Dark Star is John Carpenter’s first film, and the first film written by Dan O’Bannon – and it’s also kind of notable for being what I’d describe as a student film done good.
By way of explanation in a very brief form, when John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon were attending USC Film School in the 1970s, they made a student film which they intended to turn into a theatrical release film – Dark Star, a satire of 2001: A Space Odyssey, essentially taking the tack of how would real people act out in deep space, as opposed to the highly trained and conditioned astronauts of Kubrick’s film.
The film follows the crew of the starship Dark Star, tasked with destroying “unstable planets” to pave the way for a colonization mission which may or may not be happening, as the opening to the film establishes that budget cuts have meant that they will not be receiving any resupply, nobody on Earth actually cares about their mission, and there is a real possibility that the colonists aren’t coming. This is aggravated by the fact that the crew is subject to time dilation, meaning that while 3 years have passed for them, 30 years have passed on earth, so almost none of the people who sent them on this mission are currently working on it.
Consequently, the film ends up playing a lot like a prototype for “Clerks” – except instead of making jokes about how much customers suck, it’s about how taxing space travel can be, both in terms of ties to home and in terms of the crew of the ships sent out into space. Consequently, a lot of the humor is drawn from the crew kvetching amongst themselves, either directly or indirectly through the ship’s log and personal diaries, with a slapstick interlude involving the ship’s “mascot” (quite possibly the deliberately lowest budget alien in the history of film) running amuck.
The film’s climax gets into the comically philosophical, in a way that reminds me a lot of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which this film predates to just enough of a degree to make me wonder if it was at all influential, were it not for the fact that the closest reference I can find to a UK release of the film is 1978, contemporaneous with the first phase of the Hitchhiker’s Guide.
The film has two cuts – the original Director’s Cut, which runs about an hour, and the theatrical cut, which was padded to 90 minutes at the behest of the distributor. The scenes added don’t add much – corridor sequences with the characters talking about events which just happened, and extra establishing sequences for the film’s climax. The film gains nothing for their inclusion, but isn’t exactly harmed either.
The performances are also pretty good considering that this is the first film for most of the cast, and while while the film was made on a shoestring budget, it feels less like Plan 9 and more like an episode of classic Doctor Who or Blake’s Seven.
It’s a kinda nihilistic film that just clicks. It’s not something I’d regularly re-watch, and it’s certainly not one of my favorite films of all time, but I definitely got something out of watching it.