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Posts Tagged ‘Dan O’Bannon’

If you were going to nominate someone as the exemplar of the Great Cult Movie Director, you could do a lot worse than choose John Carpenter, I would suggest. This is not to suggest that Carpenter never had any kind of mainstream career, or indeed commercial success, but if you make a list of all his best films – including, I would suggest, The Thing, Escape from New York, Halloween, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, the list goes on and on – they are all cult favourites. That’s a Moviedrome season right there, in fact, perhaps a little heavy on the SF and horror, but those are the genres in which Carpenter routinely worked his particular magic.

As I’ve said before, the thing about John Carpenter’s career is that you have seven or eight really good years at the start, and then things start to go increasingly wrong as time goes by – of the films mentioned above, only They Live was made after 1982. Were it not for the fact that one of his very best movies, The Thing, came out in that year, you might even suggest that the law of diminishing returns was in effect right from the very start.

Carpenter’s first fully professional movie was the original version of Assault on Precinct 13, in 1976, but two years earlier he managed the notable achievement of getting a project he started as a student film released in theatres. The film in question is Dark Star, which in its final version is basically a combination of SF spoof and stoner comedy.

The film follows the mission of the Earth scoutship Dark Star, on its mission to prepare the galaxy for human colonisation. It does this by blowing up potentially hazardous planets with enormously destructive artificially-intelligent bombs. The mission has been in progress for twenty years (it’s suggested this may be on Earth, with relativistic dilation meaning the crew has experienced much less elapsed time), and time has taken its toll on things – the original commander has been killed in an accident with a faulty chair, leaving the reluctant Doolittle (Brian Narelle) in charge, there have been various other system failures, and the ship’s entire supply of toilet paper has self-destructed.

The wonders of space and the possibilities of the infinite universe no longer hold any appeal for the crew – ‘Don’t give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up,’ snaps Doolittle, when informed of the possibility of non-human civilisations in their vicinity. Instead the crew bury themselves in obsessive pastimes. Even the alien creature they have brought on board to boost morale has become not much more than an extremely annoying nuisance.

Things start to come to a head when, en route to another bomb delivery, the ship is further damaged and the detonation sequence for one of the AI bombs is started by mistake. The bomb itself does not take kindly to constantly being ordered to power up and then stand down, and decides that it’s not going to be messed about any more like this…

Dark Star was made in the early 70s and eventually released in 1974, following the addition of extra footage to bring it up to feature length. It surely goes without saying that at the time, the SF genre was still overwhelmingly influenced by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – most films, whether consciously or not, were either trying to emulate it or reacting against it. Dark Star is obviously in the latter camp, and intentionally so – the film’s poster suggests it is ‘the spaced out odyssey’. Certainly the way in which the main plot (for want of a better word) is resolved by an epistemological discussion between an astronaut and a talking bomb feels very much like a parody of the cerebral concerns shot through the Kubrick film.

That said, Dark Star itself turned out to be a hugely influential film in its own right, thanks not just to Carpenter but his main collaborator on the film, Dan O’Bannon (O’Bannon plays the luckless crewman Pinback, in addition to co-writing the script, doing the special effects, and providing various additional voices). If Dark Star ultimately feels like a slightly atypical Carpenter movie – he’s not noted for making flat-out comedies, and it doesn’t have the synth score you’d expect either, but a rather catchy country and western number as its main theme – then it’s almost certainly down to O’Bannon’s contribution.

O’Bannon was hired off the back of Dark Star to do computer animation on George Lucas’ first stellar conflict movie, but rather more significant was another film directly inspired by Dark Star. In the centre of the movie is a long and improbably amusing sequence in which Pinback is tormented by the ship’s alien mascot (the creature is cost-effectively realised using an inflatable beach-ball and a pair of flippers), which lures him down various air and elevator shafts. Audience response was somewhat muted, and it occurred to O’Bannon that there was the basis for a serious film here. Five years later, Alien was released, co-written by O’Bannon, and you can see Dark Star was a huge influence – the shabby, blue-collar astronauts of the Nostromo are a less eccentric version of the Dark Star‘s crew, and the two useless computers in the films could be identical.

Not that it’s only Alien which owes this film a huge debt – any film which suggests space is simply a dull or dangerous place to work is operating in the Dark Star tradition. Is it stretching a point to suggest that the ‘used galaxy’ aesthetic which is so central to the look and feel of Lucas’ stellar conflict films was also taken from this movie? Whatever your thoughts on that, it’s very difficult not to see the long-running sitcom Red Dwarf as simply Dark Star retooled as a TV show – it has bored, slovenly crewmembers, less than helpful AIs, a dead crew member as a key character, and a ridiculous ship’s ‘pet’. It’s not even as if they try that hard to hide it – a red dwarf is a dark star, after all.

For a new viewer today, Dark Star is not quite the polished production one might expect from a contemporary SF movie, simply because it is ultimately a student movie given a cash injection – ‘the world’s most impressive student film… became the world’s least impressive professional film’ O’Bannon somewhat ruefully observed, many years later. It does look primitive, and the fact that none of the performers involved went on to have any real acting career afterwards should tell you something. But the film is still funny and charming, in an offbeat way – almost certainly still worth watching on its own merits, and absolutely worth watching as an enormously influential film in the history of the SF genre.

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