Produced over the course of three years and released theatrically in 1974, Dark Star is a modern antique. John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon collaborated on the project as film students at USC knowing full well that they were working in a medium that was undergoing an American pop culture renaissance. George Lucas, himself a USC graduate, set the standard for his peers with his debut effort, THX 1138, and talk of UCLA student Francis Ford Coppola’s talents had also reached Carpenter and his crew. Carpenter and O’Bannon had something to prove, a zeal for having everything just so and hence doing everything themselves that would go on to define Carpenter’s career and haunt O’Bannon’s. Both men wore as many hats as possible when they made Dark Star: Carpenter co-wrote the script, served as an unofficial voice actor, and directed, produced, and composed original music for the film while O’Bannon wrote, acted, edited, and supervised special effects during its production. Carpenter and O’Bannon were making a film that proved that they could build a smarter, funnier, more cost-effective space odyssey. Today, Dark Star looks like a relic, albeit an ambitious and flat-out charming artifact that’s totally inextricable from its time. It’s also one of the most satisfying films either auteur ever made.
Though Dark Star doesn’t directly engage with contemporary topical themes (no overt jabs at the Vietnam War or prolonged groans of disillusionment over the way the government had betrayed the American public), it’s very much a film of the mid ‘70s. Carpenter and O’Bannon’s story follows a group of four astronauts stewing in a cramped space ship for what to them seems like three years but is in fact 20 years relative to their launch from Earth. As emissaries of the Advance Exploration Corps, the antsy crew of the Dark Star is tasked with blowing up unstable planets using lippy sentient “Smart Bombs” whose sole reason for existing is naturally self-destruction. Furthermore, the ship’s captain, Commander Powell, is dead and frozen below the deck so that they crew can get counsel from his corpse, a concept taken from Philip K. Dick’s Ubik. Now, totally rudderless, the crew is only interested in finding something new to destroy: “Don’t give me any of that intelligent life stuff,” Doolittle (Brian Narelle) balks. “Find me something I can blow up.”
Nothing that happens on the Dark Star has the capacity to amaze its crew anymore. Everyone else on board is actively cracking up, firing off laser pistols and sunning themselves with heat lamps to let off steam. Their mission is no longer a priority. “Think we’ll ever find any intelligent life out there,” one asks. “Who cares,” the other groans, not even bothering to stare at his companion. Carpenter once described the film’s protagonists as “truck drivers in space”: As astronauts, they actively explore a new frontier, but while the Dark Star crew are still discovering the boundaries of space, they no longer hope to find anything worth marveling at. Life is just a series of tedious tasks, explosions, system malfunctions, all engulfed in darkness. There’s nothing fantastic about the universe according to Dark Star, just a bunch of stuff that probably never really mattered in the first place.
That pervasive existential uncertainty, according to Carpenter and O’Bannon, is the stuff of great comedy. Dark Star‘s black humor is influenced equally by Merry Melodies‘s precise comic timing and emphasis on schadenfreude and Buster Keaton’s unique brand of blue-collar absurdist peril. The two styles collide in the film’s best scene, in which Pinback (O’Bannon) is stuck in a service hatch at the bottom of a moving elevator while Figaro’s aria from The Barber of Seville blares. The worker drone gets it in the end and suffers spectacularly for his troubles. The only sign of intelligent life on the ship other than a talking computer and the Smart Bombs is an alien that looks like a mottled red beach ball with pooper-scooper-sized claws. Likewise, the only signs that the crew is tenuously maintaining their sanity comes from Pinback’s heavily censored video diaries, in which he reveals that he’s not really Pinback but rather a “fuel maintenance technician” that’s been wearing Pinback’s clothing for years. There is also now no more toilet paper left on the Dark Star; their supply inexplicably has exploded. In space, no one can hear you crack up.
The fact that there’s no logical way to not emotionally malfunction aboard the Dark Star speaks to the film’s central egocentrism: everybody has to do everything themselves, even the Smart Bomb that obliterates the ship after it reasons that it is, in fact, God: “The only thing that exists is My Self.” The only crewmember afforded a momentary escape from that kind of self-imposed burden is Doolittle when he commits suicide by riding a piece of debris like it were a surfboard. He burns up in the nearest planet’s atmosphere and disappears from view not as a man, but as a blip of light on the horizon. Space is, after all, the place for cowboys and loners. Dark Star remains one of the best expressions of that quest for personal freedom because it was principally created by two artists that define themselves by their own fierce intellect and staunch individualism.
The most perplexing thing about VCI's updated edition of their barebones 1999 release is the new release's poor picture quality. As in their last edition, VCI has included both versions of Dark Star, the 68-minute cut John Carpenter had originally planned on releasing and the 83-minute one that was theatrically released after Hollywood producer Jack Harris convinced Carpenter to add some much-needed padding to the film. According to VCI, both versions of the film were remastered with "frame-by-frame digital restoration of the video master" and "the soundtrack has been digital enhanced and restored to Dolby Digital 5.1." And yet, after comparing VCI's 1999 the picture quality with this new edition, I've found that the picture quality is somewhat fuzzier on both cuts of the film. The sound quality is indeed noticeably improved, featuring a significant reduction in white noise, but visually, the film seems a little more out of focus and a good deal darker in its contrast. The purples, greens, and magentas are deeper, which may have been Carpenter's original color schema, but really, a film that supposedly was restored 10 years since its last DVD release should not look this markedly worse.
VCI piles on the special features onto this "Hyperdrive" edition, including a feature-length documentary called "Let There Be Light: The Odyssey of Dark Star," whose runtime is practically double Dark Star's own. It's an informative and very well-edited piece on the production of the film according to everyone from Diane O'Bannon, Dan's widow, to actor Brian Narelle. All the talking heads are very articulate and bring a lot of neat information to the table, especially in the way of context as to what it was like to make the film on a miniscule $55,000 budget.
Also included are two neat 30-minute interviews, one with Narelle and another with author Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the official novelization of the film. Foster's interview is more interesting as he's not featured in Let There Be Light. Even though Foster's anecdotes about writing an official Dark Star adaptation for Del Rey Books seem like the kind of stories he's told a million times at conventions, his recollections are almost all funny and interesting.
While VCI already included both versions of Dark Star on their 1999 release, having both films on-hand is still a major bonus. I prefer the 83-minute theatrical cut, as the three scenes that were cut from the original 68-minute version—the asteroid belt sequence, the googly eyes/rubber chicken scene, and the musical instrument bit—all greatly contribute to the idea that killing time is the status quo aboard the Dark Star.
Really, the only uninteresting features here are a virtual tour of the Dark Star ship, which is really just an examination of the exterior of a 3D model of the ship, and an audio commentary track by "super-fan" Andrew Gilchrist. A lot of the information Gilchrist provides is said in Let There Be Light; frankly, I don't want to hear the history of a film's production from an uninformed nerd while I'm watching the film when I can hear it afterwards from more authoritative sources, like the film's actors, special effects supervisors, and John frigging Carpenter himself.
While VCI's new release of Dark Star somehow actually looks worse than its last release, this new "Hyperdrive" edition is a great update thanks to its abundant special features. Let there be light, indeed.