‘Bombed out in space with a spaced out bomb,’ was the tagline for this mother-lode for 70’s film fans, a stoner comedy set in the 22nd century that stands up better today as it did in 1974. While there’s are some idiosyncrasies, as might be expected from a student film expanded to feature length, hindsight has multiplied some of Dark Star’s many values. Rob Cobb, pre-Star Wars, is on space-ship design, John Carpenter directs with great skill and contributes a terrific, typical score, and yes, that’s Alien creator Dan O’Bannon, not only writing here, but playing Pinback, one of the five astronauts caught up in an apocalyptic scenario. With such a concentration of game-changing talent involved, Dark Star achieved cult status, and sees some big names taking their first steps in movie-making.
In a concept that’s a perfect ‘how to…’ in terms of working with a low budget, we see the crew of the Dark Star go about their mundane business, blowing up unstable planets around the universe in a space trucker scenario. Dolittle (Brian Narelle) and Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) keep to themselves, and Pinback’s attempts to cheer them up fall short of the mark. All three men are feeling the death of their Commander Powell, randomly killed by a freak electric charge in his pilot’s seat, and Pinback gets himself into further bother when a harmless alien he’s brought on board as the ship’s mascot escapes. The gelid, circular creature causes damage which leads to a dangerous stand-off between the crew and a talking, thinking and undeniably philosophical bomb.
There’s a number of remarkable things about Dark Star, notably an extended silent scene in which Pinback and the alien chase each other around the ship’s corridors and a vertiginous lift-shaft. Although played for laughs, it’s clearly the fore-runner of Alien, even if this particular critter is more given to tickling its subjects with its gnarly claws. There’s also plenty of inspired writing, from Pinback’s expletive-deleted video diary to Dolittle’s carefully thought-out argument with the very logical bomb, an ingenious parody of 2001. The non-professional cast work well, and their roughness suits the casual characters, and there’s a couple of telling excursions outside the three-man dynamic; Dre Pahich plays Talby, a remote astronomer who has lost his will to communicate with the others, and there’s also a brief glimpse of Powell, who Dolittle consults from beyond the grave. Powell’s death hangs over the men like JFK, a symbol of a better life and place that none of them can figure out how to get back to.
With a well-written novelisation by Alan Dean Foster, plus a BBC tv screening that reached over 6 million viewers, Dark Star is a key, cult film and a must watch for anyone who dug Star Wars, Alien, Halloween or The Thing. It’s got a MASH-in-Space vibe that was original back in 1974, and still comes up fresh now. While the quality of the filming is a little patchy, this is a terrific, imaginative lo-fi, sci-fi comedy that there’s every chance has passed you by until now…