Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dark Star (1974)

          Ambitious USC film student John Carpenter did such a bang-up job on his 45-minute thesis film, a 2001-inspired sci-fi comedy called Dark Star, that producer Jack H. Harris gave him a few extra bucks with which to shoot another 40 minutes of footage so the picture could become a theatrical feature. The resulting movie didn’t make much noise upon its initial release, but once Carpenter achieved stardom by making Halloween (1978) and other pictures, Dark Star was rediscovered. Given this context, it’s surprising that the movie is much more deeply infused with the personality of Carpenter’s principal collaborator on the project, fellow USC film student Dan O’Bannon. The two wrote the script together, O’Bannon plays the lead role, and O’Bannon both edited the film and supervised the picture’s resourceful special effects.
          Although all of Carpenter’s movies have mordant wit, he tends toward succinct irony. By contrast, the late O’Bannon tended toward overt comedy—so instead of Carpenter’s sly asides, Dark Star has motor-mouthed verbal gags and lots of outright slapstick. In fact, one reason the movie isn’t more effective is that Carpenter’s visual style of deep shadows and wide frames, which was already fully formed at this early stage, drowns the jokes in too much brooding atmosphere.
          That said, Dark Star has a trippy concept and many amusing scenes. The story concerns a space vessel called Dark Star, which zips through the universe blowing up planetoids that stand in the way of man’s development. The crew comprises shaggy hippies who bicker and joke like frat boys, and one of them is a ’70s stoner type who spends all his time in the ship’s observation bubble, silently blissing out on celestial panoramas. Crew member Pinback (O’Bannon), is in charge of feeding the ship’s mascot, a mischievous alien portrayed as a beach ball with feet, and a great deal of the movie concerns Pinback’s comedic misadventures with the critter. As silly as this material is, it’s executed professionally, and O’Bannon shows an appealing flair for physical comedy.
          On a deeper level, the movie riffs on 2001 by depicting a sentient bomb that gets annoyed each time it’s mistakenly pushed out of the ship for dispersal, and then pulled back in once the error is corrected. In the film’s funniest sequence, one of the astronauts gets into an argument with the bomb about the nature of existence as a means of dissuading the bomb from detonating.
          Dark Star drags because of the feature-length padding, the continuity is glitchy, and the visuals are grungy because the picture was shot on 16-milimeter film. But as a snapshot of where the collegiate head was at during the early ’70s, and as a footnote to one of cinema’s most interesting directing careers, Dark Star is a valuable artifact. Plus, it even has an amiable theme song: In addition to creating his first musical score, beginning a tradition that continued throughout his glory years, Carpenter penned the music for the country-and-Western ditty “Benson, Arizona,” which plays over the opening and closing credits.

Dark Star: FUNKY

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