Tag Archives: Dan O’ Bannon

Dark Star (1974)

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

Rated G

Director: John Carpenter

Studio: Jack H. Harris Enterprises

Available: DVD

Blue Thunder (1983)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: A technologically advanced helicopter.

Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) is a LAPD officer still suffering from flashbacks from his time in Vietnam while working now as part of the air patrol division where he mans a helicopter at night and gives assistance to the cops on the ground.  Due to his expertise he is given the chance to helm the first advanced helicopter called Blue Thunder, which has abilities to fight crime like no other machine before it. As he tests out the new product with his partner Richard (Daniel Stern) he overhears a conversation, through using the machines built-in microphones that can pick up voices from inside buildings, talking about using Blue Thunder for nefarious means. Frank records the conversation and then gets hounded by the bad guys who are led by his lifelong rival from his army days F.E. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell). To escape their clutches Frank boards the helicopter and flies all over the city of L.A. while waiting for his wife Kate (Candy Clark) to get the incriminating tape to a TV-station where it will be broadcast for the public to hear, but Cochrane, who is an expert pilot as well, gets into another helicopter and tries to shoot Blue Thunder down.

The script was written by the prolific Dan O’Bannon who also wrote the scripts for Alien and Total Recall. He got the idea for this one while living in L.A. and constantly having a police helicopters routinely fly over his neighborhood at night. The original script was darker in tone and portrayed Frank as a psychotic who steals the helicopter and terrorizes the city until he is finally shot down, but that idea got nixed and like with most big-budgeted Hollywood projects got toned down to help appeal to a wider audience.

Personally I would’ve found the original idea more interesting as it also contained political overtones that get completely washed over here. The story here is pretty generic with one-dimensional villains and situations simply thrown in to create cheap conflict and nothing more.

What impressed me though was the modern visual style and effects. It hardly seems like a mid-80s movie at all let alone one that was actually filmed in late ’79 and early ’80. The overriding sentiment has a trendy feel and the cinematography is vivid and colorful. The helicopter action is the film’s biggest selling point and no matter how dippy the story gets the exciting aerial footage more than makes up for it. I loved the way director John Badham captures all sides of Los Angeles from its glitzy skyline to its more grimy and rundown working class areas. It’s also nice to have a REAL helicopter REALLY flying in the air over the city instead of computer generated effects, which makes many of today’s movies look fake and cheapens them while still keeping many of the ‘80s action flicks superior.

Scheider has never been a leading man that I’ve found particularly impressive as his presence seems transparent. However here his laid-back demeanor nicely contrasts with McDowell’s hyper one and makes the bad guy seem even more vindictive. Stern is engaging as Scheider’s partner and it’s too bad this wasn’t made into a buddy movie with Stern’s character staying on for the whole time. Clark is also enjoyable particularly with the wild look that she elicits with her eyes and the car chase that she has with the cops in an abandoned lot of a drive-In theater.

This also sadly marks Warren Oates last project. It was filmed in 1980 and he did a few other films after this one, but this was released last. Oates is one of the most distinctive character actors to ever grace the screen and even in a bland supporting role like the one here he still finds a way to enliven it.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: May 13, 1983

Runtime: 1 Hour 49 Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Badham

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Lifeforce (1985)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Space vampires destroy London.

Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) is the head of the space shuttle Churchill who along with a team of astronauts investigate a strange form that is attached to Halley’s Comet. There they find some humanoids in caskets and bring them back to the shuttle where the humanoids then destroy the entire crew with only Carlsen surviving. When a rescue mission arrives they bring the humanoids back to earth only to discover that the beautiful Space Girl (Mathilda May) is a vampire bent on destroying the entire city of London by inhabiting other people’s bodies. Carlsen then joins forces with Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth) to stop this dangerous breed of vampires before it is too late.

The saying ‘too much of a good thing’ has never been truer than with this film. The screenplay, which was co-written by Dan O’Bannon and based on the Colin Wilson novel, takes on too much. Had this been a miniseries or an ongoing television ssow like ‘Lost’ it might have worked, but the dizzying pace and myriad of twists here become mind numbing. The elaborate story does not equal the characters that are generic and dialogue that is dull. The scenes in-between the action are boring. The film lacks atmosphere or a linear production design. A little bit of a set-up would have helped as well.

The special effects are okay, but some of the backgrounds particularly the ones seen when the team investigates where the vampires reside look like drawings with the actors matted over it. The sight of the dead, shriveled bodies are not scary because they reminded me too much of the host of the old TV-series ‘Tales from the Crypt’.

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May certainly looks great naked and I admired her courage to do a nude scene while in a room full of clothed men. However, we don’t see enough of her. There are long segments where she is not seen as she inhabits other people’s bodies, which takes away from the film’s erotic potential. The side-story involving her romance with Carlsen is cheesy and dumb.

Railsback proves once again why he is good in a psycho role, but not as a protagonist. The dark circles under his eyes and his intense Texas drawl make him seem creepy even when he doesn’t want to be. I also thought it was a strange coincidence that the date this story begins is August 9th, which is the same date that Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered by Charles Manon’s cult who Railsback famously played in the TV-Movie ‘Helter Skelter’.

Firth proves okay and I liked this jaded, hardened police detective played by someone with a very boyish face. It is also great to see Patrick Stewart in a small role as the head of a sanitarium.

The film gets more ludicrous as it goes on and is unwisely played with a straight-face where adding some humor would have made it more engaging and tolerable. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame should remake this and I’m convinced would do it a lot better.

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My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: June 21, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 56Minutes

Rated R

Director: Tobe Hooper

Studio: TriStar Pictures, The Cannon Group

Available: DVD, Blu-ray