Dark Star (1974)

USA, 1972-1974
83m
16mm film; 35mm film (blow up), Metrocolor, 1.85:1
mono, English

An American comedy science fiction film directed by John Carpenter.

Plot Summary

Four astronauts are on a seemingly endless mission seeking out and destroying unstable planets to make way for further human colonisation of the stars. The crew are becoming increasingly unstable as the mission drags on and have some bizarre problems to contend with – Commander Powell is dead but can still talk to them after they put him in cryogenic suspension; there’s a belligerent, beach-ball like alien pet to contend with; and then there’s the A.I. controlled bomb who suddenly comes to believe that it’s God…

Credits

Crew
Directed by: John Carpenter
© MCMLXXIV [1974] by Jack H. Harris Enterprises, Inc. [theatrical version]
Jack H. Harris presents [theatrical version]
Executive Producer: Jack H. Harris [theatrical version]
Produced by: John Carpenter
Original Story and Screenplay by: John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon
Director of Photography: Douglas Knapp
Film Editor: Dan O’Bannon
Music by: John Carpenter
Sound: Nina Kleinberg
Special Effects Supervision: Dan O’Bannon
Visual Effects Consultant and Optical Effects: Bill Taylor
Production Designer: Dan O’Bannon

Cast
Brian Narelle (Lieutenant Doolittle)
Cal Kuniholm (Boiler)
Dre Pahich (Talby)
Dan O’Bannon as [Sergeant] Pinback
Adam Beckenbaugh [voice of Bomb #20 – uncredited]
Joe Saunders [Commander Powell – uncredited]
Miles Watkins [Watkins – Mission Control – uncredited]

References

Alternative Titles

Aluniza como puedas: Dark Star – Spain
Ciemna gwiazda – Poland
Dark Star – Finsterer Stern – West Germany
Dark Star – L’étoile noire – France
Estrela Negra – Portugal
Estrella oscura – Spain
Pimeä tähti – Finland
Temná hvezda – Czechoslovakia (television)

Extracts included in
First Works (1989)

See also
Let There Be Light: The Odyssey of Dark Star (2010)

Production Notes

The original cut ran to 68 minutes on 16mm film and was screened at festivals throughout 1973. At one screening it was seen by producer Jack H. Harris who was impressed enough to buy the theatrical distribution rights. He paid for an additional 15 minutes of footage and a transfer to 35mm film. Carpenter would later admit that he wasn’t fond of the extended version and would subsequently re-edit the film, removing much of the additional footage and adding some new effects.

In 1976 it won the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films Golden Scroll for Best Special Effects and was nominated for both the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Nebula Award for Best Dramatic Writing.

Press

The film has been largely well received by the critics, its stature growing further still in later years. In 1974, Dale Winogura writing in Cinefantastique called it “a terribly funny satire on spacemen, space movies, companionship, and steely nerves under pressure” praising its “variety of invention, punctuated by moments of pure and spontaneous laughter that make it an instant camp classic of sorts.” He noted Carpenter’s directorial style, calling “tight, smooth, and cleverly expressive of the claustrophobic confinement and mental disintegration of the spacemen” and concluded that “technically and visually the film is gorgeously professional and tremendously exciting, aided by a superb blow-up job from 16mm to 35mm. The use of bright reds and blues, and drab whites, is extremely effective and amusing in the film’s context.” 1Cinefantastique vol.3 no.4 (Winter 1974) p.40.

Ahead of the film’s belated 1978 release, critics in the UK were also impressed. “A splendid joke,” wrote Marjorie Bilbow in Screen International, “with the added advantage that anyone who doesn’t get the joke can take it seriously as an adventure. “She particularly liked “the gallows humour of the not too distant future” and compared it favourably to the “well timed slapstick of a Buster Keaton comedy, concealed in a package of suspense and excitement” 2Screen International no.122 (21 January 1978) p.18. Films Illustrated‘s David Castell was equally impressed, calling it “a comedy as dark as black holes in space” and comparing it favourably to Star Wars (1977), claiming that Dark Star “is a better and more consistently entertaining film than Lucas’s.” 3Films Illustrated vol.7 no.78 (February 1978) p.206

Richard Gow praised its brevity in Films and Filming, suggesting that Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) “had seemed to me overlong, whereas the mere eighty-three minutes’ duration of Dark Star enforces a succinctness that braces its narrative line most valuably.” He went on to hail it “the most sophisticated of space films” and praised its “larkishness” while marking Carpenter as one to watch: “his Dark Star is a movie to make us think, every bit as intensely and healthily as it makes us laugh.” 4Films and Filming vol.24 no.8 (May 1978) pp.35-36 While Gow reserved the science fiction top table for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Richard Combs of Monthly Film Bulletin had no hesitation is claiming that “the makers have in several instances gone one better than Kubrick. The boredom, isolation and unreality of their task have not so much turned this quartet into automatons as freaked them out in very individual ways” and compared it to “the pulp poetry of Ray Bradbury, whose story Kaleidoscope provided the basis for the film’s ending.” 5Monthly Film Bulletin vol.45 no.529 (February 1978) p.22-23

In more recent times, the film has been elevated to full-blown cult status. In 2004, Mark Dining, writing in Empire, claimed that it “remains a thousand times better than the director’s last 15 years of utter crapola. Looking back at Dark Star now, it probably even manages to shunt Escape from New York out of the Carpenter top five, too. Yes, it’s that good.” 6Empire no.180 (June 2004) p.161

References

Periodicals

  • Castle of Frankenstein no.23 p.51
  • Cinefantastique vol.2 no.3 (Winter 1973) pp.4-7 – illustrated interview with Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star by Dale Winogura)
  • Cinefantastique vol.3 no.4 (Winter 1974) pp.40; 40-42 – credits, review (by Dale Winogura); illustrated interview with John Carpenter (Dark Star by Dale Winogura)
  • Empire no.130 (April 2000) p.140 – illustrated DVD review (DVD: Sci-fi)
  • Empire no.180 (June 2004) p.161 – illustrated DVD review (Rwd by MD [Mark Dining])
  • Films and Filming vol.24 no.8 (May 1978) p.35-36 – credits, review (by Gordon Gow)
  • Films Illustrated vol.7 no.78 (February 1978) p.206 – illustrated credits, review (by D.C. [David Castell])
  • The Hollywood Reporter vol.230 no.39 (29 March 1974) p.3 – credits, review
  • The House of Hammer vol.1 no.2 (1976) pp.15 – article (Film scene)
  • Interzone no.27 (January/February 1989) p.26 – review (by J.G. Ballard)
  • The Listener vol.107 no.2764 (10 June 1982) p.36 – review
  • The Listener vol.112 no.2885 (22 November 1984) p.36 – review
  • The Listener vol.119 no.3055 (24 March 1988) p.44-45 – review
  • Monthly Film Bulletin vol.45 no.529 (February 1978) p.22-3, 35 – credits, review (by Richard Combs); article (The Genesis of Dark Star by John Carpenter – reprinted from Photon no.26 (1975))
  • The Perfect Vision vol.6 no.23 (October 1994) p.130-31 – illustrated review (Dark Star by Bill Cruce)
  • Photon no.26 (1975) p.6 – article (The gods hate Hollywood by John Carpenter)
  • Screen International no.122 (21 January 1978) pp.10; 18 – note; review (by Marjorie Bilbow)
  • Screen International no.137 (6-12 May 1978) p.20 – note (Dan at BAFTA)
  • Screen International no.226 (2-9 February 1980) p.4 – illustrated letter (Breaks for beginners from T.G. Mustoo)
  • Sight & Sound vol.7 no.5 (May 1997) p.26-29 – illustrated article (Sight & Sound A-Z of cinema: L for low budget by Kim Newman)
  • Sight & Sound vol.14 no.7 (July 2004) pp.74-75 – DVD review (Home movies: reviews by Matthew Leyland)
  • Starburst no.17 (1979) p.18-23 – illustrated interview with Dan O’Bannon (Dan O’Bannon by Phil Edwards and Derek Treharne)
  • Starburst no.228 (August 1997) p.63 – video review (by David Bossom)
  • Starburst no.310 May 2004) p.86 – illustrated DVD review (DVD reviews by Richard Houldsworth)
  • Variety 1 May 1974 p.18 – credits, review

Books

  • Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction by Phil Hardy (ed) p.317-318 – illustrated credits, review
  • BFI Screen Guides: 100 Science Fiction Films by Barry Keith Grant pp.41-42 – illustrated credits, review
  • Cult Movies 2: 50 More of the Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird and the Wonderful by Danny Peary – review
  • Film Review 1978-1979 by F. Maurice Speed p.143
  • Horror and Science Fiction Films II by Donald C. Willis p.80
  • Nuclear Movies: A Filmography by Mick Broderick p.82
  • Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies: The Future According to Science Fiction Cinema – illustrated article (The remaking of Dark Star by Dan O’Bannon)
  • Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter (2nd Edition) by Robert C. Cumbow pp.11-17; 244 – illustrated article; credits
  • The Pocket Essentials: John Carpenter by Michelle Le Blanc & Colin Odell pp.28-32 – credits, review
  • Reference Guide to Fantastic Films by Walt Lee p.88 – credits
  • Science Fiction Films of the Seventies by Craig W. Anderson pp.84-89 – credits, review
  • Science Fiction in the Movies: An A-Z by Roy Pickard p.20 – credits, note
  • Variety Science-Fiction Movies by Julian Brown (ed.) p.31  – illustrated credits, review

Other sources

  • 60th Edinburgh Film Festival Catalogue 2006 p.154 – Illustrated credits, review