Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dark Star

Well, I knew at some point I would have to write about Dark Star. This is one oddity that anyone who likes sci-fi should see at some time or another, not because it is good sci-fi, but because of its place in sci-fi history, its smart sci-fi satire, and its raw honesty and originality. You could call it comedy, but that would not quite do it justice.

By history I am referring to it being a collaboration by two college kids who would later become influential figures in the world of Hollywood sci-fi, fantasy, and horror - John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon. Among other films, Carpenter would hit it big time with The Thing and O'Bannon with the script for Alien. They made this film as a college project at USC on a budget of about $60K. Some of it was even filmed in studios on the campus. It was originally a 45 minute short that got such great response at film festivals that a producer grabbed hold of it, had the guys extend it another 40 minutes, and released and distributed it as a feature film. That extra time causes the film to drag in places but the director's cut took most of it back out, the opposite of what normally happens in director's cut versions. The acting is bad, the special effects are gloriously bad, but the writing, dialogue, and even some of the directing is quite original and entertaining.

The film was made in 1974 when the only serious space travel film on anyone's mind was 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the more realistic yet sometimes unnerving aspects of 2001 was the long drawn out zero-gravity sequences. Dark Star sort of pokes fun at that idea by portraying a crew that is so bored with the endless tedium of space that they either start finding odd ways to pass the time or just drift off into their own fantasy worlds. One of them keeps a pet alien that looks like a beach ball with feet, probably because that is exactly what it is. And instead of HAL, the ship's computer is named Mother. That still makes me laugh.
Due to the low budget, many of the sets were built from whatever the crew could get their hands on - like having ice cube trays pass for console control buttons. But the highlight is the smartly oddball humor, like the mysterious death of their beloved captain Powell, who turns out to still be available enough for some advice in a crisis. And of course, the crisis itself which has to do with a smart bomb malfunctioning and deciding it wants to blow up while still attached to the ship. The acting captain, Lt. Doolittle, manages to keep the bomb busy thinking about epistomological questions such as "How do you know you even exist?". That exchange between Doolittle and the bomb is enough to make the film worth the sit through. So if you are a science fiction fan and haven't seen it, and you ever get the chance to do so, I recommend taking it. Of course, you'll know for sure by gauging your reaction to the trailer below:

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