Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Weeks Too Late: Dark Star

Dark Star. Directed by John Carpenter & written by Dan O'Bannon & John Carpenter.

Preconceptions: John Carpenter has done a couple of horror movies I really love. The Thing (1982) is a favourite. In the Mouth of Madness, while less good, was one of the first Lovecraftian movies I saw in my formative years and has a special place in my heart. But it's been a long time since he put out much of anything except for the two truly awful Master of Horror shorts, so I was pleased to sit down in front of Dark Star, one of his early flicks. I had another reason to be excited to see this movie as well, it's been cited as the inspiration for a couple of my favourite things: Red Dwarf and MST3k.

General Review: Oh me, oh my there is a lot John Carpenter music in this movie. I respect the man as a director, I do, but every time I hear one of his synth scores I want to give up and watch something else. However, I have been rewarded, more than once, with a fun movie for putting up with the score and so I was determined to ignore it and solider on. Sadly, I can't recommend you do the same.

The run down of the movie is pretty simple. Four guys are stuck out on a deep space mission to blow up unstable planets in order to make systems easier to colonize. They've been on this mission for over a year and are starting to go space crazy (like you do). Their captain died and their ship is starting to deteriorate. As one of the only people I know who doesn't dig 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was pleased to see someone poking fun at it (this is one of the few things Doomwench can't call me a philistine about, however, since it seems to be beneath her notice). Unfortunately, Dark Star fell into the trap that too many parodies do: it sometimes just became the thing it was making fun of. Yes, John Carpenter, I agree that many of the scenes in 2001 were painfully long without really building much atmosphere, but seeing you do the same on a shoe string budget, completely without jokes, isn't funny. It's even MORE tedious. I'm not sure how a movie that didn't reach the hour and a half mark felt long, but Dark Star succeeded. I'm fairly certain there is a meaningless small talk scene that I'm still watching.

Fortunately, it wasn't all snooze inducing scenes and watching the bearded men of space chit-chat. Watching the crew communicate with their dead, cryogenically frozen captain was actually chilling. I think it was meant to be wry and sort of funny, but it was successfully horrific instead and something that would make for a neat sci-fi horror idea. You wouldn't think the beach ball alien (the only intelligent life the crew have found and, subsequently, brought on board to be a mascot) who is chased around the ship in a funny, Looney Tune way, could become anything frightening, but O'Bannon later re-worked the creature into the Alien (y'know from the Alien movie series). Weird.

The acting is about what you'd expect for a 1970's low budget movie where the writer is one of the main actors, but given the lackluster dialogue I don't know that a pile of talented performers would have improved things. Strangely, O'Bannon looked quite a bit like Kurt Russel in the Thing, Carpenter seems to have a type.

There are also some fairly funny scenes where the crew are attempting to talk a sentient bomb into not exploding and some successful black humour. But all these good elements are pearls strung between the long "look how 2001 we're being" scenes that don't have jokes or spectacle. By the end of the movie the good parts had even started to become irritating because I'd nearly be at the point of turning it off to try something else when they'd tease me into giving Dark Star just a few more minutes. "Ah," I'd think "we've finally gotten to the good part." Nope. We never really did.

I could see how Dark Star influenced some other shows that I'm quite partial to and that was neat, and I could see what Carpenter and O'Bannon were reaching for. If it'd been funnier, weirder or scarier it might have succeeded. But it was a patchwork of different things that didn't hang together well and the writing just plain wasn't strong enough.

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