For the first 20-25 minutes of Dark Star, I sat here thinking this could well be one of the most awful science fiction movies of all time. By the end, though, my tune had changed rather drastically. I would say the film is brilliantly funny despite its treasure trove of bad movie qualities. It is definitely uniquely absurd, the rare science fiction black comedy that actually manages to deliver. Undoubtedly, some viewers will label Dark Star a disaster and wonder how anyone could like a single thing about it. If you appreciate droll humor and are willing to conform your own thinking to that of the film (rather than waiting for it to conform to your expectations), you're liable to be in for a most unusual treat here. In case you haven't noticed, this is indeed a John Carpenter film. Carpenter co-wrote (along with Dan O'Bannon), directed, and produced it. Don't be expecting a Hollywood theatrical production, though. Dark Star is by and large a student film brought to life by Carpenter and O'Bannon. It was later picked up for a theatrical release (for which an additional 15 minutes or so of action was filmed and added), but the whole movie was made on the smallest of budgets. Some of the special effects aren't bad at all, surprisingly enough, but there's no mistaking the fact that Carpenter and company had to make due as best they could in scene after scene.
Here's the premise. It's the future, and the crew members of the Dark Star have been sent out on an extraordinarily long mission to blow an array of unstable planets throughout the galaxy to smithereens. I'm not sure these guys were perfectly sane to begin with, but twenty years in space, trapped inside a cramped spaceship, have definitely taken a toll on each of them. Now the ship's captain (and all of the toilet paper on board) have been lost to an unfortunate radioactive leak (but let's just say Commander Powell is gone but not forgotten in the deep freeze unit), and Lt. "Just give me something to bomb" Doolittle has taken command. Sgt. Pinback (Dan O'Bannon) -- who may or may not be a real astronaut to begin with -- isn't too happy about this, but his concerns are predominantly voiced in a series of insane video journal entries. The only thing Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) really seems to care about is trimming his facial hair, and Talby (Dre Pahich) has isolated himself in the ship's observation bubble. There is also a pet alien on board -- basically a beach ball with hands -- and its escape from its room leads to all kinds of trouble (not to mention one of the longest, most comically absurd sequences you're ever likely to see involving Pinback and an elevator shaft). Bomb Number 20 keeps getting lowered from its bay and prepped for launch and detonation, which wouldn't be such a bad thing if the bomb weren't harder and harder to convince that it's responding to faulty signals. Yes, the bombs on board the Dark Star are sentient, and Mother (the ship's computer) has a heck of a time talking the cheerfully gung ho Bomb Number 20 back into its bay each time it is wrongfully triggered. In fact, as the film reaches its climax, Doolittle himself has to personally engage the bomb in a profound existential debate in an attempt to save the lives of everyone onboard.
With almost no budget to speak of and some highly questionable acting, Dark Star is a film that some will equate with spiritual purgatory, but those with an appreciation for dark comedy will find themselves completely won over by this unique film project, which I would describe as a student film with aspirations of kooky grandeur. If you're like me, you'll want to watch this film again and again -- but you might have trouble convincing any of your friends to do the same. I think Dark Star is bloody brilliant.