Quantum Geek: Dark Star (May 1974)

Welcome, Nerds 'n' Geniouses, to another edition of Quantum Geek, the series we hope you'll be following to polish up on your geek movie heritage. Today we're scoping something very special indeed. Something that should be as cool to movie fans and filmmakers alike. Of course, you be the judge!

Quantum Geek May 1974 John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon's Dark Star

1974 is possibly one of the most important years in movie history. Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder were sharing one of the most memorable artistic relationships ever devoted to cinema and Francis Ford Coppola made his famed sequel to the Godfather, and one that many argue was better than the original. Well, ain't nobody got time for that! 1974 also featured the debut of horror legend John Carpenter and sci-fi writer Dan O'Bannon...


Surprisingly few science fiction fantasy movies can be credited with making more realistic life observations. It's just one of those things, I guess. Heroes only have so much time to save the world. They can't stop to point out the everyday inconveniences of the civilizations they're trying to preserve. Then along comes the future writer and director of Escape from New York and the writer of Alien, and saving the world suddenly becomes the least of your worries... 

"Oh yeah, Storage Area 9, uh... self-destructed last week and destroyed the ships entire supply of toilet paper... that is all." - Lt. Doolittle's Log on board the Dark Star

John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon's first feature film

Film students Carpenter and O'Bannon (the latter now late, unfortunately, having passed away in 2009) wrote Dark Star while still in university. Both of them clearly destined for greatness, you sometimes have to wonder what was going through their minds when they set out to make the script into a movie. But rather than ponder on the possibilities, you could just watch the damned thing and notice the similarities to the likes of Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi horror Alien, aside from the fact that the Xenomorph is not a beach ball with claws; and then John Carpenter's The Thing, where the Thing is just bloody disgusting and assimilates everything other than beach balls (because where in the Antarctic do you find a beach ball?).

The Dark Star's Sgt. Pinback (Dan O'Bannon) keeps an alien on board as his personal mascot

The story revolves around a skeleton crew of astronauts sent into deep space to obliterate unstable planets, that may threaten the existence of human colonies on terraformed planets, and consists of Doolittle, Sgt. Pinback (O'Bannon himself), Boiler and Talby. There is also the deceased Commander Powell, who died in an accident and whose severed head is being kept alive in stasis, not to mention two talking world-destroying bombs. Pinback has adopted a beach ball-like alien lifeform as his own personal mascot, but rather than stay in the storage room, it escapes and wreaks havoc all over the ship.

When a freak electrical storm damages the ship, it sets off a series of events that lead to one of the bombs malfunctioning and beginning to count down, meanwhile refusing to deploy, because it doesn't want to. Rather than try to explain, in about a thousand words, what this leads to, I'd sooner ask if you're a fan of Red Dwarf.

John Carpenter's Dark Star bears heavy resemblance to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf
This Red Dwarf has more than one Dave Lister!
Whereas Dark Star seems simplistic in its will to entertain, at least on the surface, and whereas it doesn't have a clear mission (again... surfaces), it's pretty damn clever. If it had been made for television, it would have been a sci-fi sitcom, just like Red Dwarf. The performances are no less funny or convincing, for sure. And then remember Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with its depressed robot that couldn't find the will to live? It's the same thing, only that series started in 1979. And this is a world-killing atomic bomb that's contemplating suicide, not a sad little droid, which I find amazing and terrifying all the same!

There's understandably an ongoing sense of the cast lacking in acting experience and knowing it all to well, themselves, throughout the film. For as ambitious and highly achieving as it is for a low-budget debut, there's no ignoring that the few stunts here and there have been performed by people that had to put a hell of a lot of faith in their director. Imagine if Jackass had just picked random and unassuming people off the street and paid them to jump off a roof. But the script keeps you entertained and laughing, and that's really what this movie is all about. It shows off, but without being over-confident.

Dark Star has many of its own references, verbally and visually, to other classics. Most notably, Dr Strangelove's bomb-dropping sequence is in there, though not directly, so to rip it off. I also get the idea that the crew were fans of Hitchcock, and that's fine with me. References really do help a film geek to appreciate a good work of art all the while.

big ginormous space titties riding huge dicks
Errybody goes surfin'... surfin' deep in spay-aaace."
Ultimately, despite its seeming simplicity, it's so hard these days to find a decent interstellar sci-fi movie. We do have O'Bannon to thank largely for the Alien legacy, and Ridley Scott has returned to work on that fictional universe with Prometheus, but still, such features tend to go unrivalled. I guess that's what makes it easy to call the likes of Dark Star a classic. I'd even go so far as to say that this is one of few films that really deserves a remake. I'd have sooner seen this than a rehash/prequel/whateverthefuck of The Thing.

If you're going to give Dark Star a try, solely for the principle of value, I'd find a friend that can lend you it if you can't find it on discount. It's a great watch and it's as important to classic sci-fi fans as Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 was to horror fans, despite being an action thriller. Meanwhile, thanks for reading and feel free to comment below.

-Dan Ashley

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