John Carpenter’s “Dark Star”: Hippie astronauts in “dirty space”

By on June 2, 2015

In BBC America’s 2014 mini-series “The Real History of Science Fiction,” during the episode titled “Space,” an unseen narrator confidently intones, “Stories of space exploration extend the boundaries of our imagination, but sometimes the hardest thing to believe is just how spotless the spaceships are, and how professional the crews. In 1974, director John Carpenter offered a less sanitized vision of astronauts in space, in the film Dark Star.

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We then see director Carpenter — who, along with co-writer and collaborator Dan O’Bannon began his career with this black comedy,  Dark Star — appearing as a talking head, telling us that the film was borne out of what he felt was the need to show an alternatively darker side of futuristic space travel, or, what the mini-series happily refers to in this episode as “dirty space.”

Carpenter: “The idea of space travel of being clean, and sleek lines, and all easy, is ridiculous. You can just imagine being stuck inside this capsule for months, years. 2001: A Space Odyssey had come out, in 1968, but Dark Star was a response to the stoicism of the astronauts. They’re kind of boring. They had nothing going on. They weren’t angry with each other, and they were out there a long time, so I thought, ‘eh, we can do better than that.’

Then the narrator returns, offering: “The crew of the space ship Dark Star are cramped together for years, as they roam the universe destroying unstable worlds.”

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Carpenter — who has since its release referred jokingly to the movie as “Waiting For Godot in Space,” a crack on the fact that the crew have been alone in space for twenty years, on a mission to destroy those “unstable planets” which might threaten future colonization of other planets – then offers:

“In life and death situations, things become absurd. The more serious that movie got, the more absurd it became, so it became completely funny.”

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We then get to see one of Dark Star’s space travelers, the long-haired Sergeant Pinback (played by O’Bannon), and the other two members of this unkempt spaced-out crew, who are described by more than a few reviewers as looking more like members of the Grateful Dead than astro travelers.

Pinback begins leaving a video diary entry and speaking directly to what we presume is a sympathetic camera:

“I do not like the men on this spaceship. They are uncouth and fail to appreciate my better qualities. I have something of value to contribute to this mission if they would only recognize it. Today over lunch I tried to improve morale and build a sense of camaraderie among the men by holding a humorous, round-robin discussion of the early days of the mission. My overtures were brutally rejected. These men do not want a happy ship. They are deeply sick and try to compensate by making me feel miserable. Last week was my birthday. Nobody even said ‘happy birthday’ to me. Someday this tape will be played and then they’ll feel sorry. “

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Speaking of the Grateful Dead, the film’s title may be as much a reference to the Grateful Dead song of the same name, an incredible instrumental track that still resonates with fans today, as it is any sort of comment on space travel or a destination somewhere in the universe.

Also, it’s good to remember the era in which this film was made, circa 1973, and like most alternative movies being made by counterculturally aware young directors, there are subtextual themes like Watergate and the Nixon administration — not to mention that the Vietnam War also becomes a kind of theme here, considering the fact that this apathetic space crew begin acting like dazed-and-confused-hippies-in-space, blowing up planets who have become unknown enemies, much like naïve young soldiers who had been drafted into the ongoing war in Southeast Asia, a war many of them didn’t want to be fighting in the first place. (The film also stars Brian Narelle as the aptly-named Lt. Doolittle, Cal Kuniholm as Boiler, and Dre Pahich as Talby).

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Back to Carpenter: “After awhile, the things that… the pleasantries between people… the hygiene begins to drop off… people don’t care as much. ‘I don’t want to do that’….So the idea of ‘we’ll fix it when it goes bad. let’s just leave it alone, don’t bother me,’ it starts to take over…it’s just kind of human nature.”

Carpenter and O”Bannon (who edited the film, provided production design and supervised special effect, in addition to playing one of the starring roles) wrote Dark Star while they were both students in USC’s film program.  Originally the film was a 68-minute student short filmed on 16mm, but after it was seen by producer Jack H. Harris, after screening at a number of film festivals, he obtained the theatrical distribution rights to the film, and arranged for a transfer to 35mm, and Harris paid for an additional 15 minutes of film footage.

It was then expanded to feature length (83 minutes), although they still had a considerably limited budget — estimated to be somewhere around $60,000 — and thus ended up making what Carpenter would later say was a “great looking student film,” but a “terrible-looking feature film.”

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Most of the expansion of the story took the form of a second act in which O’Bannon’s character, Sgt. Pinback, stalks, and is stalked by, a mischievous extraterrestrial with large, sharp claws, which they later jokingly referred to as “beachball with claws,” which then necessitated re-working the film from a dark comedy into a comedic horror film, although we think the lines are still blurred a bit.

Some viewers may not find anything to laugh at here, while others will enjoy all of the little jokes, many of them wink-wink parodies of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, like having their on-board computer being a female, not male, something Kubrick toyed with himself (as we told you here).

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The filmmakers were so ingenious that their efforts to stretch the tiny budget for props and special effects, and they should be applauded, really. Take, for instance, their space helmets, which were actually part of the  S.T.A.R. Team toy line, made by the Ideal Toys company for young children, meaning they actually made for a fairly snug fit on the adult actor’s heads.

That video diary that Pinback leaves is actually just an 8-track tape machine and a microfiche reader, made to look like a futuristic space-age diary device. Considering the movie is supposed to be taking place in 2025, a lot of grains of salt should be ingested with this one.

Years later, Carpenter and O’Bannon went back and made a 71-minute “Director’s Cut” of the film, removing much of the footage that had been shot for the first theatrical viewings, and adding new (and more expensive) special effects.

Carpenter also created the film’s soundtrack on a primitive synthesizer, and even wrote the movie’s theme, “Benson, Arizona,” which features lyrics (by Bill Taylor) about a man who travels the galaxy at light speed but misses his girl back on Earth. Carpenter got a college friend of his, John Yager, to sing the lead vocals for the earthy country tune, although he was not really a professional singer, as he told reviewers at the time…. just a guy who’d had “a band in college.”

One of the film’s clever in-jokes, pointed out by the Cinema Inspection blog, concerns a scene where Lt. Doolittle takes notice debris drifting by, imprinted with the words “Toilet Tank THX – 1138,” which of course is the name of the film that George Lucas made just after he graduated from USC’s film program (like Dark Star it was later expanded into a feature film).

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There are many things to say about the film, but if you’ve never seen it, we think you should watch it without knowing too much more about what went on behind-the-scenes. Suffice it to say, it began as a student film — and let’s leave it at that. Harris marketed Dark Star initially as a serious science fiction film, but we are pretty sure that the darkly comedic elements far outshine any attempts to take this one too seriously.

Let’s also suffice it to say that Carpenter and O’Bannon both went on to much success in their respective film careers. Carpenter would go on to direct many successful films, including The Thing, Halloween, Escape From New York and more than a dozen others, and his career as a director speaks for itself, we suppose.

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Meanwhile, O’Bannon’s second screenplay (co-written his time with Ronald Shusett) was Alien, and the first film of a successful sci-fi classic franchise, helmed by director Ridley Scott. O’Bannon was also hired by Alejandro Jodorowsky to work on his ultimately aborted adaptation of Dune, based on the impressive low budget effects he had created for Dark Star (which we told you about here).

O’Bannon continued working as a screenwriter, but also worked as an effects technician on Star Wars, and he also had a hand in Total Recall, but he never worked with Carpenter again, their friendship and creative partnership ending with this film.

Dan O’Bannon died from complications from Crohn’s disease on December 17, 2009.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.