Dark Star

darkstarJohn Carpenter’s connection to Howard Hawks is obvious – the remake of The Thing, Assault On Precinct 13, which is basically an update of Rio Bravo. Carpenter’s even said, “All my movies are Westerns.”1 And aside from his rough-and-tumble sense of action and the rapid-patter dialogue, a regular theme of Hawks’ was men at work. Not men sitting in the office (though it could be that. See His Girl Friday), but men good at their jobs, doing them well, even at great personal cost.

But Carpenter isn’t of Hawks’ generation. He was born in 1948, went to USC, and became something of a hippie. Dark Star, then, his first feature, is a film about men who might be good at their jobs, but work gives them no personal satisfaction. They’re not even sure it matters. Doolittle2 leads the team after the first captain is electrocuted thanks to a malfunctioning seat cushion. The other men – the laconic and violent Boiler, the enthusiastic, whiny and constantly under-appreciated Pinback, and the thoroughly disconnected Talby – do not, as in Hawks’ movies of men of action, connect on a professional level; mutual expertise does not make them comrades. They do their jobs, replicating the robotic military-man chatter of real-life astronauts, but anything above and beyond immediate duty is too much for them.

Doolittle is the major non-actor. When a new star is inadvertently discovered, he can’t be bothered to name it. “Commander Powell would have named the star,” Pinback whines. Later, when visiting Talby, the computer’s warning light goes off. Talby thinks they should check it out, but Doolittle dismisses him, saying, “We’ll find it when it breaks.” Talby himself spends all his time sequestered in a kind of reverse tail-gun, spotting stars and observing the ultimate destruction of numerous “unstable planets,” which is the 20-year-old mission’s goal. Both men have little hippie dreams: Talby wants to see something called the Phoenix Asteroids, and Doolittle misses bumming and surfing on the beaches of Malibu.

Nowadays, Doolittle is only too happy to blow something up, while Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) never is happy. He doesn’t feel appreciated. He wasn’t even supposed to go on the mission, but mistakenly entered the capsule before it took off (and whines on a video log that the real Pinback’s underwear is too roomy). He also feeds the alien they brought on board, which leads to an extended section of the film that is essentially a slapstick interlude, a Looney Tunes riff. All the duct-crawling and alien-chasing reappeared in O’Bannon’s screenplay for Alien.

The alien is the cheapest, silliest-looking thing in the film, an oversized beach ball with a couple of bat-like claws attached to the bottom. Nick Castle, the future Mick Myers, performs the puppet. It’s not remarkable that a low-low-budget film has a crappy-looking alien. What’s remarkable is how good the rest of the film looks.

From the very beginning Carpenter was a visual director, and an accomplished one. Dark Star has what you can’t find in a thousand SyFy original movies, or on the racks of terrible, awful, no-good crap populating the shelves of Hollywood Video or anywhere recent cheap films can be found. The movie has an aesthetic. True, it’s one that’s partially borrowed from 2001: A Space Odyssey and partially influenced by THX-1138, but on a nothing budget, this aesthetic has been realized. For most of his career, Carpenter has been forced to work inside of limitations, and he proved here he can do it well.

Dark Star‘s weakest moment is also the most celebrated: the conversation between Doolittle and the bomb that wants to blow up, even though the bomb hasn’t been deployed properly. Elements of the scene are, indeed, inventive and worthy of praise. The artificial intelligent personalities of the bombs don’t seem to exist for any reason other than to be cheerful about blowing up, which makes them look like precursors to the depressed robots and overly enthusiastic doors of Hitchhiker’s Guide. The concept is good, too – Doolittle must finally get off his butt and converse with the bomb, trying to convince it phenomenologically that the order to explode may not have happened since the bomb has only external sensors to rely on, and those are an inherently faulty medium through which to establish reliable data. It’s cute, but the scene falls flat.

Carpenter had yet to find his most effective vehicle for dialogue (which of course was Kurt Russell). But his most reliable tool, his eye, was already established. Simplicity of form and function are Carpenter’s major skills; he understands exactly the image he wants on the screen, and creates it with clarity. Of all independent filmmakers (and, despite his stints with Universal, New Line and Fox, the majority of his work has been independently produced), his work is the most classically Hollywood, embodying all the strength of visual imagination that that implies. As Carpenter expects his narrative themes to be carried out directly in the storytelling images, with no need for the crutch of abstraction, Dark Star has no “arty” shots. His spaceships don’t have the icy perfection of Kubrick’s (at $60,000 total budget, how could they?), but they work. Like a Hawks protagonist, Carpenter was a professional from the start.

Dark Star is available in two versions, the 83-minute release and Carpenter’s original 67-minute cut. The original is preferable. Although new scenes extend the theme of repetitive boredom our heroes are subject to, they are themselves kind of boring and don’t add to the enjoyment of the film. Watch the shorter cut.

1Or something to that effect. Online I found a number of quotes circling around this idea, but not this specific one.

2Named not after the aviator who led the raid on Tokyo, but the character’s personal proclivities. He does as little as possible.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com