No director may be as simultaneously beloved and underappreciated than John Carpenter.
The average moviegoer knows about Halloween. His version of The Thing is thankfully now considered one of the greatest sci-fi/horror films ever made. And throughout the aughts, Hollywood remade a bunch of his films, including a version of Assault on Precinct 13 that starred Ethan Hawke. Most of these are absolutely forgettable but did bring new attention to Carpenter’s original films.
Yet I still wouldn’t consider him “mainstream.” His films are beloved by a very specific audience that unfortunately isn’t very wide. And his filmography is unfortunately spotty, especially after the 1980s. After the excellent They Live, he made Memoirs of an Invisible Man with the increasingly irrelevant Chevy Chase. It was a critical and commercial bomb that Carpenter never recovered from. In the Mouth of Madness (unseen by me as of this writing) didn’t fare much better at the box office and he remained on a downward commercial spiral before he retired from filmmaking – twice.
Yet among horror fans, Carpenter is referenced as an auteur on par with Alfred Hitchcock. His films are unique due to their inventive special effects regardless of the films’ low budget. Carpenter is also able to somehow convince actors to give the performance of their careers in his movies. The most obvious example is Kurt Russell, who used his work with Carpenter to escape his status as a child star. Practically his entire 80s output is now considered classic genre cinema and movies like Vampires have their fans.
But not all of Carpenter’s films have been rehabilitated by time. One example is Dark Star, his directorial debut. Now, it wasn’t ignored when it was first released and received some great reviews. But today it’s more of a foot note than a movie. Assault on Precinct 13 is more popular – lead Austin Stoker even received an obituary from The Hollywood Reporter when he passed away earlier this year and mentioned Precinct in its headline. The last time I heard anyone talking about Dark Star at any length was in Jodorowsky’s Dune. Dan O’Bannon, who wrote and starred in this movie, was referred to by Alejandro Jodorowsky as someone who could create epic space operas and a detailed mythology for a very low budget. O’Bannon, of course, went on to write Alien and proved Jodorowsky correct.
But Jodorowsky didn’t mention Carpenter and he didn’t mention the fact this movie isn’t some grand space opera – at least, not one that takes itself seriously.
The film follows the titular “scout ship,” which blows up planets deemed a threat to human colonization. It’s an older ship that’s prone to mechanical failure. The crew, including Lieutenant Doolittle and Sergeant Pinback (O’Bannon) are going mad with boredom. From there, we have a beach ball alien life form, a bomb that’s convinced it can’t detonate because it’s the only thing that exists, and an astronaut who becomes part of a meteor storm.
The film is the one thing in Carpenter’s filmography that is limited by its budget. There are some creative moments, like when a character must hold on for dear life in a zero gravity hallway as a cleaning robot removes everything in sight.
The performances and humor are also odd. Carpenter has never been very good at comedy. At best, his humor is dependent on turning B-grade tropes upside down, like how the “heroic” Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China barely affects the plot until the very end. But here the attempts are odd, like the crew quarters that are clearly just a tiny dorm room with pornography taped over the walls. Also, the planet destroying bombs have artificial intelligence built in and talk to the crew. In theory, it’s like if Douglas Adams wrote Dr Strangelove. In practice, it’s awkward because the film never decides what tone it’s going to take. There are no laughs when an astronaut dies or when they’re in danger.
And I’m not even going to mention the weird beach ball alien. Yes, the ship has an alien life form that’s clearly a beach ball with feet glued on the bottom. And yes, it attacks the crew members. It’s fun to compare the creature to the xenomorph in Alien, but in the context of the movie it’s pointless. There was no chance the creature was ever going to be scary and, when the alien is introduced, the film still hasn’t decided if these details are supposed to be funny.
O’Bannon’s presence is, to me, the most interesting part of the film as this was the genre he became famous for. I can’t even count the number of filmmakers inspired by Alien or even Total Recall. Surprisingly, he has a very limited filmography and by the 90s his movies were getting released direct to video. Still, Dark Star does have a lot in common with his later movies, particularly his work with Cannon Films and Tobe Hooper. Return of the Living Dead is striving for the same tone as Dark Star – it wants to be a spoof of zombie movies but still ends up with plenty of horrifying moments and the situation the characters find themselves in isn’t amusing.
Unfortunately, the characters here aren’t as engaging as the ones in Dead. And their fates are far more confusing rather than awe inspiring. An astronaut meteor shower and looks forward to spending eternity exploring the universe. It happens out of nowhere and the film isn’t particularly interested in exploring the implications of the character’s actions. O’Bannon and Carpenter needed to scale their ideas back. Maybe they should have just focused on the beach ball? Or And fortunately they took that lesson to heart.
Dark Star feels like the perfect example of a directorial debut. It’s a movie that exists as a springboard for better things. O’Bannon reused many of the ideas he had here for Alien and, while Carpenter never did another space opera, but did use the same technique to create impressive effects on a low budget. This, of course, paid off many times over. Carpenter remains one of the most under appreciated directors of all time, but I’m not sure I can recommend Dark Star on its own. It’s got some interesting ideas and impressive effects, but they don’t really amount to a satisfying whole. It’s more appropriate as part of a Carpenter home video collection as an extra on the bonus disc. Still, I’m glad it exists, if only because we got some great films out of Dark Star’s creative team.