On Dark Star, John Carpenter’s Shaggy, Existential Sci-Fi Parody, Screening Tonight

07/13/2011 12:04 PM |


This week, BAM salutes the late horror and sci-fi screenwriter (Alien, Total Recall) Dan O’Bannon; his first feature film, Dark Star, which he edited and cowrote with debuting director John Carpenter, and in which he also costars, plays tonight.

Science fiction means idiot robot toys, armed combat and George Lucas echoes for us now, but in Nixon era, it was all about the head candy—disquieting, metaphoric ideas about Right Now, laboratory-mutated as nightmare fables about What’s to Come. Forget about being horror’s conjoined tech-geek twin—the genre’s DNA has always crossed most with satire, and its farcical potential has rarely been exploited as ingeniously as in John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star (1974), a low-budge squib that was expanded, like Lucas’s THX 1138, from a short the boys made at USC.

Beautifully built, literally, out of styrofoam packing, car models and ice cube trays, the film visits astronauts stuck on an endless interstellar mission and going insane, troubled by boredom, a beach-ball alien they foolishly adopted out of guilt, and a sentient world-destroying bomb that’s stuck in the cargo bay and has decided to detonate in a suicidal funk. Shaggy but far wittier than anything Carpenter’s done since, the movie revitalizes and dresses down the lonesome-techno-future thrust of 2001: A Space Odyssey in ways that are still razor-sharp, and without the evolutionary pretensions. Clearly, O’Bannon thieved strands of this for Alien, itself a structurally satiric rip through biological imperatives and human techno-arrogance, but the film remains a miraculous demonstration of what can happen with a truly piquant battery of barbed concepts and little else.