The spaceship Dark Star has been travelling through the inky void of the universe for twenty Earth years, and although that works out to be three space years, the crew still feel as if twenty years have gone by. If not more. They may be heroes back on their home world as they blow up unstable planets in solar systems to make habitable planets nearby safe for colonisation, but in effect they are going out of their minds with boredom. They have already destroyed nineteen of those planets, but eliminating the twentieth might well prove to be more tricky than they had anticipated, for a variety of reasons.
But mainly due to the awkwardness of the bomb they are using. Dark Star was a now-legendary example of how to make a feature film on a tiny budget, get it distributed and go on to at least cult success - not quite The Blair Witch Project, but it certainly paved the way. It began life as around half an hour to forty-five minutes of a student film from John Carpenter, and when he dropped out, he took the footage with him and producer Jack H. Harris offered him cash to expand it into something closer to an hour and a half.
One of the midnight movies of the seventies, it was on this circuit where the film won approval and a steadily growing following, perhaps because of its spoofy allusions to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although its space setting apart, it was closer in tone to Dr Strangelove with its collection of characters messing up in what transpires to be explosive fashion. It may not be exactly knee-slappingly funny, but there are amusing bits and pieces, as when early on Doolittle (Brian Narelle) tells the ship's log that their supply of toilet paper has been destroyed in yet another malfunction.
Everything onboard seems intent on driving the crew to distraction as the tedium really starts to bite. They barely tolerate each other and only Talby (Dre Pahich) seems to face the situation with the requisite mellow attitude as he spends his time in the small observation dome watching the universe go by around them. Doolittle pines for the simple pleasures of his surfboard, Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) appears to be lapsing into psychosis and Pinback (co-writer, among other things, Dan O'Bannon) is petulant and restless, and isn't even supposed to be there thanks to a mix-up with the real Pinback.
Pinback gets to perform in the film's comic setpiece where the alien he picked up along the journey (he thought the ship needed a mascot) has now become, like everything else in their lives, a burden. This alien, a beach ball with claws, has been responsible for commentators drawing parallels with O'Bannon's later work writing Alien, but it's really more like a Warner Bros cartoon come to life with Pinback a hapless Porky Pig character. Yet more than the comedy, what distinguishes Dark Star is its atmosphere of loneliness and futility. These men may be on a mission, but it has become meaningless (how many colonies could Earth reasonably set up anyway?) and there's a cosmic sense of insignificance in the vast universe that eats away at the crew's souls, reflected in the final scenes as they try to reason with a chatty bomb. Not many science fiction movies have achieved this tone, not many try, but that's what makes Dark Star special. Music by Carpenter.
Skillful American writer-director of supense movies, often in the science fiction or horror genres. Comedy Dark Star and thriller Assault on Precinct 13 were low budget favourites, but mega-hit Halloween kick-started the slasher boom and Carpenter never looked back.