Dark Star (1975) John Carpenter’s first feature film The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Mae Tidman, a student at Georgia Institute of Technology, with Vinicius Navarro as academic advisor. SUMMARY: Centuries in the future, the four surviving astronauts of the scout-‐ship Dark Star , Doolittle, Talby, Pinback, and Boiler, are on a mission to eliminate planetary threats to Earth’s space-‐colonization. At the farthest reaches of space, the Dark Star obliterates an unstable planet by dropping an artificially intelligent thermostellar bomb. After the drop, the Dark Star jumps into hyperdrive in order to reach a safe distance from the explosion. After Mother, the spaceships artificial intelligence system, confirms the destruction of the volatile planet, Lieutenant Doolittle makes an entry in the ships video-‐log expressing the boredom and frustration the crew feels after two decades in outer space. During the trip to the next unstable planet, the Dark Star collides with an asteroid storm. This collision damages a communication laser on board the ship, causing “bomb number 20” to unexpectedly descend outside. Mother coaxes the bomb to return to the bomb bay and informs the crew of the malfunction. Doolittle visits ship’s navigator Talby in the outer-‐spaceship dome and expresses his concern that Talby should spend more time below with the other astronauts. Talby confesses that he loves to stare into space through the glass shell. He also tells Doolittle he hopes to see the glowing and colorful Phoenix Asteroids that circle the universe. Doolittle responds by revealing how he misses surfing in Malibu. Back inside the ship, Boiler interrupts Sergeant Pinback’s relaxation time by recreationally shooting the ship-‐repair ray gun. Their argument is interrupted by Mother reminding Pinback to feed his pet alien. After several unsuccessful attempts to feed the alien, Pinback finds himself stuck in an elevator shaft hanging on for his life. While
Pinback is trapped, the alien mischievously vandalizes the already damaged laser, causing an interference with Dark Star ’s communications, and bomb-‐20 inappropriately deploys again. Requiring more persuasion than the last time, Mother eventually convinces the bomb to return to the bomb bay. Eventually, Pinback escapes his near-‐death situation, finds the alien and kills it. Later over lunch, Boiler and Doolittle try to ignore Pinback’s repetitive storytelling. The loner, Talby, descends from his post in the dome to search for the cause of the communications error. Pinback then enters a private room to review his video-‐log entries and record a new one. He retells the story of how he came to be a crewmember on the Dark Star : he is not Seargeant Pinback, but is actually fuel maintenance technician Bill Freud who witnessed the real Pinback commit suicide and was mistaken for the dead astronaut. A more recently recorded Pinback explains that the ship’s Commander Powell died while the whole crew was in hyperdrive and is cryogenically frozen aboard the Dark Star . Over this series of video-‐logs, Pinback’s mental degradation becomes more apparent, and he appears to be so bored that he is losing his mind. While Pinback is watching his logs, Talby finds the communication laser has been damaged by the asteroid storm and the alien. He puts on the star suit in order to inspect the damage. As the Dark Star approaches its final destination, another volatile planet to be destroyed, Mother warns over the ship’s loudspeakers that the damaged laser controls on the bomb-‐drop mechanism need crucial repairs before they can be used again. The crewmembers, who did not hear the warning, send bomb-‐20 out once again. It begins its twenty-‐minute countdown to detonation as Talby tries to repair the now-‐activated laser. He accidentally blocks the laser beams path, causing a ship-‐wide malfunction that terminates Mother and leaves him unconscious. The panicked Pinback and Boiler look to Doolittle, who quickly decides to communicate with the frozen Commander Powell to ask what they should do. Pinback tries to talk the bomb out of its countdown while the former commander faintly tells Doolittle to talk to the bomb about philosophy. Floating outside the ship with a star suit on, Doolittle asks the bomb
questions and tries to make it decide for itself not to detonate. When the bomb says that there is no evidence of error, Doolittle responds: “You have no proof there was no error!” The intelligent device decides to “think on this further,” delaying detonation and returning to the ship. When Doolittle tries to re-‐enter the Dark Star , Talby is ejected from the airlock into space, and Doolittle decides to go after him leaving Boiler and Pinback in charge. When Pinback tries to give bomb-‐20 new orders, it continues its philosophical consideration of itself until it reaches a conclusion, “Let there be light,” at which point it explodes. Doolittle, Talby, and block of ice containing Powell are blown in opposite directions away from each other. Talby joins the colorful, glowing Phoenix Asteroids and fades away as Doolittle grabs a piece of the ship’s debris and surfs into the atmosphere of the volatile planet that Dark Star had intended to destroy. NOTES The opening credits state that Jack H. Harris Enterprises, Inc. copyrighted the film in 1974, but the film is not included in copyright records until 1980. The working title of the film was The Electric Dutchmen , and it was originally conceived as a twenty-‐minute black-‐and-‐white student film by John Carpenter, made in part while he attended the University of Southern California. Dark Star marked Carpenters feature film debut. The Cinema Texas Program Notes from the AMPAS Library production file on the film adds the following information: Dark Star ’s fifty-‐minute runtime became an issue because the film was too short for theatrical release but longer than most festival films. Modern sources state that after receiving acclaim at the university, it was shown at Filmex in 1973 where it was seen by producer Jack H. Harris who acquired distribution rights, arranged for the optical blow-‐up from 16mm film to 35mm, and set up financing for shooting an additional 38 minutes of footage to bring Dark Star to acceptable theatrical feature length. The film received positive reviews from HR , LAHE , and Box , although most contemporary reviewers agree with the comments of LAT that the picture is “terribly ambitious” for student
work. Time and Var gave it lukewarm reviews but complimented it for respecting the science-‐fiction genre. Dark Star ’s praises often involved the film’s special effects and comic payoffs, which counter the poor reception of the writing and acting. According to the Box review, the picture has appeal for science-‐fiction fans and “could become a cult item.” Most contemporary reviewers considered Dark Star a satire inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 M-‐G-‐M release, 2001: A Space Odyssey . Modern sources cite O’Bannon recognizing the alien mascot in Dark Staras inspiration for his later screenplay for the 1979 Twentieth Century-‐Fox release, Alien . Modern sources relay a "legend" that Carpenter was involved in a late-‐night “break-‐in” during which he stole his own movie after a conflict with the University of Southern California staff. Although unmentioned by any contemporary reviewers, modern sources credit Ray Bradbury’s short story “Kaleidoscope” as the inspiration for the final scene in the film in which the astronauts are floating away from each other.