John Carpenter’s debut, Dark Star, plays like a parody of the later Alien

John Carpenter’s debut, Dark Star, plays like a parody of the later Alien

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The origins of the Tom Cruise movie Oblivion have us thinking about offbeat ’70s science fiction. 

Director John Carpenter was still a student at USC when he put together an early version of Dark Star with classmate and co-screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who later helped Carpenter expand the film to feature-length for producer/distributor Jack Harris. Ostensibly a shaggy parody of 2001—made at a time when Stanley Kubrick’s trippy science-fiction epic was still fresh—Dark Star follows a group of bearded, longhaired astronauts who’ve grown sick of the tedium of space-travel and sick of each other. In their frustration, they get sloppy, and soon, they’re being chased around their ship by alien life-forms, getting blinded by malfunctioning lasers, and having philosophical conversations with a bomb, attempting to convince it not to blow up. Dark Star has a stoner sardonicism: The movie feels like the product of long nights at the dorm passing around The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics and Arthur C. Clarke paperbacks.

Dark Star is as much O’Bannon’s film as it is Carpenter’s. A lot of the humor derives from the low-key way the characters react to crazy situations, which doesn’t really match the approach to comedy in Carpenter’s other work. Dark Star is more a precursor to O’Bannon’s script for Alien, as though the screenwriter were spoofing himself years before his most famous screenplay was filmed. Carpenter is responsible for the electronic soundtrack, and the incongruous country song over the opening credits; Dark Star’s smart-ass, inventively low-budget approach to high-toned science fiction is very much in keeping with the director’s style. This is a movie about lumpy dudes who aren’t that impressed by outer space. Indicatively, one astronaut (played by O’Bannon) looks away from the wonders of the stars and toward his annoying colleagues, whom he complains “are uncouth, and fail to appreciate my better qualities.”

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