The crew of the Dark Star are on a 20-year mission to clear a path in space by destroying planets that are in the way of navigation routes. After a series of mishaps Mother, the ships computer, can no longer persuade Bomb not to detonate. Even the dead captain is of little help in arguing with Bomb who is bound to do his duty.
Comedy and sci-fi rarely mix, and when they do it's usually in the inferior form of spoof (Spaceballs, Airplane II). Woody Allen's Sleeper probably comes closest to a true sci-fi comedy but even here the jokes emerge from a 20th Century man's perceptions of the future and its odd technologies (orgasmatrons, orbs and nostrilectomies).
John Carpenter's debut movie Dark Star is almost unique in getting its laughs naturally from the desperate situation of its protagonists and their conflicting characters. But alongside the gags Dark Star has at its heart a strangely touching sense of the loneliness and isolation that must accompany space travel. It also originated the grungy, "realistic" look to the future which would influence both Blade Runner and Alien. Which is not surprising since it is, amongst many other things, a riposte to the sleek techno-worship and impenetrable philosophical ponderings of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey which was released six years earlier.
Dark Star has four astronauts aboard the titular craft which, after 20 years in deep space carrying out its relatively pointless mission of blowing up unstable planets, is falling to pieces. The original commander is dead (though still talking from his cryogenic suspension chamber in the hold) after his seat exploded, the sleeping quarters have been destroyed and since the crew can't be bothered to do anything about it they bed down in a detritus-strewn storage locker. "Storage area 9 self-destructed last week," notes commander Doolittle (Narelle) wearily in his log, "destroying the ship's entire supply of toilet paper." Not only that but the ship's computer ("Mother", voiced by Cookie Knapp, the only member of the cast excluding Carpenter and screenwriter Dan O'Bannon to have any kind of future in the movies, she's a set teacher now) spends most of its time trying to persuade Bomb number 20 to desist from exploding and return to the bomb bay.
Meanwhile the crew — comprising space hippy Talby (Pahich) who simply gazes at the stars; Boiler (Kuniholm) who uses bits of the collapsing ship for target practice; and Finback (O'Bannon) who bitches about the state they're in and, in one of the film's virtuoso sequences, is attacked by the ship's mascot alien (which closely resembles a beach ball) — bicker, slob around and pass the endless hours as best they can.
Originally made as a University Of Southern California film-school graduation project, Dark Star ran a mere 45 minutes until producer Jack H. Harris spotted the movie's cult potential and kicked in extra funding taking the running time to feature length and the budget to a total of $60,000, a paltry amount for any movie, let alone science fiction, traditionally an expensive genre simply because of the demands of special effects. But Carpenter brilliantly turns his lack of funds into an asset, directly poking fun at Kubrick's state-of-the-art futurescapes with his own tatty sets and straggly-bearded space cowboys.
The Kubrick baiting is pursued through the music. Whereas the distinguished 2001 helmer famously used carefully selected classical pieces, Carpenter invokes tacky country and western (Benson, Arizona is the film's main theme), rock and roll, and in a wicked dig at Kubrick's esoteric selections, has the computer play When Twilight Falls On NGC-891 which turns out to be unendurable muzak. Even the movie's final shot of a sun rising above a planet is a reference to the Space Odyssey.
But Dark Star is far more than a cheap gag at another movie's expense. Firstly it explore several themes and motifs that would appear in both Carpenter and O'Bannon's subsequent work: the O'Bannon scripted Alien owes not only its computer's moniker (Mother) to Dark Star but its theme (isolated astronauts dealing with an alien intruder) could simply be seen as Dark Star played without the laughs, while Carpenter would take that self same theme, relocate it to the Antarctic and call his intruder The Thing (it isn't only movies that owe a debt of gratitude, TV's Red Dwarf is unthinkable without Carpenter's antecedent). And secondly, it is permeated with an almost poetic sense of melancholy and loneliness. At one point Doolittle plays an odd musical instrument he has constructed out of water filled bottles, while up in his viewing capsule Talby simply stares in wonder at the stars.
The whimsical ending which has Bomb No. 20 developing a God complex and destroying the ship (another 2001 nod, this time towards Hal) leaves Doolittle surfing into an alien planet's atmosphere to end life as a shooting star, while Talby joins The Phoenix Asteroids to glow and circle the galaxy forever (it's an ending that displeased sci-fi author Ray Bradbury who accused Carpenter of cribbing it wholesale from his short story Kaleidoscope). And in a treat for pedants, Carpenter manages to commit what is probably the first and only philosophical flub in film history — the subject Doolittle discusses with the bomb is epistemology, not phenomenology. The high-minded Kubrick may have had the last laugh after all.
In essence, Dark Star has what all great comedy has: a sense of desperation and pathos allied to an abiding humanity which elevates it high above the realm of mere spoof.