I’ve been having something of a John Carpenter binge lately, watching both Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog (both of which I’ve never watched before!) I decided to take a look at Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star. Oddly, I was introduced to Dark Star during my first year of philosophy at university. The lecturer used to show us clips of science fiction films to explain certain philosophical concepts. He showed us the conclusion of Dark Star, where a man and a sentient bomb are talking about the meaning of life. It was only years later that I watched the whole film. While a rough piece of work, it’s still a great science fiction comedy.
You must remember how old this is before watching it; be warned, the special effects are pretty poor! This was before Star Wars, and didn’t have the budget of 2001, so you must forgive the occasional awful-looking effect. And, in retrospect, it adds to the comedic effect; it looks as if it’s purposefully awful! Also, the “menacing” alien here gave a scriptwriter the idea for ‘Alien.’
“In the beginning, there was darkness. And the darkness was without form, and void.”
The film itself is only 81 minutes! 81 minutes! Remember when films barely ran over an hour and a half? It seems like two hours is the minimum for any mind-numbing piece of trash nowadays. This short length is a plus in itself; you don’t have to devote a large chunk of your time to it. Everything about the film makes a mockery of everything ‘space exploration’ stood for in the 1970s. The crew of ‘Dark Star’ have a pointless mission: to blow up ‘unstable’ planets. The reason for this is never given. They spend most of their time messing around, trying to get a tan from a UV light, obsessing about surfing in Miami, or simply admiring outer space. These people, rather than staving off boredom, embrace it; they know that this mission is a waste of time, so try their best to disconnect from it.
The tone of the film is set during the beginning credits. A country song, ‘Benison Arizona,’ plays during the credits! This is a far cry from the classical tunes heard in 2001, for example. Already, we know that this film isn’t to be taken seriously. In fact, the only use of classical music accompanies one of the most humorous scenes. Sergeant Pinback is chasing their ‘alien’ pet, which in reality is no more than a spotted beachball with feet (is this for comedic effect, or because of budgetary concerns?). It escapes and he chases it, getting stuck inside a lift as a piece by ‘Rossini’ plays. Now, this is an obvious swipe at 2001; instead of classical music playing over a quite profound scene, classical music here is playing over a fantastically absurd scene. We have a bizarre conversation between two A.I.s, the Dark Star’s computer (who has a very seductive voice!) and Thermostellar Bomb 20, who thinks it’s time to detonate. Bomb 20 is only one of the many problems the Dark Star has: the computer cannot control defences due to malfunctions, so the crew have to control them manually. There is no toilet roll on the ship. It takes ten years for their messages to reach earth (they’ve been out in space for 20 years, yet have only aged four years).
“Fine. Think about this then. How do you know you exist?”
However, the continual absurdity results in something quite profound (if you’ve never thought about philosophy before!): the ‘phenomenology’ conversation between Lieutenant Doolittle and Bomb 20. Bomb 20 is threatening to detonate whilst still in Dark Star’s bomb bay, and neither the crew nor the computer can halt it. Doolittle talks to the frozen Commander Powell (dying, but kept alive in some sort of cryogenic chamber). He tells Doolittle to “Teach it phenomenology.” Doolittle then tries to convince Bomb 20 that it can’t be certain of anything other than its own existence.
I won’t spoil the end for you, bur the last five minutes are beautiful. Of course, this film is no match for Carpenter’s powerhouse films, such as The Thing or Halloween. However, it runs roughshod over any modern science fiction comedy. Of course, it’s very rough, the effects are awful, and the acting isn’t brilliant. But it’s easy to see beyond this, and grasp the nature of true absurdity: travelling into outer space. This pokes fun at this notion, and also asks ‘What is the point?’ The ending gives an answer of sorts. Yet we still don’t have an answer today!
VERDICT: 7/10. Dark Star is a rough piece of work that looks awful by today’s standards. But don’t let that put you off: Carpenter shows off enough class and verve to make you laugh all the way through this science fiction comedy.
What do you think of Dark Star (1974) Leave your thoughts/opinions below!