Classic Film Club: 'Dark Star' (1974)

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Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: John Carpenter's 'Dark Star' (1974)

It was recently observed that the ‘Classic Film Club’ column is becoming a mite serious, focussing on the hefty granite masterworks of cinema and overlooking equally classic and arguably more beloved comedies, cartoons and fantasy films. To this end, we hereby present a reaction to John Carpenter’s daft, unprofessional, meandering, pointless but loveable no-budget sci-fi mini-epic, ‘Dark Star’.

The film began life as a student project, albeit a hugely inventive and logistically challenging one: Carpenter and co-writer Dan O’Bannon had put together a 45-minute short, before receiving funds from occasional exploitation producer Jack H Harris to expand it into a feature film for the drive-in set. It details the pointless and meandering lives of the weary, bearded crew of the eponymous spaceship, on an endless deep-space mission to destroy unstable planets and make the universe safe for human colonial expansion.

Very few films encapsulate their era the way ‘Dark Star’ does. From the bizarre and conspicuous country-rock theme tune ‘Benson, Arizona’ to the vaguely eco-centric message, from the woolly anti-establishment tone (with stray potshots against Vietnam-era militarism, colonialism, Hollywood etc) to the general air of slapdash outsider can-do, this is a film that could just as easily have been strung together in a barn on the outskirts of Woodstock as a university in Kentucky. It’s also very clearly a student film, the crew of seasoned spacehoppers played (with varying degrees of success) by hirsute dopers in their early twenties, spouting the sort of cosmic, pseudo-philosophical dialogue that sounds like wisdom to the absurdly high.

There’s no hiding the fact that ‘Dark Star’ is a low-budget movie, with special effects and production design that wouldn’t have looked out of place during the mid-’50s space opera boom. But it’s the contrast between the cardboard ships and silver spray-painted spacesuits and the staunchly ’70s dialogue and characterisation that proves one of the film’s greatest strengths. The crew quarters, for example, look suspiciously like a student dorm room, the walls plastered with half-hearted graffiti and haphazardly tacked posters of bathing beauties. The only thing missing is a lava lamp.

'Dark Star’ wears its influences proudly, from ‘Flash Gordon’ and ‘Forbidden Planet’ to ‘the ultimate trip’ itself, ‘2001’. But it was also – entirely unexpectedly – influential in its own right. ‘Alien’, also co-written by O’Bannon, is virtually a remake, with its bored space truckers, escaped space creature and placid female computer, not to mention the dazzling explosion of light which opens one film and closes the other. The BBC’s ‘Red Dwarf’ was clearly an attempt to reinvent the movie as a 30 minute sitcom, with its everyman characters trapped in the eternal tedium of space travel, and the godless emptiness of a universe bereft of intelligent life (not to mention a theme tune clearly modelled on ‘Benson’).

Besides the familiar genre trappings, there’s surprisingly little in ‘Dark Star’ that hints at the sort of filmmaker Carpenter would become. It’s goofy and lazily paced, a far cry from the savage and breathless ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ only two years later. The only exception is the film’s iconic sequence, featuring an escaped lifeform which taunts the astronaut Pinback by hiding in the storage bay. A scene in which the creature lures Pinback into an open elevator shaft – clearly shot on a right angle in an empty corridor – is the only moment of genuine tension in the film, and Carpenter milks it for all its worth.

For all its faults, its impossible not to admire ‘Dark Star’: like that other idiosyncratic student masterwork, ‘Eraserhead’, it’s one of those films that feels as though it just shouldn’t exist, the product of sheer bloody-minded dedication of the part of its makers. The early ’70s was a time of wild experimentation in American cinema, with numerous studio projects greenlit simply on the strength of their countercultural connections. But ‘Dark Star’ still feels weirder than any of them, a film made by, about and for student stoners, late-night movie buffs and cosmically-minded existentialist loners.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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