Dark Star is probably John Carpenter’s second finest film (after The Thing). It’s the John Carpenter film I’ve always been saying he should make–a funny one. I have seen Dark Star before, probably nine years ago, back when it was somewhat rare (it got picked up, a year after I saw it, by a video distributor who’s kept it in print). The first time I saw it, it struck me how much Dan O’Bannon used again in Alien. In Dark Star, O’Bannon–who makes the film, he should have been an actor, he’s hilarious–hunts a tomato-shaped alien through the bowels of the spaceship. He used that hunt again in his script for Alien. Well, this time, I noticed some of Carpenter’s shot compositions of the spaceship against the planet are identical to Ridley Scott’s set-ups for Alien… Scott just had more money….
The film is pure delight, from O’Bannon’s bickering with his crew mates to the commander rambling about surfing. The humor’s actually a little smarter than I expected, but it’s hard to believe Carpenter and O’Bannon were just students when they made this film. The budget isn’t quite there–it looks about the same as an episode of the original “Star Trek”–but Carpenter always spends his money well. It’s one of his trademarks.
I’m having problems with this post because the film’s only sixty-eight minutes long and it’s a comedy. I’ve already said O’Bannon’s great, I’ve already mentioned some of the funny stuff… but it’s not without some depth too. The film’s present action is short, maybe a few hours, and while the specifics of these characters’ longings are comedic, their existence is not. I just read someone call Dark Star a parody of 2001 but it’s not… The end of Dark Star is touching and more humane–if incredibly short (three minutes at the most)–then the rest of Carpenter’s filmography combined. Seeing Dark Star in 1974, I’m not sure it would connect with the Carpenter who made They Live. I just remembered Starman (as an example of Carpenter’s humaneness, but Dark Star has it beat). It’s a great film.