It may come as a surprise to some Halloween (1978) fans that John Carpenter’s debut feature is a sci-fi farce co-written by and co-starring Dan O’Bannon of Alien (1979) fame. It surprised me, anyway. Not that Carpenter hasn’t made forays into comedy (e.g., 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China), but I wouldn’t have bet on “goofy existential comedy” as his student film-turned-first-shot-at-the-silver-screen.
Dark Star (1974) follows a crew of four extremely bored astronauts as they fulfill their noble mission of blowing up “unstable planets.” Carpenter asks the question: sure, all those space movies are cool, but wouldn’t you start to hate the other guys after a while? After the recent death of their leader, an inept surfer named Lieutenant Doolittle (Brian Narelle—ho-ho, as Roger Ebert used to say) takes command of his sterling astral marines. Much of the film’s comedy derives from Sergeant Pinback (Dan O’Bannon), a man who has been bullied into adopting this Seymour Skinner-like identity by his bored comrades à la Butters after Kenny dies for real. Rounding out the team are Boiler (Cal Kuniholm), a gun-loving backslapper who loves trimming his mustache, and Talby (Andreijah “Dre” Pahich), who stays up in the observation deck away from everyone else and loathes most of the crew more than is typical (and that’s saying something. Did I mention these guys do not like one another?).
The comedy manages to be both goofy and dry. Sometimes it lands with force, as when we learn that the ship’s pet alien is nothing more than giggling beachball covered in dots. At other moments, the jokes hit like they’re from the 5th-string writers on the 90s Harvard Lampoon (I’m looking at you, opening sequence). Bombs argue with the crew and with the ship’s computer. The boys eat TV-dinner trays filled with colorful sauces, which, when combined, produce “ham flavor” (they prefer steak). I saw the film in a theater in which my wife kept elbowing me to stifle my giggles because no one else was laughing. Toward the end, I couldn’t help myself and burst out with a mighty chortle. I hate to say I gave the rest of the audience “permission” to laugh, but everyone was more vocal thereafter. I guess my point is: bring me to the theater or else the humor might be too dry for your “goes to the movie archive to see a 70s sci-fi flick on the weekend crowd.”
In reality, my wife was elbowing me because I was laughing during immensely anxiety-inducing sequences. This may be a comedy, but Carpenter’s penchant for tension-building is on full display. The elevator-shaft bit within the broader alien episode (I’ve got to keep it general here!) had me squirming in my seat, even as I smirked. The alien may be a beachball, but I’ve rarely seen so much fear strained out of a hallway shot obliquely.
That’s what makes Dark Star special: for all its farcical humor and occasional adventures in anxiousness, it’s a sort of philosophical movie. I don’t mean in some arthouse meditative way where characters announce the problems of the human experience (though that can be fun too). Rather, I mean it in the great tradition of genre movies in which humanity is put under the microscope, revealed, for all its accomplishments, to be trouble. Think here of the right-wing general in Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (1985) or the entire military base in Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993). Humans are the speaking animal; they build machines that mirror themselves and reason back at them. They build ships to traverse the depths of the universe, only to find themselves bored and ornery, languishing in comic books, porno mags, and gag gifts. The ending ices this cake, the duality of human ingenuity, its fecklessness—but that’s for you, dear reader, to find out.
In this sense, the movie moves between various binaries: comedy and horror, beauty and kitsch, humanity and inhumanity, reason and irrationality. Dark Star explodes these like the titular ship’s crew demolishes rogue planets. Not bad for a 20-something fresh out of film school. Not bad for anyone really.