, and after seeing this film a closer viewing of Big Trouble in Little China and They Live lets the viewer appreciate better what Carpenter was doing here.

“My, they grow up so fast…”

And it’s the talent behind the camera (and to a lesser extent before it) that allows this el-cheapo production to shine. Done for a mere $60,000 (worth about $350,000 in today’s dollars as of the time of publication), what elevates this set of discarded toys, escapees from the aisles of K-Mart and other ephemera is the care and craft Carpenter and O’Bannon bring to their project. Most of the space-quickies done by other low-budget talent were quick cash grabs. This film, though, was crafted with pride by Carpenter and O’Bannon, who took their student film and made it a showcase, promising better things to come.

Not that no one tried to cash in with the pic: The distributor, Bryanston Pictures, were willing to put the film out there not only to get a good ROI, but to expand their catalog to include films that were not ‘X’-rated. (The company was founded to distribute Deep Throat, and their offerings before 1974 were likewise in the same vein.) The film bombed in its initial release, but started to get good notices years later when the demand for more works by the creators of Halloween and Alien brought attention back to the film.

Ultimately, it took folks a few years to look past the cheap sets to get the joke. When they finally saw Carpenter and O’Bannon’s expanded film school project, everyone was ready to give them an ‘A’…


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