Review: Dark Star (15) / Directed by: John Carpenter / Screenplay: Dan O’Bannon, John Carpenter / Starring: Brian Narelle, Dan O’Bannon, Dre Pahich, Cal Kunihold / Released: 23rd January 2012
In the days before Star Wars, science-fiction movies - what there were of them - were a rather different beast to the one they become post-Luke Skywalker and co.
After Star Wars (which wasn't really science-fiction anyway, but let's not get into all that here) the emphasis was on loud explosions, special effects, bigger and better aliens. With the odd notable exception it's remained that way pretty much ever since. But before 1977 science-fiction movies could still be quiet, contemplative affairs, often tackling big social issues (Soylent Green, Silent Running) or presenting cautionary allegorical tales of worlds to come if Man didn't take care of his planet (The Omega Man, The Andromeda Strain, the original Planet of the Apes). It was also a genre which allowed would-be filmmakers to imaginatively flex their storytelling muscles restricted only by their available budgets and their own limited experience. This is how films like Dark Star came to be made and it's a tribute to the talents involved - many of whom went on to bigger (if not always better) things, that Dark Star especially manages to stand the test of time and remain one of the best sci-fi movies of its era; quaint, charming, funny and with a successully-realised sense of scale and vision which far outstrip the resources available to make the film.
Dark Star started life as a 45-minute student film directed by John Carpenter and written by himself and Dan O'Bannon (the latter would go on to write Alien, of course, and Carpenter's uneven CV includes the classic 1982 remake of The Thing and far too many lesser movies in more recent years). Clearly taking their lead from the then-recent Silent Running Carpenter and O'Bannon's story is set in the 22nd century where the small scout ship 'Dark Star' has been travelling through space, largely forgotten by the rest of humanity back on Earth, destroying small unstable planets which could potentially threaten future colonization expeditions. The crew of four (the Commander has been killed in an accident but he's kept 'alive' in cryogenic suspension) are bored witless and probably half-insane, spending their spare time either gazing out through the ship's observation dome, playing practical jokes or smoking cigars. There's also the matter of a rather wilful and malevolent alien life form brought on board - it's essentially a big red ballon with claws - which needs to be fed and watered even as it's tormenting the crew. So life goes on aboard 'Dark Star' as it heads towards the Veil Nebula for some more random planet-zapping... but there's trouble ahead as the ship's developed a malfunction and one of the bombs has suddenly got ideas above its station.
If your idea of science-fiction movie heaven involves slick visual effects, snazzy cinematography and assured acting then walk away from Dark Star right now because its ricketty homespun charms will not be for you. By contemporary standards this is raw, ragged stuff - the special effects are so bargain basement they make bargain basement look extravagant and the acting by O'Bannon and co was never likely to trouble the Academy. Transformers kids may not be able to tolerate Dark Star because even its brief seventy minute 'director's cut' is still sluggish, slow-paced and generally uneventful. But remember that this was a first-time effort by film students picked up and padded out for theatrical release and it really should be judged on those terms. And on those terms it really does manage to be a triumph if you can put away modern preconceptions (and especially if the film is one you recall and cherish from your youth) and appreciate what Carpenter and co were setting out do do here. Carpenter, for his part, does a good job of making the movie look 'bigger' than it is and he sets out the stall for his future movies right at the beginning, providing the memorable electronic score which in places, startlingly, evokes bits of the theme to TV's Torchwood. Anyone who saw Dark Star at the time or on one of its numerous 1970s/1980s TV transmissions will fondly recall the clawed balloon alien and the final shot of one of the space-stranded astronauts surfing his way down to oblivion on a piece of spaceship debris before disappearing in a flare of light.
Dark Star is a genuine cult movie hailing from an era when science-fiction remained a bit of an unknown quantity and yet was still utilised as a method for telling intelligent stories about the human condition without the need for hundred foot robots smashing cities into smithereens. Thoughtful, quirky and genuinely off-beat, Dark Star will always have a very special place in the hearts of those of us who've lived with it for thirty years or more and yet it might still be capable of attracting a new and curious audience who are just a little bit bored with the vacuity and endless spectacle of so much modern genre filmmaking. Give Dark Star a go and get an idea of what it used to be like way back before the Death Star first hove into view and changed the face of sci-fi movies forever...