Thursday, February 7, 2013

John Carpenter: Dark Star

Dark Star is the very definition of a seminal film. It predates things audiences would later associate with more popular, bigger budget science-fiction films like Alien and Blade Runner, yes, but one can also see the seeds of the themes prominent throughout the rest of Carpenter’s work. There’s really no need for a Paul Harvey-esque “and now you know the rest of the story” introduction here; the names John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon need no context for fans of the horror/sci-fi genre. So, I’ll keep this short: we know that Carpenter went to USC film school, won an Academy Award in 1970 for his short film (the western The Resurrection of Broncho Billy), and then hooked up with fellow-student O’Bannon to create Dark Star as an experimental student film. Based on what producers had seen, they wanted Carpenter and O'Bannon to expand the film to the length of a feature, upping the budget to $60,000, but also significantly upping the stress levels for Carpenter and O'Bannon, for now they had to stretch their original idea to feature length. We also know that O’Bannon would later use his experiences writing Dark Star as a test for what would later be his biggest hit, and one of the biggest science-fiction films ever made, Alien

Yes, Dark Star is an amazing story of small-budget filmmakers making so much out of so little. Yes, it’s a seminal experimental film that looks more elegant despite the fact that it was made for mere peanuts. But to label the film as nothing more than a low-budget, experimental genre flick is to miss the point entirely. Everyone likes to point to Dark Star as the catalyst for two careers that are forever tied to the science-fiction and horror subgenres, but what is often overlooked is just how damn funny and earnestly committed Dark Star is to its wacky, batshit insane premise. I know that we all like to label Carpenter the “master of horror” or the “master of science-fiction,” but he’s also really, really funny, as evinced by his debut film.

John Carpenter described his debut film, Dark Star, as “Waiting for Godot in space.” Indeed the irreverent comedy/sci-fi hybrid is all about a bunch of dudes sitting around, waiting to blow up planets. Since they are in space, there is a nothingness surrounding them that they try to combat with daily routines (my favorite being the feeding of the on-ship alien, a giant beachball with claws) that try to alleviate the eerie silence and nothingness of space from pervading the ship. As the ship’s crew — Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle), Sgt. Pinback (screenwriter O'Bannon), Boiler (Cal Kuniholm), and Talby (Dre Pahich) — awaits orders for the next “unstable” planet to blow up, they sit around and go about their daily routines as the tedium drives each of them to the brink of sanity. 

Pinback (by far the most memorable and popular character) feeds the beachball alien and keeps a bizarre video diary that is obviously meant to satirize Captain Kirk's logs, Talby simply sits up in the observation deck and looks out at the stars, Boiler prefers shooting things up with the on-board laser, Doolittle (my favorite) pines for the days when he surfed, and then there’s their frozen commander Powell (Joe Saunders), who is being kept alive in a giant block of ice. When the crew of the Dark Star runs into some problems with their computers malfunctioning and said malfunction causes a bomb to think that it needs to detonate sooner than it should, Dark Star really begins to be more than just an interestingly curious, oddball sci-fi flick; it becomes an extremely assured satire and absurdist comedy.  

Dark Star has a lot of fun with its premise. Some of the film’s most famous scenes can be found in later, more popular science-fiction films. Probably the film’s most famous moment can be seen in Ridley Scott’s Alien and, to some degree, the James Cameron sequel. Pinback’s pursuit of the beachball alien runs the gamut of the ship and takes up most of the middle portion of the film. It’s amazing what Carpenter does with his camera, creating depth to make the ship look bigger than it is. When Pinback is almost killed numerous times, Carpenter does a great job of creating space within the frame to make the shoe-string constructed sets look more elegant than they really are (a staple, really, of Carpenter’s work).  Some of the film’s best and most hilarious absurdist moments come when the crew members engage in philosophical discussion with the bomb (an obvious riff on the opposite-in-tone Kubrick classic 2001: A Space Odyssey), have causal conversation as they float out in the nothingness of space towards their doom (the ambivalent conversation between Doolittle and Talby always gets me), or (my favorite) when Doolittle finally does get to fulfill his yen for surfing (a hilarious sight gag, to be sure).

Dark Star's satirical tone was a nice alternative to some of the super-serious science fiction films of its era, and when you think about the film in the context of its release, Carpenter and co. seem to be saying something about how boredom breeds contempt; contempt for one's job and contempt towards others in the group. Think about the moment when Pinback lets the rest of the crew know that he's not really Pinback, but someone else that has taken Pinback's name; the rest of the crew is indifferent. Some forget the names of their fellow crew members, and when they ask for the name of that crew member, they're met with an absurd response like, "what's my name?" Despite the close quarters of the Dark Star, this small group of astronaut slackers is no tight-knit group of brothers; they're just as distant and detached in that cramped space as the planets they're blowing up are from Earth. 

A lot of what we will come to recognize as John Carpenter traits can be found in Dark Star. To be more specific: one can see the beginnings of Howard Hawks’ influence on Carpenter and how it would seep into his subsequent films. Carpenter’s admiration for Hawks stems from the old master’s attention to narrative details, the characters (I’ve heard Carpenter mention numerous times in interviews about how it was the attention Hawks paid to the little details involving his characters, especially how they interact and trade props, that really stuck with him), his "invisible" camera (the way he isn't showy with his style), and the way he did this all within the studio system and did in a number of genres. One bit of influence in particular that seemed to stick with Carpenter, and is apparent in Dark Star, is the Hawksian trait of making movies about a group of people under duress and how they function under that pressure (this would come out more overtly in his next film, Assault on Precinct 13, specifically in how the film is an obvious homage to Hawks’ Rio Bravo). Hawks’ influence is something we’ll return to again and again throughout this retrospective as Carpenter is clearly in love with the deceivingly simple approach to filmmaking we associate with the American auteur.

To a lesser extent, we also see the influence that EC Comics had on Carpenter. With Dark Star, we see the same approach to subversive social commentary that EC Comics employed, often using science-fiction as the surface-level story (a kind of distraction from the “real” stuff) while other more sophisticated — often political or philosophical — material lurked beneath the genre trappings. Obviously in subsequent Carpenter films like The Thing and They Live and Escape from New York we see this particular influence more clearly than we do in Dark Star, but it’s an important influence to take note of as we begin this retrospective.

In the grand scheme of this retrospective, I doubt I’ll come to the conclusion that Dark Star is one of Carpenter’s best films (the director himself has distanced himself from it, calling it a not-so-good film), but there’s something to be said about the energy and earnestness surrounding the film’s absurdist elements. This is an assured debut, no doubt, showing a filmmaker already in complete control of their vision (I haven’t even mentioned Carpenter’s contributions as composer, and that certainly becomes important with subsequent films…like, you know, creating one of the most recognizable, haunting scores in the history of horror), and that’s enough right there to get someone’s attention. These first-time features don’t always exhibit a director starting out on such solid ground — so assured of who they are as a director and what they want their film to be — but for Carpenter, Dark Star clearly portends a successful career. Oh, maybe not always financially so (Carpenter didn’t have much success making movies for the studio system) but certainly in the way he successfully finds himself as a filmmaker, much like his idol Hawks, that is in complete control over his film — actors, script, music — and that when one sees a John Carpenter picture, it is easily identifiable as a John Carpenter picture. 


  1. What an excellent start to this retrospective. You really nailed what makes this film so special. Sure, it is rough around the edges and has all the hallmarks of a debut feature film but it already has Carpenter's stamp on it. In retrospect, we can see how it led to his subsequent films.

    I haven't watched this film in ages and your review really makes me want to check it out again.

    1. Thanks, J.D.! I appreciate the kind words. The more I think about the fact that what we know as the "Carpenter stamp" is so evident in this film, the more impressed I am by that fact. To pull that off with such a low-budget debut shows what a talent he is. He's not the flashiest filmmaker (again, this is often how we take notice of great filmmakers, no?), but he's in complete control here.

  2. Dark Star is one of my favorite movies of all time, I find it funny and I truly believe that it's one of the best films Carpenter has ever done, it's a nice mix and truly something that has never been attempted again, it's unique and I've never seen something like it. I love it.

    1. I think what keeps Dark Star fresh even today is just how unique it is. I love the earnestness behind the film's absurd moments; I think that is one of the big reasons the film -- even though Carpenter doesn't think it's a good film -- still holds up today. I don't know if I like it as much as you do, Jaime, but I don't think I'm too far behind your enthusiasm. It's in that second tier of Carpenter films for me.

  3. Nice work and it has way too long since I have visited this flick. Maybe time to pony up for the $15 blu ray and see how great that beach ball looks in hi-def!