Register  |   Log In  |  
Sign up to our weekly newsletter    
Search   
Empire Magazine and iPad
Follow Me on Pinterest YouTube Tumblr
Empire
Trending On Empire
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Teaser Trailer
The Farewell To Middle-earth Issue
Review Of The Year 2014
Subscribe: Get 12 Issues For £25
Buy the perfect Christmas present this year
Farewell To Middle-earth
Full details of our Peter Jackson-edited issue
Reviews
STAR RATINGS EXPLAINED
Unmissable 5 Stars
Excellent 4 Stars
Good 3 Stars
Poor 2 Stars
Tragic 1 Star

FILM DETAILS
Certificate
PG
Cast
Brian Narelle
Cal Kuniholm
Dan O'Bannon.
Directors
John Carpenter.
Screenwriters
John Carpenter
Dan O'Bannon.
Running Time
79 minutes

LATEST DVD REVIEWS
100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, The
3 Star Empire Rating
Gremlins
5 Star Empire Rating
Exorcist, The
4 Star Empire Rating
Romance
3 Star Empire Rating
Green Mile, The
4 Star Empire Rating



5 STAR REVIEWS
Gremlins
5 Star Empire Rating
Intolerance
5 Star Empire Rating
Spirited Away
5 Star Empire Rating
Thief Of Bagdad, The
5 Star Empire Rating
Killing Fields, The
5 Star Empire Rating

EMPIRE ESSAY: Dark Star
Early, vintage Carpenter


submit to reddit


Plot
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.


Review
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.


Extras

Dark Star Dark Star
Released: 28 November 2011
Audio commentary by critic Andrew Gilchrist, 3D guide to the Dark Star ship and mostly spiffy recently made feature-length doco, Let There Be Light, featuring writer Dan O’ Bannon’s last interview but, mysteriously, only archive footage of Carpenter himself.


Verdict
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.


Reviewed by Adam Smith

Write Your Review
To write your review please login or register.

SUBSCRIPTION OFFERS

SAVE UP TO 69% GET 12 ISSUES FOR ONLY £25
Get the best seat in the house by subscribing to the world's biggest movie magazine today. Save up to 69% and every month you'll get exclusive subscriber-only covers, access to the biggest stars and the best news, reviews and behind-the-scenes reports straight from the set. Click here to find the perfect offer for you


CURRENT HIGHLIGHTS
The 10 Best Games Of The Year
2014's top pixel-pushers duke it out for the number one slot

Dan Stevens: The Breakout Star Of 2014
We congratulate The Guest star on his year to remember

The 15 Most Memorable Character Deaths Of The Year
2014’s RIP honour roll

Review Of The Year: 10 Best Soundtracks Of 2014
The scores and OSTs to add to your playlist

Watch: Night At The Museum's Cast Share Their Favourite Robin Williams Performance
Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Ben Kingsley pay tribute to the actor

Watch: Jack O'Connell And Luke Treadaway Talk Unbroken
On POWs, panto and how to name your bomber

Review Of 2014: The 15 Best Cameos Of The Year
Our favourite one-scene movie-stealers

Subscribe to Empire magazine
Get 12 Issues Of Empire For Only £25!

Get exclusive subscriber-only covers each month!

Subscribe today

Subscribe to Empire iPad edition
Get The Empire iPad Edition Today

Subscribe and save maney on annual digital subscription

Subscribe today
Buy single issues

Get 12 issues of Empire for just £25!
Get exclusive subscriber-only covers each month Subscribe today!
Empire's Film Studies 101 Series
Everything you ever wanted to know about filmmaking but were afraid to ask...
The Empire iPad Edition
With exclusive extras, interactive features, trailers and much more! Download now
Home  |  News  |  Blogs  |  Reviews  |  Future Films  |  Features  |  Interviews  |  Images  |  Competitions  |  Forum  |  iPad  |  Podcast  |  Magazine Contact Us  |  Empire FAQ  |  Subscribe To Empire  |  Register
© Bauer Consumer Media Ltd  |  Legal Info  |  Editorial Complaints  |  Privacy Policy  |  Bauer Entertainment Network
Bauer Consumer Media Ltd (company number 01176085 and registered address 1 Lincoln Court, Lincoln Road, Peterborough, England PE1 2RF)