Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: Dark Star (1974)

Conceived as Planetfall, Dark Star (1974) is the first film of director John Carpenter and writer Dan O’Bannon. The film began as a student project at U.S.C. in 1970, with principal photography occurring early in 1971. 

The film underwent re-shoots in 1972 to extend the fifty-minute production to eighty-minutes, and to make it viable for a theatrical release. The film was then purchased by Jack H. Harris (The Blob [1958]), who demanded additional re-shoots. The film finally premiered in 1975, and met with positive reviews, but relatively little audience appreciation.

Regardless of its origin as a student film, Dark Star is today considered a cult-classic.  Its low-budget nature does not take away significantly from the film’s success in part because it is clear the filmmakers had both a creative strategy, and an example to follow.  

In short, Dark Star is the anti-2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  As a work of (caustic) 1970s art, it knowingly draws all the opposite conclusions about space travel, mankind, and man’s place or role in the universe. In so cleverly over-turning the 2001 apple cart, Dark Star not only lives up to its title, it remains one of the funniest science fiction films made in the 1970s.

“Don’t give me any of that intelligent life crap. Just give me something I can blow up.”

Eighteen parsecs from Earth in Sector EB-90, the spaceship Dark Star continues its apparently un-ending mission: to destroy unstable planets in order to pave the way for human colonization. 

Unfortunately, the ship has grappled with some severe damage recently, and the newly promoted captain, Doolittle (Narelle) is ill-prepared when one of the ship’s thermonuclear bombs prepares to detonate while still attached to the underbelly of the ship.  Dark Star’s computer suggests teaching the bomb the study of Phenomenology. 

While Doolittle grapples with this existential crisis, Sergeant Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) battles a mischievous alien pet that has escaped from captivity and Lt. Talby (Dre Pahich) dreams of seeing the mysterious Phoenix Asteroids with his own eyes…

“Are you willing to entertain a few concepts?”

Dark Star is an outer space comedy that succeeds brilliantly on the basis of a very good, well-told joke. Visually, thematically, and in terms of philosophy, the film cleverly operates as the antithesis of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Being the “Anti-2001” may sound like a relatively simple or juvenile thing, but actually the opposite is true considering how consistently Carpenter and O’Bannon’s film develops its world-view.  By creating a world so clearly and deliberately the inverse of Kubrick’s vision, Dark Star’s creators have fashioned an intelligent and challenging response to that beloved science fiction film, one that meaningfully re-evaluates mankind’s nature and his place in the universe.

In brief, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a majestic, stately picture that establishes the mysteries of the universe in the form of the monolith, but which also suggests that man’s progress over time possesses a shape and a purpose; moving from ape-like primitive to evolved star child. 

By contrast, Dark Star suggests the absolute absurdity and pointlessness of the human existence, and therefore of the universe itself.  Right down the line, element-to-element Dark Star mirrors and parodies 2001’s sense of “cosmic purpose” with its own sense of man’s irrelevance in the scheme of things, as well as his general pettiness.

In Kubrick’s 2001, the space age is beautiful, stately, wondrous and because of man’s intended destiny, even ordered.  The spaceship and space station interiors are depicted as roomy and minimalist, and the incredible visuals of space vessels in flight -- docking and landing -- are sometimes accompanied by instances of classical music such as the Blue Danube Waltz, a composition that suggests the formal, dance-like nature of objects in space, and in motion.  

2001’s “theme song” as it might even be considered is “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” a formal composition by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) which again, primarily denotes order.  As Kenneth Von Gunden and Stuart H. Stock wrote in in Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films (Crown; 1982, page 190), the composition:

“…opens with an ascending phrase of three notes…which represent Nietzcshe’s view of the evolutionary rise of man…These three notes serve note that the number three is essential to the film: from the perfect alignment of the three spheres of Earth, Moon, and sun at the beginning to the appearance of things in threes.”

Dark Star’s first anti-2001 conceit is to adopt country music -- the vernacular of personal stories and human emotions -- as its theme song.  The country music genre is not generally symbolic in nature, but literal in its storytelling of failed love affairs or a relationship now lost.  So where Kubrick utilizes his music to suggest the transcendent and ordered nature of space travel, Dark Star’s theme, “Benson, Arizona” by Bill Taylor evokes nothing of grandeur or cosmic importance.

The lyrics of “Benson, Arizona” explicitly involve the long separation between an astronaut and his Earthbound love, a love that connects that astronaut not to the future (and evolution), but the traditional past.  

This connection is like a tether, dragging him back to earthbound concerns and therefore precluding the chance for growth or transcendence.  Dan O’Bannon noted this context when he said in an interview that the astronauts’ days aboard Dark Star were sad and ridiculous.

The specific comparison between 2001 and Dark Star involves the nature of life on a ship traveling in space.  In A Space Odyssey, the crewmen fly the roomy Discovery towards a rendezvous with destiny near Jupiter.  In Dark Star, the unkempt astronauts fly their ship, the Dark Star on an endless quest across the galaxy to destroy unstable planets.   One journey is, in keeping with the name of the ship, about “discovery.”  The other is about death and destruction…about “blowing things up.”

In the course of these journeys, both men are contacted by home, and again, Dark Star makes a point of inverting the themes featured in Kubrick’s film.  In 2001, a news anchor for BBC-12’s “The World Tonight” interviews astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) about life on ship.  There is a time lag of approximately seven minutes because Discovery is 80 million miles away.  But meaningful conversation about life in space is still possible…just delayed.

Dark Star opens with a message from McMurdo Base on Earth as a military officer contacts the crew and notes that there is a ten year time lag in conversation because Dark Star is 18 parsecs distant from Earth, a gap that makes any meaningful conversation impossible.  In 2001, the “entire world” joins the BBC interviewer in wishing Dave and Frank a “safe and successful journey” to the stars.  Dark Star’s communique to Earth, by contrasts gets play in “prime time” and “good reviews in the trade,” but the actual content of the message from home is negative.  Earth will not be sending replacement radiation shields to the damaged ship, because of budget cuts and the vast distance separating the ship and the home world.

Both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dark Star also comment on “intelligent” devices and their relationship with mankind.  In the former film, the mellifluous-voiced HAL 9000 becomes murderous on the journey to Jupiter, and must be de-activated.  Under Dave’s auspices, man re-asserts his rightful control over the machine (thus symbolically conquering technology; the latest in the line of tools since the ape-man through that bone into the sky in the film’s prologue…) and then heads off to evolve via the stargate/monolith “trip.” 

Once more, Dark Star inverts that very premise.

Here, the crewmen of the Dark Star must interact with a talking bomb, one who is convinced that it must detonate (following an accident aboard ship which activates it) and thus kill everyone.  The ship’s acting captain, the appropriately-named Doolittle (Narrelle), -- who all-things considered would rather be surfing – must teach the bomb Phenomenology in order to prevent it from self-actuating and detonating.  After the bomb learns Phenomenology -- the study of consciousness, essentially -- it becomes an ego-maniac, convinced that it is the only sentient being in the universe.  The bomb decides that it is God and before detonating declares “Let There Be Light.” 

In other words, in Dark Star, man does not conquer his technology.  Instead, he is eclipsed and destroyed by it. Technology supersedes man, and man does not evolve…he is destroyed.  Dark Star even re-parses the transcendental stargate sequence of 2001 to its own ends. It is notable too that the bomb adopts the self-image of man: as destroyer.  The ship’s mission was to blow up planets, and now the bomb will blow up man, a variation of that mission.

In Kubrick’s film, Bowman endures a “cosmic trip,” and the aging process, and then is re-born as the evolved “star child.  There’s a cosmic trip” in Dark Star too, but it is not transcendental in nature.  A crewman named Talby (Pahich) joins the glowing, colorful “Phoenix Asteroids” and becomes indistinguishable from them.  The message is hence that man is not unique and special -- he is not a delicate snow-flake -- but rather part and parcel of a vast, meaningless universe, and in some ways just another grain of sand inhabiting it. 

Doolittle, meanwhile also meets his distinctly not transcendental end. He surfs into the atmosphere of a planet…and burns up. His point of greatest self-actuation is reliving his favorite form of leisure…a hobby.

Up and down, Dark Star functions so colorfully and so amusingly because it undercuts and reverses the premises of the grand Kubrick film again and again.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Discovery is a perfectly-ordered technological paradise featuring very few signs of human character or individuality.  The Dark Star’s living quarters, by contrast, look like a messy dorm room.  The Discovery is so spacious that Frank Poole can jog alone through a vast circular track.  The Dark Star, by contrast, is so small that its crew literally possesses no elbow room on the bridge.

The men of Dark Star are also not the brave, resourceful astronauts we have come to expect from efforts like 2001 or Star Trek.  Talby sits alone on the observation deck, isolated from the crew.  Pinback can’t be bothered to feed his alien pet.  Doolittle would rather dream about surfing in Malibu than handle the ship’s problems. Even the injured captain, Powell -- who is kept stored barely alive in some kind of cryogenic freeze unit -- is more interested in his hobby (baseball in general, and the Dodgers specifically) than in helping the ship survive a crisis.  The evolution of man does not seem like much of a possibility with these characters as the spearhead for the future age, does it?

Even visually, Dark Star plays knowingly as a mirror reflection of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In Stanley Kubrick’s film, the Discovery first passes on the screen from left to right, a visual short-hand for a journey outward.  In John Carpenter’s Dark Star, the ship passes from right to left, thus implying a journey back rather than forward.  Since the film concerns man’s inability to transcend petty concerns and specific incidents (reflected in the use of country music as well as the crew’s petty demeanor), the idea transmitted is that mankind is forever journeying, but not really heading anywhere of import.

There’s an old truism about movie-making that goes: the best way to criticize a film is to make another film yourself.  In some crucial and cerebral fashion, Dark Star epitomizes that notion, and note-for-note, it overturns the premises and ideas of the grand 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

If the 1970s is truly the wake-up from the hippie dream, as my friend and mentor, Johnny Byrne used to insist, then Dark Star is pointedly the wake-up from the 2001 dream; an acknowledgment of the absurd and pointless nature of man’s existence…even in the Space Age.


  1. I saw 2001 on the big screen as a re-release in 1976. Prior to that, my idea of science fiction was largely "space opera." 2001 made me realize that science fiction could be much broader in scope. In 1978, I saw Dark Star at a science fiction convention and it turned my head around once again. The bright, shiny, earnest worlds that I envisioned as our future were put under a microscope and shown lacking. I laughed with exhilaration. It was cathartic. I walked out of the convention hall with the same sense of excitement that I had leaving the movie theater two years earlier, but for entirely different reasons. It's amazing how well both movies hold up after all these years.

  2. John interesting review of this "mirror,mirror" film to 2001.