Dark Star (review) 70's Sci-Fi Week

Pay no attention to the space surfer.

Fair warning: as we approach the weekend, these movies and the reviews that accompany them are only going to get wackier. Dark Star is John Carpenter's debut feature film, and was originally a student film until being picked up by oddball horror producer Jack H. Harris. Carpenter created the film with Dan O'Bannon, the man who wrote the screenplay for Alien, making this the closest I'll get to serious, classic 70's Sci-Fi. Which is ironic because this movie is so very, very silly.I know I say this a lot (Soylent Green), but honestly if you can stand the awkward acting and the occasional lack of background music you should really just go see this movie. At only 82 minutes running time it's well worth your while, and if you keep reading I'm probably going to ruin all the jokes, and what's worse I'll probably make a fool of myself trying to take the movie seriously. If you like John Carpenter or you want to try a new approach to comedy then definitely give this one a shot.

Alright, so since none of your are going to take my advice I have to actually write a review of this, which is really a problem because I'm terrible at reviewing comedy. The overall feel of the movie is something like a combination of Dr. Strangelove and 2001: it has the offbeat comedy of Dr. Strangelove without the political commentary, as well as the setting and themes of 2001 without the same tone or level of epicness.

An Alien. Quake with Fear at your Doom.

The basic premise of the story goes like this. After the death of their commander, four astronauts fly around the galaxy preparing for colonization by destroying unstable or dangerous planets. Their spacecraft isn't what it used to be after years of being out in space, but it's still basically functional. The crewmembers distract themselves from the boredom and monotony of being alone in space in their own various ways. The ship encounters an electromagnetic asteroid field and suffers an unclear amount of damage, but since it still works one member investigates while the rest continue on their mission. Unfortunately, an accident while repairing the damage to the spacecraft results in one of its bombs malfunctioning and the ship and crew are destroyed.

And this movie is funny? This is of course only half of the story.

In order to destroy unstable planets, the crew must converse with the bomb which, of course, talks back and causes some trouble when accidentally activated and told to deactivate itself. Part of the reason the ship isn't what it used to be is that an explosion in the storage bay destroyed the ships entire supply of toilet paper. One of the real highlights is the way the crewmembers distract themselves. They not only play jokes on each other, but smoke cigars, read porno, use pieces of the ship as target practice, and play with the ship's mascot (the inflatable ball with claws).

Ironic scene is ironic.

Only one of the shipmates doesn't seem to understand he's in a comedy and spends all of his time watching the stars and fixing the parts of the ship that break, which ends up being funny anyway in contrast to the rest of the crew. While he's fixing the ship (being ignored by the rest of the crew only interested in blowing up a new unstable planet they've found) there's an accident which triggers the most memorable scene from the movie. The bomb is triggered and refuses to deactivate itself, so the crew has to consult the cryogenically frozen captain who only wants to hear about how the Dodgers are doing. Eventually he gives up and tells the crew to teach the bomb phenomenology. Then what happens instead is they teach it Castesian doubt which convinces it that it's the center of the universe and... this scene is just so great. I guess I should leave this joke unspoiled. Anyway, the ship explodes and the commander, who was a big time surfer back on earth, surfs an adequately sized piece of the ship into the atmosphere of the nearest planet and burns to a crisp. Roll credits.

There's more than pure dark comedy here though. At the very least, the interactions between the crew, the ship's computer, and the bomb offer a possible satire of movies like 2001 with relatable or "human" artificial intelligence. Part of the draw of the famous scene from 2001 (let's be honest, they're all famous scenes at this point) where Dave disconnects HAL is that we start to feel sympathy for HAL despite the awful things he/it did. The logical extreme of an AI being human is played out in Dark Star on a small scale when the crew simply converses with the bomb and on a larger scale when they try to teach it "phenomenology". An AI being sympathetic as we watch it die is reasonable (maybe). An AI spouting quotes from Descartes is downright hilarious.


  1. This movie gives off the vibe that it might be straight sci-fi. I haven't seen it, but it sounds like it has some good, original ideas, even if the comedy is in your face. I would recommend 'Iron Sky' as a recent sci-fi comedy that works.

  2. I'll definitely check Iron Sky out. Both Wikipedia and IMDb classify Dark Star as a comedy, but I guess only John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon know if that was the purpose or not. It's definitely laugh out loud funny.


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