Call it the ultimate stoner space epic, or a student film gone berserk: “Dark Star” manages to capture the fried zeitgeist of the post-'60s counterculture while successfully skewering the great epic sci-fi films of its day. No mean feat.
This bizarre cult movie was made by a couple of wise-guy film students who later found great success in mainstream Hollywood: director John Carpenter (“Halloween”) and writer Dan O'Bannon (“Alien”). Their 1974 collaboration, “Dark Star,” began as a 45-minute University of Southern California project shot on 16 mm film for $55,000. After earning plaudits at film festivals, the filmmakers were begrudgingly persuaded by a producer to shoot another 38 minutes to bring the running time to a theatrical-release length. A new DVD reissue of “Dark Star” (“the Hyperdrive Edition”) includes both versions — the original (more immediate) student film and the not-uninteresting longer cut. Either way you view it, “Dark Star” is a low-tech treasure, a shaggy dog-in-space story that awaits rediscovery.
Welcome aboard the ship Dark Star, a commercial spacecraft employed on a 20-year mission to demolish unstable planets for the benefit of future colonies in the mid-22nd century. Meet Sgt. Pinback (O'Bannon), who's been cracking up for years and has the video diaries to prove it. Say hello to Boiler (Cal Kuniholm), who has a tendency to get violent, and Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle), who's become obsessed with surfing (“I wish I had my board with me”).
Pick up the cryogenic phone and talk to the ship's dead leader, Commander Powell (Joe Saunders), who wonders why the crew doesn't visit him more often (“how are the Dodgers doing?”). Finally, call up to Talby (Dre Pahich), another bearded and disheveled crewman, who has holed up in the ship's dome, staring at the stars and wishing he could become part of a constellation. This must be where they grow the ship's pot.
There's an alien that looks like a beach ball with feet, taken in as a “mascot,” that turns into a comic menace (O'Bannon turned a similar idea into a horror franchise five years later), there are numerous mediations of the meaning of life, a humorous exchange with a talking bomb who develops a God complex (“This is fun!”) and then there's the bravura finale, a freewheeling parody of Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey” (with a dash of “Dr. Strangelove”), in which everything goes to hell but, strangely, everybody gets what they want.
Critic David Thomson once wrote that “Dark Star,” for all of its jokey amateurism, contained more real ideas than “Star Wars.” He's correct, but that's not to say it's flawless. The movie is uneven, the acting is inconsistent and many of the low-budget effects are atrocious. But just as young screenwriters should study Carpenter and O'Bannon's witty script, budding filmmakers can still learn from the film's simple, ramshackle production design, which uses things such as luminated ice-cube trays, model-kit parts and microfiche readers in order to simulate space gear.
While the details don't always convince, we can appreciate the ingenuity and applaud the audacity. Plus the low-rent shoddiness turns out to be a nice grounding for the film's loftier existential pretensions. “Dark Star” may not be the greatest student film of all time, but how many great student films warrant a special “Hyperdrive Edition” 36 and a half years after they are made? How many deserve it?