Dark Star: The Hyperdrive Edition (VCI)
Think of Dark Star as John Carpenter’s answer to the glistening designs and metaphysical ponderings of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Deglamorizing the allure of space-age technology by giving it a drab, industrial practicality, Carpenter and co-writer/special effects supervisor/actor Dan O’Bannon give us not heroic space jockeys bravely exploring the unknown but “truck drivers in space” stuck on the fringes of the galaxy in a broken-down ship long past a dry-dock overhaul, numbly trudging through the twentieth year of a mission to blow up unstable planets.
The captain is dead (but still available for information, sort of, if he’s thawed from suspended animation), Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) has uncomfortably stepped into command (his working motto is “Who cares?”), the crew is slipping into apathy and entropy and only the annoying, slow-witted Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) showing any signs of social engagement or curiosity (which lands him in a battle wits with a flabby beach ball of an alien trickster). Any sense of purpose has degenerated into a race to get rid of the bombs so they can turn around and go him. This is not a wide-eyed celebration of the wonder of space but a state of stasis and depression cause by isolation and meaninglessness of their mission. “Waiting For Godot in Space,” is how one collaborator defined the film, a description even more indicative of Carpenter’s original version of the, when it was still an ambitious student short growing beyond its boundaries.
On a budget of $65,000, Carpenter and O’Bannon cobble together a dank spaceship out of spare part that anticipates the claustrophobic industrial grey of the Alien ship (which O’Bannon later scripted) and manufacture a fritzed-out intelligence system that brings new meaning to the term “smart bomb.” As the ship collapses around the wearily indifferent crew, the acting captain engages a persistent talking bomb in phenomenological philosophy in the most direct parody of Kubrick’s classic. This is no lost masterpiece, mind you. The acting is inconsistent, the pacing is awkward (partly as a result of rewrites and new scenes to expand the film to feature length) and the production values at times distractingly shoddy. Yet the writing is often clever (the final destinies of the characters pay off from the seeds sown in the opening minutes) and the production design and execution overall a triumph of ingenuity and creative solutions. It’s a grungy, darkly humorous declaration that, in the end, boredom and human slovenliness trumps technology and high ideals.
John Carpenter’s feature film debut was originally undertaken as an ambitious college project at USC on a starvation budget and then moved off campus to expand and rework for theatrical distribution when Jack H. Harris (producer and/or distributor of The Blob and numerous other independent genre films) signed on to “present” and distribute the film. Let There Be Light: The Odyssey of Dark Star, a new feature-length (almost two hours long) documentary on the origins, production, evolution and distribution of the film, digs into its unique pedigree and road to completion. Carpenter is not on hand for new interviews and Dan O’Bannon died in 2009 but both are well represented in archival interview segments, as is conceptual artist Ron Cobb. New interviews with actor Brian Narelle (Doolittle), cinematographer Doug Knapp, art director Tommy Lee Wallace, visual effects artists Greg Jein, producer/distributor Jack H. Harris and others fill out the story of the production, the culture of USC at the time and the way the film was reworked outside of USC (the scenes with Pinback and the alien, including the cleverly-produced elevator shaft sequence, were added to fill out the running time). And one bit of production trivia I found very interesting: the 16mm original had to be reframed shot by shot for the 35mm blow-up for theatrical distribution to maintain Carpenter’s compositions.
This new edition (officially the “Hyperdrive Edition,” with the tongue-in-cheek subtitle “36 ½ Year Anniversary) boasts a newly remastered transfer from a 35mm print and frame-by-frame digital restoration, but given its origins (shot on 16mm film in a USC campus studio) it’s still a soft-looking film: clean and bright but fuzzy. The two-disc set features both the theatrical release and the tighter, shorter 68-minute cut closer to Carpenter’s intentions, with a little less exposition and filler (gone are the asteroid storm scene, Doolittle’s musical interlude and some of the down time with the crew). “Super-fan” Andrew Gilchrist offers commentary on the theatrical release and there are new video interviews with actor Brian Narelle and author Alan Dean Foster (who wrote the film’s novelization) and a written introduction by Dan O’Bannon among the supplements.