Dark Star began as a student film. It was expanded following an initial success on the festival circuit and released theatrically to fairly dismal results. Later, it was destined to become something of a cult classic, introducing as it had done the career of John Carpenter, as well as screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who would then go off to modify his claustrophobic cult comedy into a darker horror story for his screenplay that would become Alien. That film was marketed with the brilliant tag line ‘In Space No One Can Hear You Scream’, and Dark Star has that same sense of lonely isolation.
The B-movie score by John Carpenter contrasts with the lonesome, bluesy-ness Country and Western song ‘Benson, Arizona’. The beepy-clunk sound design has to work hard to breathe into convincing life the improvised and visibly cheap effects, but it is also inventive in turning some sequences involving the beach-ball alien and the elevator shaft escapades into a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. The ADR on much of the dialogue has the effect of creating a kind of goldfish bowl ambience, as the characters bicker and muse.
The crew of the titular star ship – the spaced-out space ship, according to the poster – are a bunch of disaffected hippies, sporting the kind of facial topiary that would make them honorary members of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers; the anti-Star Trek. The post-Catch 22 humour sees the crew at a loss to produce any enthusiasm for their mission. Commander Powell is dead and kept frozen, in case the crew needs advice. His stand in, Lieutenant Doolittle (Brian Narelle) – an inspiration for the BBC’s Red Dwarf series – is only interested in one thing: ‘Don’t give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up!’ His bored nihilism is contrasted with Talby (Dre Pahich), who spends his whole time communing with the universe from the ship’s observation port. Some of the main slapstick comedy is provided by the whinging Sergeant Pinback, played by O’Bannon himself. Each of the crewmembers have difficulty remembering not only each other’s first names, but also their own. Pinback himself turns out not to be Pinback. Despite Talby’s enthusiasm for the stars – the part incidentally was (according to legend/Wikipedia) voiced entirely by director John Carpenter – the only real life is shown by the HAL-like talking bombs. The philosophical discussions are a highlight of the film and also have the benefit of wrapping up a meandering narrative that otherwise might drift along eternally.
Watch the original trailer: