Dark Star (film)
|Directed by||John Carpenter|
|Produced by||John Carpenter|
|Edited by||Dan O'Bannon|
|Music by||John Carpenter|
|Distributed by||Bryanston Distributing Company|
Dark Star is a 1974 American science fiction comedy film directed and produced by John Carpenter and co-written with Dan O'Bannon. It follows the crew of the deteriorating starship Dark Star, twenty years into their mission to destroy unstable planets that might threaten future colonization of other planets.
Beginning as a University of Southern California student film produced from 1970 to 1972, the film was gradually expanded to feature film length by 1974, when it appeared at Filmex before receiving a limited theatrical release in 1975. Its final budget is estimated at $60,000. While initially unsuccessful with audiences, it was relatively well received by critics and continued to be shown in theaters as late as 1980. The home video revolution of the early 1980s helped the film achieve "cult classic" status, and O'Bannon collaborated with home video distributor VCI in the production of versions on VHS, LaserDisc, and DVD.
The feature directorial debut for Carpenter, and the feature debut for O'Bannon, Dark Star was also produced and scored by Carpenter, while O'Bannon also served as editor, production designer, and visual effects supervisor and appeared as Sergeant Pinback.
In the mid-22nd century, mankind has begun to colonize interstellar space. Armed with artificially intelligent Thermostellar Triggering Devices, which can talk and reason, the scout ship Dark Star searches for "unstable planets" which might threaten future colonization.
Twenty years into their mission, the Dark Star has aged and suffers malfunctions. Commanding officer Powell had died in one such event, but remains aboard in cryogenic suspension. Lieutenant Doolittle, a former surfer from Malibu, California, has taken over as commander. The tedium of their work has driven the crew, consisting of Pinback, Boiler and Talby "around the bend", so they have created distractions for themselves.
Pinback plays practical jokes, maintains a video diary, and has adopted a ship's mascot in the form of a mischievous "beach ball"-like alien who refuses to stay in a storage room. He eventually kills it with a gun. He claims to really be Bill Froug and says that the real Pinback has committed suicide.
En route to their next target in the Veil Nebula, the Dark Star is hit by electromagnetic energy during a space storm, resulting in yet another on-board malfunction. Thermostellar Bomb #20 receives an order to deploy. The ship's computer talks Bomb #20 out of it. An accident with a laser then causes more mayhem, much of it to the main computer. The crew members now cannot stop the bomb's activation. Doolittle revives Powell, who advises him to teach the bomb phenomenology. Doolittle space walks out to have a philosophical conversation with the bomb. It agrees to disarm itself, for now.
Attempting to assist Doolittle returning to the ship, Pinback jettisons Talby out of the airlock by mistake, but he still survives. The bomb, having learned Cartesian doubt, trusts only itself. Convinced that only it exists, and that its sole purpose in life is to explode, it does so. Talby and Doolittle, the last survivors, are blown in opposite trajectories. The former drifts into the Phoenix Asteroids, a cluster with which he has long been fascinated. Doolittle, falling toward the unstable planet, finds a surfboard-shaped hunk of debris, and surfs into the atmosphere, to die as a falling star.
- Brian Narelle as Lieutenant Doolittle
- Dan O'Bannon as Sergeant Pinback
- Cal Kuniholm as Boiler
- Andreijah "Dre" Pahich as Talby
- Joe Saunders as Commander Powell
- John Carpenter as Commander Powell (voice)
- Barbara "Cookie" Knapp as Computer
- Dan O'Bannon as Bomb #19 (credited as "Alan Sheretz")
- Dan O'Bannon as Bomb #20 (credited as "Adam Beckenbaugh")
- Miles Watkins as Mission Control
- Nick Castle as Alien
The screenplay was written by John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon while film students at the University of Southern California. Initially titled The Electric Dutchman, the original concept was Carpenter's, while O'Bannon "flesh[ed] out many of the original ideas" and contributing many of the funniest moments. According to O'Bannon, "The ending was copped from Ray Bradbury's story Kaleidoscope", found in the short story collection The Illustrated Man (1951). O'Bannon references one of his USC teachers, William Froug, when Pinback says in a video diary entry "I should tell you my name is not really Sergeant Pinback, my name is Bill Frug."
Filming, Reshoots and Edits
The film began as a 45-minute 16mm student project with a final budget of six thousand dollars. Beginning with an initial budget of one thousand dollars from USC in late 1970, Carpenter and O'Bannon completed the first version of the film in early 1972. Carpenter had to replace the voice of Pahich (who spoke with a heavy accent) with his own as Talby. To achieve feature film length, an additional fifty minutes were filmed in 1973, with the support of Canadian distributor Jack Murphy (credited as "Production Associate"). These scenes included the asteroid storm, Doolittle playing bottles on strings as a musical instrument, the scenes in the crew sleeping quarters, the scenes in the hallways of the ship (Pinback with the sunlamp, Boiler with the laser gun, etc.), and, importantly, all the scenes featuring the beachball alien. Actors Cal Kuniholm and Dre Pahich both had cut their hair since the original 1971 shoot, and wore wigs to match the earlier footage.  Through John Landis, a friend of O'Bannon, the film came to the attention of producer-distributor Jack H. Harris, who obtained the theatrical distribution rights to the film. Harris found about 30 minutes, including a protracted scene of the crew sleeping in their quarters, and not responding to the computer voice, "boring and unusable". Harris insisted on cuts to the existing film, and the shooting of additional 35mm footage to bring the movie back up to releasable length Harris also insisted on other edits to tone down the rough language of the original cut, as well as the optical blurring of a wall of nude centerfolds in order to secure a more marketable G rating for distribution. O'Bannon later lamented that as a result of the padding into a feature-length movie, "We had what would have been the world’s most impressive student film and it became the world’s least impressive professional film".
Many special effects were done by Dan O'Bannon, ship design was by Ron Cobb, model work by O'Bannon and Greg Jein, and animation was done by Bob Greenberg. Cobb drew the original design for the Dark Star ship on a napkin while eating at the International House of Pancakes.
To depict the transit of the Dark Star ship into hyperspace, O'Bannon devised an animated effect in which stars in space turn into streaks of light while the spaceship appears to be motionless. He created this effect by tracking the camera while leaving the shutter open. This is considered to be the first depiction in cinema history of a ship jumping into hyperspace. It is thought that O'Bannon was influenced by the striking "star gate" sequence created by Douglas Trumbull for the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The streaking hyperspace effect was later employed in Star Wars (1977).
The completed film premiered on March 30, 1974 at Filmex, the Los Angeles International Film Exposition, for which Carpenter described the film as "Waiting for Godot in outer space." Harris sold the film to Bryanston Pictures, who released it to fifty theatres on January 16, 1975. Following the success of Alien and Halloween, Dark Star was re-released June 1979 by the Atlantic Releasing Corporation as "...from the author of 'Alien' & the director of 'Halloween'..." with the tag line, "The Ultimate Cosmic Comedy!"
VCI Entertainment released a theatrical cut of Dark Star on videocassette in August 1983. After criticism of the release by O'Bannon in 1983, a new widescreen video master copy was created based on his personal 35mm print, and a widescreen "Special Edition" was released by 1986.
The film was released on DVD March 23, 1999 and included both a sixty-eight minute "special edition" and the longer original theatrical release. A two-disc "Hyperdrive Edition" DVD was released on October 26, 2010, which again included both versions of the film, as well as the feature-length documentary Let There be Light: The Odyssey of Dark Star, exploring the origins of Dark Star and how it was produced. In 2012, a "Thermostellar Edition" Blu-ray was released, including only the theatrical version, along with the special features of the 2010 DVD release.
While greeted enthusiastically by the crowd at Filmex, the film was not well received upon its initial theatrical release. Carpenter and O'Bannon reported nearly empty theatres and a lack of reaction to the film's humor. The home video cassette revolution of the early 1980s saw Dark Star become a cult film among sci-fi fans.
An early review from Variety, recalled by Carpenter as "the first bad review I got", described the film as "a limp parody of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that warrants attention only for some remarkably believable special effects achieved with very little money." After its re-release in 1979, Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, writing: "Dark Star is one of the damnedest science fiction movies I've ever seen, a berserk combination of space opera, intelligent bombs, and beach balls from other worlds." Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 78% approval rating from 27 reviews, with the following consensus: "A loopy 2001 satire, Dark Star may not be the most consistent sci-fi comedy, but its portrayal of human eccentricity is a welcome addition to the genre." Leonard Maltin awarded the film two and a half stars, describing it as "enjoyable for sci-fi fans and surfers", and complimenting the effective use of the limited budget.
The "Beachball with Claws" segment of the film was reworked by Dan O'Bannon into the science fiction-horror film Alien (1979). After witnessing audiences failing to laugh at parts of Dark Star which were intended as humorous, O'Bannon commented, "If I can't make them laugh, then maybe I can make them scream."
References and use of samples
- Indie rock band Pinback adopted its name from the character Sergeant Pinback, and often used samples from the movie in its early work.
- British synth-pop band Erasure sampled dialogue from this film (along with Barbarella) in their song, "Sweet, Sweet Baby", the B-side to "Drama!", the debut single off their album, Wild! (1989).
- The Human League used a sample from the film at the end of "Circus of Death", the b-side of their debut single, "Being Boiled".
- Cem Oral, under the alias of Oral Experience, sampled dialogue from this film in his song "Never Been on E".
- Polish band Spaceslug used a sample of the dialogue with Bomb #20 on the track "Beneath the Haze" from their 2019 release Reign of the Orion.
- Pinback inspired the character name Pinbacker, the antagonist in Danny Boyle's film Sunshine (2007).
The song played during the opening and closing credits is "Benson, Arizona". The music was written by John Carpenter, while the lyrics were written by Bill Taylor, concerning a man who travels the galaxy at light speed and misses his beloved back on Earth. The lead vocalist was John Yager, a college friend of Carpenter's who was not a professional musician, "apart from being in a band in college." Not coincidentally, there is actually a "Dark Star Road" in Benson, Arizona.
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Pic began in 1970 as 45-minute USC Film School short. Final budget was $60,000.
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Commander Powell, Talby – John Carpenter
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I financed it until the summer of 1972, when a man named Jack Murphy, who owned a small Canadian distribution company, came on the picture.
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Sketched on a napkin over coffee with Dan O'Bannon at the House of Pancakes L.A.
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And 'Waiting for Godot in outer space' was the best made-up I could come up with.
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That was the first bad review I got, in the Daily Variety
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I remember remarking to Rob at the time that I couldn’t believe no-one had done a sitcom like that because it seemed like such a good thing to do. So it was the old memory of Dark Star and the Dave Hollins sketch and we decided to try and write it.
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Even the name Pinback – taken from the sci-fi movie Dark Star – suggests something mechanical, like a wind-up robot.
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Sometimes you openly acknowledge the influence of other films: in Sunshine, Pinbacker's name is taken from Sgt Pinback in John Carpenter's Dark Star.
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So I went out to his apartment and basically recorded the score on this… it was very, very primitive. We did the whole thing in about four hours.
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