Dark Star shows that John Carpenter leaves more marks on his work than musical notes or genre stylings.
John Carpenter’s feature-length directorial debut, 1974’s Dark Star was released smack dab in the middle of the second golden age of sci-fi filmmaking. It is the rare film that successfully draws upon a number of inspirations while maintaining such a singular personality that it ends up serving as inspiration for later (and greater) films.
Set in 2250, Dark Star’s story concerns a future where the space-colonizing Earth sends out bomb-laden spaceships, including the titular Dark Star, to destroy unstable planets that stand between Earth and particularly human-friendly worlds. The Dark Star and its crew of five is notable because it gives a slower, sadder, grungier look at space travel than what audiences were (and are still) generally used to. The Dark Star has been in outer space for over 20 years, and each of the crewmembers has lost a significant part of his identity (or, in one case, the entire thing). We observe as the crew and the ship break down piece by piece, to the point where survival for any of them is impossible. This is where the film’s true message comes through, in the search for meaning these men have as they die millions of miles from home in the name of human progress. And while that sounds grim, the concept allows for an abundance of absurd and existential comedy, not all of which worked back in 1974 and less of which holds up today.
Carpenter and co-writer Dan O’Bannon draw much of Dark Star’s plot from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which it parodies, but they also include nods to dozens of other works, most notably the writing of science fiction legends Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury. This makes sense, as Carpenter and O’Bannon were both students at the University of Southern California when they decided to team up on Dark Star. Originally shot for a measly $6,000, Carpenter and O’Bannon attracted producing partners with their initial version and were able to fill in the cracks with 10 times that amount. The result looks pretty rough by today’s standards, but holds up decently when compared to better financed films from the same period.
Though it was largely ignored upon its release, Dark Star gathered steam after each of its two writers worked on later bigger hits: Carpenter’s 1978 slasher-classic Halloween and 1979’s O’Bannon-written Alien. Audiences began to take notice, as did future artists. As a result, Dark Star influenced a number of significant works, including the aforementioned Alien and its later, lesser prequel Prometheus, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, the classic UK television show “Red Dwarf,” and video games like Nintendo’s Metroid series as Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series.
But Dark Star’s greatest influence was on the director himself. If the initial trajectory of his career is anything to go by, the expansiveness of Dark Star – both in setting and scope – seems to have turned Carpenter inward, as his next films were the tight-and-taught Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween. He would return, later, to both the science fiction genre as well as the concept of being far from home and facing one’s doom, and in the films where he considers this – films like Escape from New York, The Thing and Starman – Dark Star’s influence is there, but the execution is superior.
Carpenter, as he would do with many of his later films, composed the Dark Star score, and perhaps nothing identifies it so immediately as a Carpenter film than his viciously synthesized chords. However, Dark Star shows that John Carpenter leaves more marks on his work than musical notes or genre stylings. He was considering fate, the future, death and humanity right from his debut.