#10 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.
I have a special place in my heart for first films of directors who went on to have successful careers. Very few of them come close to reaching the same heights as the films that come later, but they often display the seeds of the greatness that is to come. There’s an innate roughness to many of them that end up both working against the films to some degree and also have their own charms. John Carpenter’s Dark Star is a good example of a talented director finding a way to make his shared vision a reality with extremely limited tools.
Essentially a student project from when Carpenter was enrolled at USC, Dark Star was made for a total of $60,000 using 16mm film and just a handful of a cast. It tells the story of the titular Dark Star, a vessel in deep space roving from one star system to another where it deploys smart bombs powerful enough to destroy entire planets. Why? They’re described as “unstable” and there’s nothing else beyond that, but after several viewings of the film, I think that is a key element in the movie’s entire point. This is the story of four men years into a mission in essential isolation, some time after having lost their commanding officer to a glitch in his chair that killed him. Their ship is steadily breaking down around them. They’re unshaven (except for one who meticulously maintains his oddly shaped facial hair), their living quarters are open to space forcing them to live like bums all together in a small room, and their relationships are devolving to their work and annoying each other almost wordlessly. These are people who are entering into a state of madness.
Now, having said that, this movie is first and foremost a comedy, albeit a rather off-kilter and black one at that. In my opinion, movie comedies tend to work best when they operate on top of solid dramatic foundations, extending from the basic thematic points undergirding the story, and the comedy in Dark Star all stems from the central point that these four characters are going insane in different ways. The center of this intersection of the descent into insanity and comedy is Dan O’Bannon’s Pinback. O’Bannon cowrote the film with Carpenter and would go on to cowrite Ridley Scott’s Alien and the parallels between this and the later film are obvious and have been noted many times. There’s a subplot in the middle of the film (the one part of the film that feels stretched to the max in order to reach feature length, to be honest) where Pinback has to chase down an alien that gets loose on the ship, and the alien turns the tables on him. I do think this has been stretched to the breaking point, but it’s also the funniest part of the film overall, and it’s so funny almost entirely because of O’Bannon. O’Bannon’s entire performance is the work of a crazy person (I’ve read that O’Bannon was legitimately crazy). His voice hits odd pitches as he stammers through every sentence, trying to explain his broken thinking to the other three men on the ship who don’t really pay attention to him at all. He’s manic and the most obvious example of insanity from the crew, talking to himself and wonderfully watchable all at once.
The rest of the crew are less distinct. There’s Lieutenant Doolittle, a former surfer, who’s in charge and just in need of blowing something up. There’s Boiler who, in his break hours, likes to pull out a large laser gun and take pot shots at random lids he finds around the ship. The last is Talby who sits in the observation bubble at the top of the ship, wondering about the cosmos and the fabled phoenix asteroids he explains to Doolittle. Through the movie’s first hour or so, I was pretty consistently amused but that was about it. It’s a fairly loose series of events between the destruction of one planet and the travel to the next planet scheduled, including the extended and amusing alien chase. But the movie’s ending is really something else.
In an electrical storm in space, the ship’s twentieth smart bomb malfunctioned. When Doolittle commands the bomb to destroy the next planet, it cannot detach from the ship but is going to explode according to its timer no matter what. Doolittle has to go to their captain, who is dead and preserved in some kind of stasis in the ship at the same time, and ask for advice. The captain, encased in ice, is so completely unconcerned with the reality of the situation, asking if the Dodgers are still playing, before suggesting that Doolittle argue with the bomb. The argument, done with Doolittle in a space suit floating just outside the ship next to the bomb, is great, as Doolittle gets the bomb to question his very existence and, by extension, the orders the bomb received to blow up. It’s a fun conversation that ties into the central idea of people having nothing to believe in, robbing the bomb of its own purpose.
Then the bomb decides that nothing is real at all, but it has the power to create through destruction, and it blows up saying, “Let there be light.” Doolittle and Talby have separated from the ship at this point, and the explosion knocks them apart. Doolittle heads towards the planet, and Talby flies towards some phoenix asteroids heading towards him at the same time. Left with nothing but their own insanity, the two go out in blazes of glory, Doolittle finding a piece of the Dark Star that he quickly fashions into a surfboard to ride into the atmosphere and blow up.
It’s hard to describe how all of this ends up coming together so well in my eyes. It’s about the lack of meaning in their lives, including the bomb’s. Left without companionship beyond the three other men in the same boat, without leadership, without women, and without any meaning, they are stuck in a rut with no way out. Given nothing but themselves to regard, they go insane and become destructive, in the example of the bomb which essentially makes itself god and blows up everyone in the process, or just rides the explosion to oblivion. There’s something here about young men raised with nothing and finding that oblivion is not so bad as a meaningless existence just following strictures without purpose. In some strange ways, I see this as a potential companion piece to Taxi Driver. It fits much more than the slick and elegant thrill ride that is Alien, at least. Apocalypse Now does something similar as well. There really must have been something about the seventies and the young men who produced it to some degree that was a void brought on by a break from the past.
I know people find the comedic elements the best part of the film, but in this instance, while I do enjoy them, I kind of feel that they begin to wear out their welcome, feeling a bit too one note for a long stretch. The meat of this film is in the ending. There’s a surprising amount to chew on, a lot more than I had ever really noticed in my first two viewings of the film some time ago. A script that found a greater variety of business to do in the middle section, I think, would have improved the film overall, but as it stands, the ending raises the rest of the film to a higher level.