VIDEO ARCHIVES NOTES: This movie was discussed on the July 19, 2022 episode of the Video Archives podcast and can be found on their site here.
As a kid, I was obsessed with seeing Dark Star. This film, which combined the talents of John Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon, Ron Cobb, Greg Jein and Bob Greenberg, was constantly in the pages of Starlog.
When I finally saw it — it played theaters until 1980 and then I was able to rent it when I got older — it didn’t live up to what I wanted it to be. Now, watching it as an old man instead of a kid just starting his life, I get it. It finally makes sense to me: even a job in space is totally going to suck, no matter how fantastic the worlds we get to travel to.
Twenty years into their mission to destroy unstable planets with Thermostellar Triggering Devices so that these worlds don’t threaten future colonization of other planets, the crew of the Dark Star has all gone insane. Or dead, as Commander Powell — voiced by Carpenter — is just a voice from cryostorage.
Lieutenant Doolittle dreams of surfing. Sergeant Pinback — O’Bannon — claims to be Bill Frug, a liquid fuel specialist, and says that the real Pinback is dead. Corporal Boiler has grown obsessed with his mustache. And Talby just watches the universe go by. None of them will be able to escape the crushing ennui of this voyage or a ship that is falling apart, filled with talking bombs that have learned Cartesian doubt.
In the end, all you can do is surf out into nothingness and burn out instead of fading away.
This started as a 45-minute 16mm student project with a six grand budget, but to get it in theaters, it needed more footage and to be pushed to 35mm to get in theaters. John Landis got the filmmakers in touch with Jack H. Harris, who padded the film some more. O’Bannon would later say that somehow “the world’s most impressive student film and it became the world’s least impressive professional film.”
Beyond writing and starring in the movie, O’Bannon also designed several of the film’s special effects, including one of the first usages of hyperspace in a movie. The influence of this movie goes beyond that, as O’Bannon would use the sequences with the evil ball to write Alien and the British show Red Dwarf would take the ball — pun unintended — and run with an entire series based on the themes of this movie.
As for influences on the movie, Phillip K. Dick’s idea of frozen dead people communicating from beyond definitely informs the commander. O’Bannon would later adapt We Can Remember It For You Wholesale and Second Variety as Total Recall and Screamers. Plus, while I don’t want to give away the ending, but it’s the exact same way that Ray Bradbury’s Kaleidoscope wraps up.
You can watch this on Tubi.