The Chronological Carpenter: Dark Star (1974)


dark star poster

It’s probably not the best idea jumping into a new project like The Chronological Carpenter especially considering that I have trouble getting a full movie in each week and it’s been nearly three years and I’ve only gotten through a handful of Spielberg’s films while trying to do something very similar. And yet, here we are.

I just can’t stay away from John Carpenter’s films. Halloween is one of my all-time favorites — not just horror, but in all of film — and the guy has just made some of the most interesting, fun and imaginative movies out there. Plus, I’m at a place where I’ve seen about half of his filmography at least once, so it seems like a good time to go back to the beginning and scope everything out in order. It also helps that I’ve reviewed surprisingly few of these movies here on the blog like Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China. Heck, I’ve owned Starman for six years or so and never watched it (there’s a fun little story there, but all in due time).

dark star b&w posterWith that in mind I went back to where it all began for Carpenter and that’s Dark Star. The script and first draft of the film were penned by USC film students Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon (Alien). They filmed the script with O’Bannon starring in the picture and started showing it around at festivals. Eventually a producer got involved, 10 more minutes were shot and theater-goers got the longer version seen on DVD these days. The plot of the film finds a quartet of astronauts hanging out on a ship called Dark Star. Their mission is to destroy unstable planets. While doing all that they wind up going through a series of calamitous events that includes a run-in with a beach ball-shaped alien, a trip down an elevator shaft and trouble with a missile.

The movie’s incredibly slow at times — the elevator scene itself was a bit excruciating — but the ideas behind the film and the ingenuity put into actually getting it made are admirable. This is basically a student film and a comedy, but the model work still looks pretty great and I give them a lot of credit for coming up with creative ways to make aliens and elevators look, not real, but filmworthy.

The main problem with the film, aside from the fact that it looks like a student film from the early 70s, is the tone. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but doesn’t come off as one much of the time. It’s hard to tell if the joke is “people take goofy things and make them monsters, isn’t that funny?” or “we’re working with what we’ve got, isn’t that hilarious?” There are certainly some on-point moments of satire, especially with the destruction-obsessed astronaut, but overall it felt a little off balance. All of which makes Carpenter’s next two films, Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween all the more impressive when you think about it. Those are some huge steps to make in just four years. All in all, it’s also a little boring.

dark star posterConsidering I’m focusing on Carpenter here, t’s kind of funny that Dark Star actually shows off a lot more of Dan O’Bannon’s sensibilities than Carpenter’s in this film. The whole alien plot was basically lifted whole-hog for Alien. However, you can definitely feel some of Carpenter’s biting social commentary, especially in that opening scene about not sending radiation shielding. This would come to the forefront in They Live 14 years later (and maybe sooner, I guess I’ll find out). Anyway, while Dark Star is obviously an important film in Carpenter’s journey to become one of the greatest directors around, I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to watch if you’re looking to convince someone how great he is. In other words, this one’s for the more hardcore fans.

From here I get to jump into the wonders of Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween before deciding on whether I should check out his two TV movies from that time, Elvis (his first movie with Kurt Russell) and Someone’s Watching Me (his first with Adrienne Barbeau). After that I’m looking forward to checking out The Fog, but only if I can get my hands on the recent Scream Factory release. Anyone want to let me borrow it?

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