It's strange to sit down with Dark Star knowing full-well where both director John Carpenter and writer (and actor) Dan O'Bannon would go from here. Carpenter later made horror classics with Halloween and The Thing, while O'Bannon would retool this script into the mega-hit Alien. Yet this film is not a horror film; instead, it is ostensibly a satire that uses Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey as a starting point.
Basing the film on that great masterwork might suggest a highbrow, well-read satire, but, to my utter amazement, Dark Star plays like the last "major" (it was a student film) stoner movie of the early '70s. The crew of the titular ship spend most of their down time resting under sun lamps. Sgt. Pinback (O'Bannon) even keeps a pet alien, which is described aptly as a "beach ball with claws." Its title may be as much a reference to the Grateful Dead song of the same name as any sort of space travel.
Pinback, the surfing-crazed Lt. Doolittle, Boiler and Talby fly the ship across galaxies, locating and destroying unstable planets with nuclear bombs. Amusingly, the bombs possess a minute amount of artificial intelligence, and they live for blowing themselves up. The crew have been on this mission for 20 years, aging a 1/7th the rate of their loved ones back home. By now, the responsibility of deciding the fates of planets has lapsed into rote, and the only emotional response they have to any of it is ennui. They even continue to shuffle about after their commander dies, though he manages to communicate to Doolittle with the help of cryogenics.
That all changes when the ship's computer, deteriorating along with the rest of the vessel, suffers massive damage in an asteroid storm, causing one bomb to activate and seek to explode in the ship's bomb bay. At last roused, Doolittle must attempt to negotiate with a creature that has been programmed to want nothing more than to explode. Commander Powell, briefly revived, suggests talking the thing down by teaching it phenomenology. The resultant philosophical debate is positively brilliant in its absurdity.
That's not the only well-written sequence in the film. At one point, we learn Pinback is actually Bill Fruge, an engineer who attempted to rescue the real Pinback, ended up putting on Pinback's suit, and was ultimately taken back and addressed as Pinback. He records messages to the commander and company asking to be taken back to Earth, but the commander is dead and, for all we know, this ship is far beyond the threshold for communication with Earth. Or maybe they just don't care. Either way, he's been on the ship so long he's merely another crew member now. The idea of an uncaring, faceless corporation more concerned with its annual returns than the well-being of its employees would become a defining aspect of the Alien franchise, and it reflects the feelings of distrust rampant in the wake of Nixon.
O'Bannon also shows a gift for creating a tense, albeit comical moment, even here with his inspired sequence in the elevator shaft. After chasing the alien pet through the ship, he finds himself trapped in the shaft as the elevator descends on him. O'Bannon also helped to design the effects for the film, and the film, though grainy and dated, looks astonishing given the inexperience of these film students as well as the $60,000 budget. The elevator scene vacillates between thrills and laughs as Pinback desperately unscrews a conveniently located panel in the elevator floor, only to get stuck in it when he tries to climb up.
Unfortunately, outside of these touches, much of the film is filler. Even at 83 minutes, it spends too much time showcasing the ennui of the men and not sinking its teeth to any substantive satire until the bomb activates. Doolittle and Pinback are the only characters who get any attention, while the others appear to be there just to have a reasonable number of hands aboard.
Nevertheless, it's an above-average debut that showcases Carpenter's judicious use of the camera as well as O'Bannon's love of science fiction, and it might actually be hard to go back and watch Alien now knowing that its genesis was an inflated beach ball with some cheap claws placed underneath. He's clearly got the promise here, but it would take some script doctoring before he achieved the level of detail to be found in Alien. Dark Star is more for the curious Carpenter and Alien fans than the casual sci-fi lover, but a few choice moments made the time pass quickly.