Skip to main content

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star
(1974)

(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best movies either has worked on.


Carpenter evidently deigned not to be interviewed for the 2010 documentary on Dark Star’s making, since his contribution is solely in the form of archive material. By the sound of it, he’s happy to distance himself from his first feature (“not my favourite”) feeling it shows all too evidently “student characters and roots” (he did provide a new rendition of the main theme on his recent Anthology, though). When it crumbled on release, he went away and wrote Eyes of Laura Mars, sold it, and got Assault on Precinct 13 off the ground; his career as a suspense merchant was born. How true it is that he discussed numerous projects with O’Bannon that he went on to do alone, as the latter’s widow suggests, I don’t know, but they certainly both keyed into terror as the way forward during the next decade.


Dan O’Bannon: It was disappointing, really. We had what would have been the world’s most impressive student film, and it became the world’s least impressive professional film.

O’Bannon, according to Brian Narelle (Doolittle), said “Fuck it, if I can’t make them laugh, I’ll scare the crap out of them”.  Hence Alien, with its (not funny) blue collar workers on a spaceship and its (not funny) alien lifeform causing the crew significant problems and its (not funny) oblivious female ship’s computer and its (not funny) AI causing the crew even more problems (although, to be fair, the latter came from Dave Giler, and O’Bannon predictably didn’t like someone else’s tinkering).


O’Bannon clearly felt protective over Dark Star, despite his reservations over how it turned out, editing it into a “director’s cut” in 1992 by snipping out ten minutes of filler Carpenter had never been keen on. I can get behind some DCs, but this one is really the editor’s cut, and besides, I grew up with the longer version. As inessential as Pinback (O’Bannon) wearing spring eyeball glasses and Doolittle playing milk bottles are – and one might argue their validity, serving to underline the excruciating banality of their existence –  they’re part of its essence for me (I’m trying to recall when I first saw it; it would have been either the ’82 or ’84 BBC screening).


Pinback: I’m tired of being treated like an old washrag! Last week was my birthday, and nobody even said happy birthday to me. Someday this tape will be played, and then they’ll feel sorry.

The extent to Carpenter was unhappy with the reshot scenes is unclear from the doc (“They feel added on”), but he’s sorely mistaken if he disapproved of the elevator shaft sequence between Pinback and the beach ball alien. Pinback was a feature of most of the added material (“sequences where Pinback goes and does stuff”) because O’Bannon was there, and available. I’s a damn shame he barely acted after this, since he’s by far the funniest part of Dark Star. His passive-aggressive, dyspeptic manner is best illustrated by his video diary, in which he opines about his fellows in a manner suggesting he believes himself far superior to them (despite not being qualified to be aboard in the first place). One log in particular is a genius piece of comedy based on what we don’t hear and see:


Pinback: (Giggling throughout) I went up to Doolittle in the hall today… and I said –
Caption reads DELETED
Pinback: Doolittle… and he said –
DELETED
Pinback: And I said, well –
(DELETED, GESTURE DELETED)
Pinback: And he didn’t get it!


Neither will you on paper, I suspect, so the video is linked below. Other gems include “Oh, yeah, Storage Area Nine, er self-destructed last week and destroyed the ship’s entire supply of toilet paper. (Shakes Head). That’s all”. Then there’s his wonderfully childish, “I’ll tell Doolittle!” when he fails to dissuade Boiler from engaging in reckless target practice, and his equally juvenile reluctance to fulfil his alien feeding duties (“Oh, I don’t want to do that”) before being remonstrated (“May I remind you, Sergeant Pinback, that it was your idea in the first place to bring the alien on board”)


Pinback: Now it’s time to go sleepy-bye, you worthless piece of garbage.

That Pinback keeps calling the alien “Idiot” is, of course, ironic, since it does its best (tickling!) to send the hapless sergeant (real name: Bill Frooj) plunging down the lift shaft and is only eventually kyboshed by an inability to withstand tranquiliser darts (a deflating experience).


The lift sequence shows the team’s creative visuals at their most inventive; you can see the fakery, but it’s still fun, with sustained underlying danger amid the silliness courtesy of Carpenter’s insistent score.  And as for the alien, it’s a tour-de-force feat of hand acting from Nick Castle, later the shape in Halloween, particularly drumming its (Gillman) claws, and eating its squeaky mouse (and tickling). It’s only a shame O’Bannon agreed with George Lucas’ dunderhead assessment of the creature (when the former went to work on Star Wars): “He said there was only one thing that bothered him about the movie: ‘The beach ball. It looked so fake.’” A damn sight more realistic than any of the CGI fakery in the prequel trilogy, though, George, and crucially not supposed to be taken seriously either.


The characters in Dark Star represent, however loosely, levels of consciousness. Boiler is an instinctive, primal character, action and few words, relying on brute instinct. Pinback is self-aware but too caught up in his own sense of inferiority to progress or develop. Doolittle sees the futility of it all (“Don’t give me any of that intelligent life stuff. Find me something I can blow up”), and nostalgic for his lost youth (“I used to be a great surfer”), struggles to find inner peace or a way out of this trap. He’s been used up by the system, consigned as they all are to pointless endeavours (destroying unstable planets – er, why? Just because).


Talby (Dre Pahich), the overtly hippy character, has contrastingly turned the restrictions enforced on the crew to his advantage; he has become zen, content to be on his own with the cosmos (he is enthused by the prospect of seeing the fabled Phoenix Asteroid, travelling around the universe once every 12.3 trillion years, glowing with all the colours of the rainbow… “They just glow as they drift around the universe”). He even looks like Mike Nesmith. 


Talby doesn’t react with fear or panic to the prospect of their demise, and so is rewarded with the opportunity to become one with and explore the universe with the asteroid (Dark Star’s version of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Star Child). He also instils in Doolittle sufficient acceptance – “What a beautiful way to die. As a falling star” – to make the most of his own final moments (surfing on a piece of debris into the planet’s atmosphere, to land as a falling star – “I think I’ve figured out a way”). But first, Doolittle must engage in his own ultimately doomed attempt at consciousness raising.


Bomb #20: Intriguing. I wish I had more time to discuss this.
Dolittle: Why don’t you have more time?
Bomb #20: Because I must explode in 75 seconds.

His attempts to teach Bomb #20, understandably peeved at repeated errors in being prepped for detonation (“Oh, I don’t want to hear that” he responds on the second occasion, before agreeing to return to the bomb bay reluctantly: “Oh, alright. But this is the last time”), start out well with the principles of phenomenology (“This is fun” replies the bomb of its crash course in establishing whether or not it exists) before rather falling apart (“You are false data” the bomb instructs Pinback, concluding “The only thing that exists is myself”).


So much so, Bomb #20 reaches the obvious conclusion it is God (“Let there be light”). Adam Beckenbaugh provides a marvellously quirky vocal reading of the bomb; for most of these cast members, it’s their only significant credit (or in his case un-credit), but their contributions are indelible. There’s something very sharp, very pre-Douglas Adams about this embodiment of a sentient bomb. If O’Bannon and Carpenter hadn’t come up with it, Adams very probably would (the chirpy computer on the Heart of Gold is surely indebted to Bomb #20, and there’s something of Pinback in Marvin. I’m not suggesting Adams even saw it, of course. But he probably did).


Pinback: Err, the planet just exploded sir. Lieutenant?

Yeah, Dark Star’s cheap, and wears it on its sleeve, but it nevertheless delivers on its meagre budget; it wouldn’t just be O’Bannon but also Ron Cobb who went on to work on Star Wars (this is a movie where the ship comes into lower frame left – albeit not the first shot of Dark Star or of the Dark Star – and which features a creditable asteroid field). And both Dark Star and the earlier Silent Running give the lie to the idea that science fiction in the first part of the decade was in a rut that needed Georgie to come along and apply jump leads (both also share DNA in reflecting post-60s disillusion with mankind's potential – potential that had been exemplified by Kubrick's "ultimate trip" – which in turn would give way to Lucas' embrace of myth making and Spielberg's friendly alien contact).


This is also the first sight – or sound – of Carpenter the synth master, but there are various noteworthy non-score musical interludes too, such as Bill Taylor’s Benson Arizona (music by Carpenter), “Martin Segunda’s” When Twilight Falls on NGC 891 (actually James Clarke – Spring Bossa) and, of course, The Barber of Seville piping up when Pinback’s stuck halfway in, halfway out of the lift. In terms of influence, Dark Star also inspired a track on David Holmes’ first album, This Film’s Crap Let’s Slash the Seats.


It’s quite probable James Cameron – in another comedic influence played straight in the xenomorph franchise – was influenced by Boiler’s knife game for Bishop scaring Hudson in Aliens. And there’s no doubt Pinbacker in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine was un homage to Carpenter’s movie; it didn’t help Alex Garland any with his third acts, though.


So, when’s the remake happening? They’ve done, or have in the pipeline, most of Carpenter’s back catalogue, after all. Maybe it’s redundant. There’s something of the existential crises of Dark Star in early Red Dwarf – Rimmer is Pinback by way of Joe Saunders’ Commander Powell (in as much as the latter is dead, as is Rimmer). I’m sure Powell fits into the stages of consciousness evolution in some way too, managing to be dead and insightful, yet preoccupied how the Dodgers are doing – early, or late, onset dementia?) Really, though, Dark Star ought (not) to be a dead cert for Seth Rogen to pick up, refashioned as one of his boorishly oafish stoner comedies, with that laugh like an asthmatic hyena echoing around the cosmos. God help us. Or Bomb #20.







Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water (2017)
(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once mo…

The aliens are not coming, just so you know.

The X-Files 11.1: My Struggle III
(SPOILERS) Good grief. Have things become so terminal for Chris Carter that he has to retcon his own crap from the previous season, rather than the (what he perceived as) crap written by others? Carter, of course, infamously pretended the apocalyptic ending of Millennium Season Two never happened, upset by the path Glen Morgan and James Wong, left to their own devices, took with his baby. Their episode was one of the greats of that often-ho-hum series, so the comedown was all the unkinder as a result. In My Struggle III, at least, Carter’s rewriting something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Only, he replaces it with something that is even worse in the second.

I'm going to open an X-file on this bran muffin.

The X-Files 11.2: This
(SPOILERS) Glen Morgan returns with a really good idea, certainly one with much more potential than his homelessness tract Home Again in Season 10, but seems to give up on its eerier implications, and worse has to bash it round the head to fit the season’s “arc”. Nevertheless, he’s on very comfortable ground with the Mulder-Scully dynamic in This, who get to spend almost the entire episode in each other’s company and might be on the best form here since the show came back, give or take a Darin.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?