Dark Star (1975)
Dark Star (1975)

Genre: Sci-Fi Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 23 min.

Release Date: January 16th, 1975 MPAA Rating: G

Director: John Carpenter Actors: Brian Narelle, Cal Kuniholm, Dre Pahich, Dan O’Bannon, Cookie Knapp




n 1975, “Dark Star” was saturation-booked into 40 theaters. Filmmakers John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon sought out audience reactions, but were quite shocked – and displeased – to learn that some of the screenings included as few as five people, looking as if they were attending a funeral. Additionally, no one was laughing – and “Dark Star” was supposed to be a comedy. Discouraged but defiant, O’Bannon figured that if he couldn’t make people laugh, maybe he could make them scream; and so his next project was “Alien.” Beginning as a student film and made over the course of 3 1/2 years (with one of the actors acting while on LSD), “Dark Star” cost approximately $55,000, and is now considered something of a cult classic, though it has predominantly languished in poor quality on VHS to little cultural impact, save for fans seeking out early works by filmmakers who would go on to make masterpieces in the science-fiction and horror genres.

In the future, enormous ships embark with generations of colonists aboard, to search the vastness of space for new Earths, new homes, and new beginnings. Advance Exploration Corps lead the way, tasked with destroying unstable worlds in the inky recesses of the cosmos, which might threaten the colonists. The scoutship Dark Star is one such vessel, investigating a volatile planet near a nebula. Crewed by Corporal Boiler (Cal Kuniholm), Lieutenant Doolittle (Brian Narelle), and Sergeant Pinback (Dan O’Bannon), along with specialist Talby (Dre Pahich), who prefers isolation away from the others, the ship and its major systems have been experiencing severe malfunctions – one of which previously killed Commander Powell, while another destroyed their entire supply of toilet paper. As the hardware and programs continue to deteriorate, the Dark Star’s crew grows more and more concerned.

An asteroid storm doesn’t help matters; boredom leads to injuries and pranks; and the overly calm yet somewhat sexy computer voice (provided by Cookie Knapp) remains disconcerting. Additionally, it’s revealed that an alien is aboard the ship, serving as a mascot. It seems harmless enough, but the unknown nature of the beach-ball-like creature generates a potential for chills (even if it prefers to tickle its captors rather than eat them). And with John Carpenter’s music (it’s no surprise that he would contribute in that department), it’s difficult to predict if – or when – events will turn ghastly.

It’s immediately apparent why “Dark Star” wasn’t initially received as a comedy: it’s simply not funny. In fact, many of the jokes are so dull that they appear as if generic routines for the characters to uneasily lighten the mood as they’re being terrorized by something bloodcurdling. And, indeed, there’s an eeriness wafting about the crew’s activities, prompting the sense that a deadly serious predicament is always just around the corner. Characters proceed to traverse lightless corridors and claustrophobic crawlspaces, wander into airlocks, and shimmy across elevator shafts – all endeavors that could be just as petrifying as they are prosaic.

If it weren’t for the extremely primitive special effects and set designs (though decent considering the budget), the picture might have succeeded as outright horror. Many of the situations are inherently creepy, such as a cryogenic freezing chamber, a haywire elevator car, and a thermostellar bomb governed by artificial intelligence (a clear derivation of “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” HAL 9000 – while the finale also steals from “Dr. Strangelove”). Despite its visual and structuring deficiencies, pacing issues, and the monumentally failed humor, “Dark Star” provides some amusing insight into many of the ideas that would find spectacular execution in 1979’s “Alien” (as well as its sequel, “Aliens”). Outside of that, however, it’s tremendously boring.

– Mike Massie

  • 2/10