In fact, Dan O'Bannon, who co-wrote this film with Carpenter (and even starred in the damned thing) was the writer who went on to create Alien (and a starship's bomb-bay full of other things, too). Dark Star was that clown's first film too... the second film he wrote was Alien!
Even more interesting than this is how the film even made it to the big screen! Dark Star was originally a student film shot on a budget of sixty grand, starring buddies of Carpenter's and O'Bannon's with model work and homemade special effects. The whole thing clocked in at 45 minutes. A series of very fortunate events led to its release at funky film festivals, which led to Jumpin' Jack Harris (producer of (The Blob and Equinox) seeing the film at a screening and acquiring the theatrical distribution rights. Whipping out his BLOB of cash, Whacked Jack paid for 38 more minutes to be filmed, bringing it to feature length (83 minutes to be HEXact) and getting it ready for the big screen (while also managing to get on Johnny C's nerves enough to include the words "FUCK YOU HARRIS" on a computer screen in this G-Rated film)!
That's Big Break gratitude for you! Must have been quite an Excedrin Headache!
What Dark Star truly is may be harder to quantify than its success is to explain. It's got small elements of horror, like Alien and it has an engrossing Science Fiction plot. Primarily, however, Dark Star is a comedy. An absolutely hilarious, deadpan, black comedy that fits perfectly with the university crowd. It's funny as hell from a physical comedy standpoint, a social satire standpoint and, especially, from the standpoint of Carpenter and O'Bannon's dialogue. Further, though not exactly a "spoof", Dark Star parodies elements from a lot of Science Fiction from the classic era and makes direct references in some places to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running!
The plot can be both simple and silly, but is always interesting. Four hairy (probably smelly) men from Earth comprise the remaining human crew (with a collective ton of bad facial hair) of the Dark Star. They've been out in space for twenty years (though, due to Relative rules of space travel, they've only aged three)... and the years haven't been kind. In fact, they're all going a little bit crazy! Their mission: to BOLDLY GO where no hairy, smelly man has gone before, seek out new worlds and lifeless, hostile planets... and destroy them. Yes, it's a most Vogon approach to galaxy exploration, but the idea is that if mankind is going to settle in space they want to get all of the crappy neighborhoods out of the way preemptively. Probably a good idea, actually. Keeps house prices up, and all that.
To this end the Dark Star is equipped with a super-intelligent computer system (like the one in Alien) named Mother (and voiced by Cookie Knapp) and an entire bay of Smart Bombs. No, we're not talking about "smart bombs" in the current military sense (nor are we talking about intelligently made films that fail at the box office). This film features actual bombs with full intelligence and personalities whose ambition in life is to (you guessed it) explode! They even wax poetically and contemplate the universe in their own philosophical and thoughtful way (in the voices of Alan Sherets and Adam Beckenbaugh).
These lines alone are worth hearing in their strange Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy way, but the oddball dialogue between the crewmembers themselves is a definite keeper!
Speaking of whom...
The mission is weird anyway, but gets weirder when the plot expands to include, and I'm not kidding, a mischievous Alien Mascot which is essentially a beach ball with claws. It shows, too. Interestingly enough, the "voice" of the critter was provided by an unseen Nick Castle, who would go on to play the seen, but unheard Michael Myers in Carpenter's even more influential Halloween! The entire second act of this film essentially consists of the misanthropic O'Bannon chasing around and sparring with the painted beach ball in a very goofy and cartoonish way. This might be tiresome and annoying for some, but the way its put together and the tricks used to film the sequence make it a keeper! It's quite different from the Alien series this sequence helped to spawn, but also quite classic in its own right.
Of course, this beach ball thing is just one example of the inventive, yet very cheap special effects used to make this film a reality. The thing is... these actually work relatively well! Using just about every trick they could access at the university, O'Bannon, Ron Cobb, Bob Greenberg, Greg Jein, Bill Taylor, Harry Walton, John Wash and Jim Danforth all combined to take some very cool miniatures, optical effects, matte paintings, laser lights and stop-motion style animation, blend them on high and carefully place them on the screen for a fine viewing experience. True, these do look cheap and, even for the era, these didn't stand up to the best of the best of the best of the top of the pops. However, in the decades before readily available CGI, a student film with this low a budget, done this will with this convincing of an effects show, the very idea that a bunch of guys like these could pull off such a cool feat is pretty amazing to this day and stands to show what can be done with a determined crew with a big dream.
And the dream paid off. While Dark Star might not be everyone's favorite sci-fi film (though it's made a lot of legendary lists), the people involved with this film got their big break here and went on to do some remarkable things! It's a model of low-budget filmmaking and a testament to how great a small film can be. Of course it helped that so many of these people wore more than one hat. O'Bannon acted, supervised the effects, designed the sets and even edited the film. Carpenter directed, lent his voice, produced and even scored the film (as per usual for him). Watch the credits closely and you'll see such Carpenter regulars and latter day big names like Douglas Knapp, Tommy Lee Wallace and many more!
NOW how much would you pay?
Needless to say, Dark Star is not without its flaws. These are obvious, considering all, and being obvious, they're hardly worth mentioning here. Let's put it like this... it's a 1973 student short(-ish) film shot for a few thousand dollars with extra scenes added to it for its 1974 big screen debut starring a bunch of unshaven college buddies playing around with backdrops, lit-up ice cube trays and cool-looking models. The whole thing just happened to get picked up, just happened to spawn similar, influential films, just happened to be quite cool in its own right and just happened to launch the careers of a great many involved into planet-rubbling hyperspace!
Yep, Dark Star, the small sci-fi film about clawed beach-ball alien Mascots, outer-space surfing, country music songs about Benson, Arizona, really intelligent talking weapons of mass destruction and the crazy astronauts who LOVE them is far from a bomb itself. It's worth at LEAST Three point Five Stars out of Five and is worth seeing for all that it is, not just all that it's led to! Like the titular Dark Star vessel's main cargo, this film knew what its destiny was and was perfectly happy being nothing more than a bomb. But like those same crazy ass bombs, the film ended up being so very much more. See it, put your analytical hat on, but never let yourself forget to have a great time in the crazed spacecraft. As for me, I've just picked up "The Best of John Yager's Greatest Hits Collection Volume One" and I'm in that spacey, surfy, mellow mood. Come join me as we fall into the atmosphere, True Believers! For the rest of you, I'll see you all in the next reel!!!
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