Dark Star is fundamentally a John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon movie, more so than most such projects are. Taking form as a student film, Dark Star is essentially a whimsical student project writ large with John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon doing virtually all the work on it with John Carpenter directing, co-writing and writing the music for Dark Star while Dan O’Bannon starred, co-wrote and edited the movie. With a tiny budget of a few tens of thousands of dollars, Dark Star may look a lot like an arcade game but it was a monumental feat.
As a movie though Dark Star is a strange project. One part 2001 A Space Odossey and one part Catch 22, Dark Star is flavored with the wildly unfocused energy of 70’s cinema without necessarily having much in the way of direction. Told in a series of scenes that mix slapstick with depressive meditation, Dark Star is an anarchic story that ends in destruction and redemption.
Shot toward the end of the Vietnam War, Dark Star treats the military and government institutions as incompetent and dangerous and positions its space travelers with greasy, ragged and overgrown hair and beards flying through space and destroying any unstable planets they find or any planets they think might be unstable to make the universe safe for colonization.
Much like the anti-war novel Catch 22, Dark Star has its own pilots and personnel drifting dissatisfied on a mission of nearly pointless destruction with no real hope but escape, irritated by each other’s eccentricities and increasingly losing touch with their sanity. Pinback, played by Dan O’Bannon, proclaims that he isn’t even supposed to be on board the Dark Star but is only a maintenance technician whose real name is William Froug who accidentally ended up on board the ship and forced to take Pinback’s role. Talby sits above the Dark Star satisfied to be observing space and unwilling to spend time in the ship proper away from his transparent observation dome. Lt. Doolitle is completely out of his league commanding the Dark Star. Boiler suffers from severe anger management problem. The crew don’t so much get along as uneasily share the same space.
The Dark Star has a constantly malfunctioning series of systems that endanger the lives of its crew, destroying their living quarters, killing the commander and eventually destroying the entire ship. The computer with a warm feminine voice serves as their maternal figure taking care of the male crew who are increasingly incapable of taking care of themselves. Drifting through space and devoid of any real purpose besides the fun they get when they blow up an unstable rogue planet, the ship and the crew have no real reason for existing besides the will and whim of a space agency too cheap to even ship them the radiation shielding they need but which can declare a national day of mourning for the loss of their commander.
The line of satirically absurdist depictions of service runs cleanly from Catch 22 to Dark Star. But Dark Star lacks the polish and sophistication of a true satire. Mainly Dark Star is about bored men in space and so can’t help being boring. In between the handful of slapstick scenes including Pinback chasing an alien who is essentially an inflatable colorful giant beach ball with a temper through a working elevator shaft, Dark Star lingers on extended shots of Lt. Doolitle spending time with Talby in the transparent observation dome or the crew sitting around and eating packaged ham rations. After all being interesting requires a story and Dark Star sheds story in favor of the absurdity of a pointless mission and often ends up being pointless itself. Where the long interminable silences and empty days in 2001 A Space Odossey established the ominous in which time slips away from you in the isolation of space and living each minute as an hour becomes a surreal experience in and of itself, Dark Stars tosses the grungy and hairy representatives of its generation in that same environment and crosses Vietnam with space travel minus the excitement of any action or real plot. Boredom becomes both inevitable and inescapable. Both in and out of the movie.
Some of the slapstick comedy is funny. Pinback chasing the alien who is basically an inflated beach ball, which Carpenter and crew manage to endow with personality by adding a set of clawed vulture feet which express emotions by tapping, kicking and tickling Pinback while clinging to an elevator shaft and struggling not to fall. Deprived of its normal diet, whatever that may be and dissatisfied by the fruit Pinback attempts to feed it, the alien whom Pinback picked up and intended as a mascot, first tries to eat his head and then wreaks havoc as Pinback chases it around the ship.
The interactions between the computer, Lt. Doolittle and the intelligent bombs, a definite Philip K. Dick touch in the movie, who are programmed to detonate lead to the conclusion of the movie that has Doolitle trying to prove to the bomb using phenomenology that no data that it has can be trusted is amusing (and another Philip K. Dick touch), at least to those who read Descartes and noticed how many steps his proofs begin to skip from the very beginning. The inevitable result of being told that no outside data can be trusted and that it must derive all its knowledge about the universe from the beginning, the bomb promptly concludes that all outside data is flawed and that nothing exists besides itself and that it is god and promptly detonates to “bring forth light”.
This leads to only Talby and Doolittle who are outside the ship surviving the blast and Talby being picked up by the Pheonix Asteroid which circles the universe and which he had always dreamed of seeing while Doolittle uses a piece of debris from the Dark Star to surf down to the planet in an ending reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove, but with a more cheerful intonation.