While his output has slowed down in recent years, John Carpenter is definitely one of the more interesting movie directors of the past decades. Throughout his career he’s always sought out the freedom to realize his own original stories rather than become a cog in the Hollywood machine. He has however always been more interested in making entertaining movies rather than making serious ‘important’ cinema. Right from the start Carpenter wanted to make movies on his own terms. Rather than starting from the bottom and working his way up the movie ladder, he immediately started putting together his own movie when he was still a film student. That project would see the light of day as Dark Star.
Dark Star began as a project in 1970, when film students John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon decided to write a science fiction movie together. A sci-fi movie is an odd choice for a first movie because they tend to be more expensive and require more technical skills. You have to build sets and maquettes, gather props and put together costumes. In short, they are a lot more bothersome to make, but Carpenter and O’Bannon did it anyway, showing their rebellious character. They were also making this movie on their own terms, which meant very small budgets and limited resources. It also meant a very long production time. Securing extra funding along the way, Dark Star went through a couple of different versions. All in all Carpenter and O’Bannon worked on it for four years, and Dark Star was finally released in early 1975.
Dark Star tells the story of a space ship and its crew, who have already been in space for a long time when the movie starts. Their mission consists in travelling around space and blowing up unstable planets using smart, talking bombs. As they are moving farther away from Earth and out of communication range, Dark Star is mainly concerned with showing little scenes in the lives of the crew. We see them blowing up a planet, bicker amongst each other, chasing an alien across half the ship and basically just pass the time.
In the second half of the movie the crew starts to run into trouble. The ship takes some more damage while passing through an asteroid storm. This damage involves one of the ship’s talking bombs, leading to complications further down the road. Tension and hilarity ensue as the crew struggles to fix the damage and go on with their mission. Things even get intellectual by the end when the crew has to teach the renegade bomb philosophical reasoning to keep it from blowing up the ship.
Mainly though the movie focuses on Doolittle, Pinback, Boiler and Talby- the four guys making up the crew of the Dark Star and they are what we now would call ‘slackers’. They do the essential tasks of their mission, but just muck around the rest of the time.
They can’t even be bothered to fix their sleeping quarters that got damaged at an earlier point. Instead they all hole up together in one small room, like frat boys. These four guys have been cooped up with each other for years and years now and they have grown tired and disinterested in each other, resulting in one of the most dysfunctional space crews in movie history.
Remarkably enough, Dark Star was made during the years when human spaceflight finally started to take off. In 1969- the year before Carpenter and O’Bannon started writing their space movie- the first people landed on the moon, thus realizing something utterly unimaginable for the bulk of human existence.
In 1972, when the production of Dark Star was in full swing, 12 more people had walked on the moon and some even drove electric vehicles on the surface. And while the world was full of excitement about the possibilities of spaceflight, Carpenter and O’Bannon seemed to be asking a rather different question: what are we going to do in space anyway? We are people after all and we do tend to loose interest pretty quickly! All things considered space is pretty empty and uneventful and it would take a long time to get anywhere besides the moon.
In Star Trek the interest in space anomalies and alien species seemed to never end but Dark Star tells a different story. There is evidence that the crew of the Dark Star was once just as interested in the going-ons of space, seeking out and even taking aboard an alien life form, even if for no other reason than it looked ‘cute’.
But that interest seems long gone with at least some members of the crew. When it is time to feed the resident alien, Pinback does it with a lot of moaning and complaining. A hilarious scene ensues but it is clear Pinback has grown weary of the alien he himself has brought aboard. And earlier on, upon discovering a new, uncharted star, Doolittle responds with a disinterested ‘Who cares?’ The conclusion Carpenter and O’Bannon reached in Dark Star is that we would just get bored and tired if we ever ventured on any long-term space travel.
In that regard Dark Star holds a peculiar spot in the history of space-faring entertainment. Most movies and TV shows set in space involve a sense of adventure, with exciting new discoveries or developments never far around the corner. Dark Star goes against the grain of this convention by presenting space as dull and uneventful. Unlike 2001, man holds no special place in the universe here.
Adding to this unromantic atmosphere is the distinct lack of camaraderie amongst the crew of the Dark Star. Despite being holed up for years, these four men never bonded with each other and they all developed their own ways of passing the time.
Dark Star may have been a curious movie when it came out, especially when you realize it was released two and a half years before Star Wars hit the theaters and made space movies cool again.
But looking back now, Dark Star was actually ahead of its time in some regards.
Carpenter and O’Bannon wrote characters that come off as directionless, disinterested and unmotivated, characteristics that would come to define the MTV generation a decade later and like the MTV generation, the crew of the Dark Star lacks a sense of purpose and responsibility. They prefer to get lost in little distractions rather than take charge of their lives.
In the 90s this sensibility would find its most clear expression in the movies of Kevin Smith. Just as Dark Star, Smith’s movies are populated by young people without a clear direction or motivation in life, people who just hang around waiting for time to pass. Twenty years earlier Dark Star might be seen as “Clerks” in space.
For Carpenter and O’Bannon, Dark Star was the start of their careers, proving they could bring about a fresh story, infuse it with humor and present it with style. Despite the lack of adventure, it is a remarkably funny and entertaining movie while on a deeper level making bold statements about human nature that run counter to more optimistic sci-fi fare of the time like 2001 and Star Trek.
Despite its unique take on the genre Dark Star remains sadly under watched, which is a shame seeing as it is more original and daring than much of the sci-fi fare coming out today. So if you haven’t seen Dark Star yet you are missing out on one the quirkiest sci-fi movies ever made!