By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: Four guys in space.
Dark Star is a scout ship used to destroy planets in the galaxy that are considered unstable. Its crew consists of four men: Pingback (Dan O’Bannon) who keeps a pet alien resembling a beach ball in the back storage room, Talby (Dre Pahlich) who spends all his time sitting alone in the ship’s observation deck, Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) who enjoys playing around with the ship’s emergency laser rifle, and Doolittle (Brian Narelle) who spends his time dreaming about being able to water surf again. The men have all spent 20 years on the ship and its begun to take a toll on their mental state as well as the ship’s mechanical framework, which ultimately challenges their survival.
This started as a student project while director John Carpenter and O’Bannon were attending USC’s film school back in 1970 and it was met with such enthusiasm that they decided to lengthen it into a feature film. Although critics at the time loved it the public didn’t, which caused the film to be shown to virtually empty theaters only to finally find a second life on the DVD market where it has now achieved a strong cult following.
Despite being an obvious parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey it doesn’t just play it up for cheap laughs, which why it works. Too many times parodies overplay the comedy elements by using an Airplane-like structure that is just one slapstick gag after another. Here there’s an actual story with character’s motivations that make sense given their circumstances and coming off more like a quirky observation of the psychological effects of space isolation instead of just a cheesy comedy.
The special effects are impressive especially given its limited budget. Sure some of it is tacky including having the ship’s console board made up of ice cube trays turned upside down, or space suits made of muffin tins and helmets worn by the crew that were actually designed for children. Yet there’s a share of cool moments too like the flashing lights used to represent a meteor storm in space or a scene involving a former commander (John Carpenter) kept in cryogenic suspension and even a nerve-wracking moment inside an empty elevator shaft.
The most memorable segment involves an alien that resembles a beach ball with little feet. Initially this looks absurd and makes the film seem too silly, but when the alien manages to escape from its holding cell and begins creating havoc on the ship it starts to seem, as surprising as this may sound, creepy and gives the film a certain chilling edge that was later used as the basis for Alien.
There are enough original moments here for it to be appreciated by just about any sci-fi fan with a funnybone. The fact that the story focuses on the crew’s mental deterioration and the ship’s eroding structure is not all that far off from reality either. Many other big budget sci-fi flicks, in their quest to bombard the viewer with the latest overblown special effects, usually ignore the psychological angle of being trapped on a spaceship for long periods of time would have, which thus gives this movie, as campy as it ultimately is, a certain insightful edge.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: March 30, 1974
Runtime: 1Hour 23Minutes
Director: John Carpenter
Studio: Jack H. Harris Enterprises