Monday, 13 April 2009

DVD Review - Dark Star

Dark Star was originally a short film created by John Carpenter and Dan O’Brammpm while they were both studying film-making in southern Caliornia. They had no budget whatsoever, a mere four actors (including O’Bannon), and had to be extremely creative in their special effects. (For instance, a beach ball became an alien!) When a producer eventually stumped up $60,000 to turn it into a feature-length science fiction film in 1974, a cult classic was born.

Though Carpenter later turned to the horror genre and O’Bannon went into scriptwriting (most famously penning the script for the original Alien), Dark Star will forever be an important part of sci-fi film history. Apart from providing some of the inspiration for the hugely popular (in the UK at least) Red Dwarf series, it’s an outstanding film in its own right.

That’s not to say that everyone will like this film. In fact, there are two very specific requirements for people to like this film – to by a sci-fi fan, and to like very surreal humour. (If you have only one of these attributes you’re unlikely to be impressed by this film…)

The plot (such as there is) revolves around a four-man crew many years from earth, whose job is to go round blowing up planets (clearing the way for human development of space). Their commander died of a freak accident earlier, though he is sort of alive – held in cryogenic suspension and able to talk to them if they ask him nicely. The story moves along very slowly – obviously there was no new plot available when turning the original short into a feature-length film!

The film is really about how the four men cope with the loneliness of space, with each other, and with themselves. Despite being a comedy, I’ve never seen a sadder film in relation to how well this is put across. Another thing that makes the film so effective is that, despite the ridiculousness of the things happening, the way the alien looks (state of the art it isn’t!), and the absurdness of the things they do, all four cast members play everything dead straight. How many takes they needed to achieve this I don’t know, but to see someone being attacked by a giant beach ball, and genuinely looking like he’s being attacked, is something that sticks in the mind for a long time. The philosophical discussion with the bomb is hilarious, and in the ship’s computer (among other things), the influences on Red Dwarf are clearly evident – though the style is very different. This is very dark and introspective, and yet somehow light-hearted at the same time.

The film looks extremely old and the special effects were dated three decades ago when it was made, but somehow it doesn’t actually look cheesy. Some people will be frustrated by the lack of action, but Dark Star has a raw honesty about it that most modern productions would be petrified of, and there’s an incredible depth and subtlety to it. It’s not something I’m going to even attempt to explain, because if you’ve seen it and understood it, you’ll know what I mean – and if you haven’t seen it or didn’t understand it, there’s nothing I could say that would convey it to you.

The DVD print is a little grainy, but when you look at the trailer on the DVD, you realise how much the image has been cleaned up for the film itself. The sound is unclear and difficult to understand at times, which is disappointing but is obviously a result of lack of equipment when the film was first made. It does detract slightly from the film, but not a great deal. Also on the DVD are biographies for Carpenter and O’Bannon, which are nice enough though I would have liked more information than was given.

Overall this is a film you’re either going to love or hate. Personally I love it, but with the poor sound and slightly iffy image quality, not everyone will - however if you’re a sci-fi fan with a warped sense of humour, Dark Star is absolutely essential viewing!!


Dark Star got an honourable mention in my Top Ten Science Fiction Films of All Time

See Also

Top Ten Science Fiction Series of All Time

Harrison Bergeron - this film starring Sean Astin (Sam in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) and based on a story by Kurt Vonnergut Jr is one of the most thought-provoking and underrated sci-fi films ever.

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