Dark Star (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John Carpenter|
|Produced by||John Carpenter|
|Written by||John Carpenter|
|Music by||John Carpenter|
|Edited by||Dan O'Bannon|
Jack H. Harris Enterprises
University of Southern California
|Distributed by||Bryanston Distributing Company|
Dark Star is a 1974 American science fiction comedy film directed 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 multiple versions on VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD.
The feature film debut for both Carpenter and O'Bannon, it was also produced and scored by Carpenter, while O'Bannon also acted as editor, production designer, and visual effects supervisor and appeared as Sergeant Pinback.
In the mid-22nd century, mankind has begun colonizing the far reaches of the universe. Armed with artificially intelligent "Thermostellar Triggering Devices," the scout ship Dark Star and its crew have been alone in space for 20 years on a mission to destroy "unstable planets" which might threaten future colonization of other planets.
The ship is in a state of deterioration and there are frequent system malfunctions (for example, an irreparable radiation leak, their cargo of intelligent talking bombs lowering from their bomb bay without a command to do so, and an explosion destroying their sleeping quarters), and only the voice of the ship's computer for company. The Dark Star′s commanding officer, Commander Powell, was killed during hyperdrive as a result of an electrical short-circuit behind his rear seat panel, but remains aboard the ship in a state of cryogenic suspension. The ship's remaining crew consists of its new commanding officer, Lieutenant Doolittle (helmsman, and originally second-in-command), Sergeant Pinback (bombardier), Corporal Boiler (navigator), and Talby (target specialist). As the tedium of their tasks over 20 years has driven them "around the bend", they have created distractions for themselves: Doolittle, formerly a surfer from Malibu, California, has constructed a musical bottle organ; Talby spends his time in the ship's observation dome, content to watch the universe go by; Boiler obsessively trims his moustache, smokes cigars, and shoots targets with the ship's emergency laser rifle in a corridor.
Pinback plays practical jokes on the crew members, 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, forcing Pinback to chase it around the ship. Pinback claims he is actually liquid fuel specialist Bill Frug, who inadvertently took the "real" Sergeant Pinback's place after he committed suicide by jumping into a fuel tank.
En route to their next target (the Veil Nebula), the Dark Star is hit by a bolt of electromagnetic energy during a storm, resulting in yet another on-board malfunction, with "Thermostellar Bomb #20" receiving an order to deploy. The ship's computer convinces Bomb #20 that the order was in error, and persuades the bomb to disarm itself and return to the bomb bay. Talby notes the malfunction, and investigates the fault. He discovers a damaged communications laser in the emergency airlock while the crew is engaging in their next bombing run. While Talby attempts to repair it, the laser malfunctions, blinding Talby and knocking him unconscious, causing extensive damage to the main computer, and damaging the bomb release mechanism on Bomb #20.
Due to the damage to the ship's computer, the crew members cannot activate the release mechanism and attempt to abort the drop. After two prior accidental deployments, Bomb #20 refuses to disarm or abort the countdown sequence. The computer activates dampers to confine the blast to a diameter of one mile, but that is all it can do at the moment. As Pinback and Boiler try to talk the bomb out of blowing up underneath the ship, Doolittle revives Commander Powell, who advises him to teach the bomb the rudiments of phenomenology. After donning a space suit and exiting the ship to approach the bomb directly, Doolittle engages in a philosophical conversation with Bomb #20 until it decides to abort its countdown and retreat to the bomb bay for further contemplation.
When attempting to assist Doolittle in re-entering the ship, Pinback inadvertently jettisons Talby out of the airlock. As Doolittle tries to rescue the now-conscious Talby, Pinback addresses the bomb over the intercom in another attempt to disarm it. Doolittle has mistakenly taught the bomb Cartesian doubt and, as a result, Bomb #20 determines that it can only trust itself and not external input. Convinced that only it exists, and that its sole purpose in life is to explode, Bomb #20 detonates. The Dark Star is destroyed, and Pinback and Boiler are killed instantly. Commander Powell is flung into space encased in ice, and Talby and Doolittle are blown in opposite trajectories. Talby drifts into the Phoenix Asteroids (a cluster he has long had a fascination with), destined to circumnavigate the universe for eternity. As Doolittle loses contact with Talby, he sees that he is falling toward the unstable planet. Realizing he will burn up upon entering its atmosphere, he drifts into debris from the Dark Star, finds a surfboard-shaped hunk of debris, and "surfs" down into the atmosphere, dying as a falling star.
- Lieutenant Doolittle – Brian Narelle
- Sergeant Pinback – Dan O'Bannon
- Boiler – Cal Kuniholm
- Talby – Andreijah "Dre" Pahich (voiced by John Carpenter)
- Commander Powell – Joe Sanders (voiced by John Carpenter)
- Computer – Barbara "Cookie" Knapp
- Bomb #19 – Dan O'Bannon (as Alan Sheretz)
- Bomb #20 – Dan O'Bannon (as Adam Beckenbaugh)
- Mission Control – Miles Watkins
- Alien – Nick Castle
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, with O'Bannon "fleshing 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."
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 1970, Carpenter and O'Bannon completed the first version of the film in 1972. Carpenter had to replace the voice of Pahich with the his own as Talby. To achieve theatrical length, an additional fifty minutes were filmed with the support of Canadian distributor Jack Murphy (credited as "Production Associate"). 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, and insisted on extensive cuts to the existing film as well as the shooting of additional 35mm footage to bring the movie back up to feature film length O'Bannon would later lament 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.
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 seeing 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 79% fresh rating, 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."
Doug Naylor has said in interviews that Dark Star was the inspiration for Dave Hollins: Space Cadet, the radio sketches that evolved into the television science fiction situation comedy Red Dwarf. The character Pinback also inspired the character name Pinbacker, the antagonist in Danny Boyle's film Sunshine (2007). Dark Star has also been cited as a large inspiration for Machinima series Red vs. Blue by the series' creator, Burnie Burns.
The indie rock band Pinback adopted its name from the character Sergeant Pinback, and frequently used samples from the movie in its early work. The influential electronic music group Meat Beat Manifesto sampled dialogue from the film in many tracks spanning over 20 years. British veteran 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 also used a sample from the film at the end of "Circus of Death", the b-side of their debut single, "Being Boiled".
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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Commander Powell, Talby – John Carpenter
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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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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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- Fantastic Films magazine, Collector's Edition #17, Jul 1980, pages 16–24, 73, 76–77, 92. (Article: "John Carpenter Overexposed" by Blake Mitchell and James Ferguson. Discusses Dark Star, among other things.)
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