Monday, September 9, 2013

Revisiting the Classics -- Dark Star

Today we have the 1974 cult classic Dark Star. As far as I can tell, this was John Carpenter's first full-length movie. He directed it; he wrote it; hell, he even did the music.

The story takes place aboard the titular starship out in the reaches of deep space. The crew consists mainly of five guys. Doolittle is the defacto leader/surfer, having taken over for the now-frozen Commander Powell; Talby spends most of his time in the observation dome on top of the ship; Pinback is the resident goofball; and Boiler is fairly unremarkable. Together with the ship's female AI, they travel the galaxy looking for unstable planets to drop sentient bombs (each named Bomb) on to blow up in order to pave the way for eventual human colonization. Unfortunately, said planets take a while to find and destroy, leaving a lot of down time in between jobs. Talby just stares out into space usually, while Pinback works on his tan or takes care of the alien they found (basically a large red beach ball with lizard feet). Boiler amuses himself with unauthorized target practice using the laser rifle, and Doolittle actually does his job.

One day, things get particularly bad. Pinback is nearly killed chasing the alien into an elevator shaft, and the computer keeps accidentally sending the bomb drop signal to the next Bomb. After the third false alarm, Bomb refuses to obey the order to go back into the ship, and insists on detonating. This wouldn't be such a big deal, except the clamps won't disengage, and so the explosive has nowhere to detonate except the ship itself. Acting on the advice of the barely coherent Powell-sicle, Doolittle attempts to talk Bomb out of detonating using philosophy. How, he argues, can you be sure you received the signal? How do you know that which you perceive is real? The entire universe could simply be an illusion.

Well, the strategy works. Perhaps too well, actually. Bomb now has delusions of godhood, and decides to bring light to the universe the only way it knows how--with a big bang! Is the crew of the Dark Star doomed? You'll have to watch the movie to find out.

I wanted to like this movie. Unfortunately, I only enjoyed it about half the time. Like Logan's Run, it has primitive special effects and questionable acting. Unlike Logan's Run, however, it's frequently boring. The banter between the crew members failed to hook my interest, and they for the most part look the same (white guys with beards). Also, the film cannot decide if it wants to be a comedy or a serious space story. Tense music plays during the scene in which Pinback struggles to escape being crushed by the elevator, yet with the ridiculous beach ball alien hovering around, I could not take it seriously. Pinback's eventual solution to his predicament is also treated humorously.

I did, however, like the ending. It comes out of left field and is a pleasant surprise. Still, the rest of the movie is hit or miss. Some people really like Dark Star, but for me it lies squarely in the middle of the road.

Interesting factoid: Nick Castle, who worked as a camera/electrical crew member on this film, went on to direct the vastly superior The Last Starfighter (also featured on this blog)

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