Part of the joy of being a fan is finding odd and obscure gems that you end up falling in love with. For every Star Wars, there is a Starcrash. For every Batman, there is a Condorman. At Fandom, we like hunting for offbeat and off-the-wall films and TV shows that might become your own secret treasures. Strap yourself in and expect the unexpected, because this week’s Weird Watch is John Carpenter’s 1974 sci-fi comedy Dark Star. (Last week: Society)
Four years before he made his masterful slasher Halloween, John Carpenter made Dark Star. And if you went in blind and skipped the credits, you probably never would’ve guessed it was a Carpenter film. In fact, it’s one of Carpenter’s 16mm student films, a collaboration with Dan O’Bannon (who would harvest elements of this film to use in his Alien script).
Dark Star is a space travel spoof, riffing on 2001: A Space Odyssey and a few other sci-fi gems. Co-written by O’Bannon, the film is about a crew of four bearded, bumbling crew members aboard the Dark Star. The ship has been in deep space for the last 20 years, blowing up unstable planets to make way for the colonization of the galaxy. Due to relativity, the crew only feels like they’ve been out there for three years, but a lot’s happened in that time, and they’re exhausted. Their commander, Powell, died in an unfortunate accident. So, the four remaining crew members are doing their best to keep the rickety ship from falling apart.
I’m tempted to say the film doesn’t really have a plot, but that’s not true. There is a plot, but it’s kinda like someone accidentally spilled a few drops of it on the script. On the way to their next planet demolition, the ship passes through an electromagnetic storm. One of the bombs is damaged, and it threatens to malfunction. Later, the bomb malfunctions and the crew has to deal with that, but most of the movie around the plot beats is just… stuff. The crew sits around, trimming their mustaches, smoking cigars, goofing off with comedy props (a rubber chicken shows up), and talking about surfing.
Perhaps the most memorable section of the film is a cartoonish cat-and-mouse game between Dan O’Bannon’s Sergeant Pinback and an alien on the ship that the guys decided to keep because they thought the ship needed a mascot. The alien is, I kid you not, a red beach ball spray painted with leopard spots. On its bottom, there’s a pair of hands that plainly look like they came off the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The whole alien sequence is like something from a Road Runner Looney Tunes cartoon. Pinback tries to coax it back into its kennel with a dog toy, a broom, and a tranquilizer gun. He ends up chasing the bouncing inflatable alien into an elevator shaft. There, the thing literally tries to tickle him to death with its Black Lagoon hands. I can’t make this stuff up, folks.
Later, the alien eventually messes with a bomb-related piece of hardware, which brings us back to the plot. Now, this being a wacky satire, the bomb is intelligent and programmed to talk. So naturally, it has some conversations the ship’s ludicrously unhelpful talking computer (“I must disengage your recreational music!”), and eventually the crew resort to trying to talk the bomb out of exploding, and it gets surprisingly philosophical. It’s reminiscent of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or an episode of Doctor Who, in which our hero gives a stern lecture to a dangerous technological intelligence.
Dark Star, while scrappy and strange, lampoons the genre fairly well. It’s at its funniest when the characters are actively dealing with conflict. The film stagnates when these similar-looking bearded dudes sit around in their gross dorm room of a spaceship and talk about surfing (though all the surfing talk does get a funny payoff later). That feeling of stagnation is largely because the film’s producer Jack Harris mandated 15 additional minutes of running time. Harris needed the film to be feature-length to get it into theaters. So, he gave Carpenter and crew the money for some additional photography. I’m hesitant to call Dark Star a cult classic, but Carpenter and Alien fans should absolutely see it. Just be aware that there’s a reason that John Carpenter didn’t go on to direct a whole slew of comedies.