Dark Star


Dark Star began life as a college film project by John Carpenter, who would go on to direct Halloween. It succeeds despite its low-budget roots largely on the strength of its humor. This is a sly, anarchic film that seems to be 2001: A Space Odyssey for slackers.

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The movie concerns the voyages of a spaceship called Dark Star, whose mission, as best as I can understand, is to destroy unstable planets to make their solar systems safe for human colonization. They are under the command of Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle), whose life is only meaningful when he’s blowing up planets. Sgt. Pinback (Dan O’Bannon, also the screenwriter for this film and Alien) is the crew’s punching bag. Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) is the chief puncher, a bully whose chief source of fun is Pinback’s misery. Then there’s Talby (Dre Pahich) the ship’s resident stoner (it seems) who spends his entire time in the observation dome, staring at the stars.

The ship’s original skipper, Commander Powell, was killed, but that doesn’t stop him from pitching in with advice. The other occupants of the ship are an alien, apparently from the planet Beach Ball, and the planet-smashing bombs themself, which are self-aware computers that live to detonate.


The crew has been in space for several years and the tedium of their routine has driven them more than slightly batty. They scuffle and bicker like spoiled school children and Pinback, who wasn’t even supposed to be on the mission, has raised pouting and sulking to a high art. The ship’s computer has to function as a baby-sitter as much as anything else.

There are actually two versions of this film. Carpenter’s original college project runs about 68 minutes. The version that was released into theaters was filled out by an additional 15 minutes that neither add much to the film nor really harm it. Both versions are included on the current DVD.

The movie’s theme song, “Benson, Arizona,” is a futuristic take on the old-fashioned singing cowboy song. As science-fiction with a country-western soundtrack, Dark Star beat Joss Whedon’s Firefly to the punch by almost thirty years.

This is a minor comic gem and cult classic that will make you laugh while never insulting anyone’s intelligence, even if you happen to have a PhD from Cal Tech. It’s smart, low-budget filmmaking with no particular message, except maybe “Never get existential with a talking bomb.”

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