DARK STAR – Blu-ray review

The thing about any cult classic is that if too many people like it, it’s not a cult classic anymore.  So, a genuine cult film has to be just eccentric enough to make it controversial, with only a small but loyal following seeing its supposed true value.  “Dark Star” qualifies on all counts.

“This movie is a comedy.  I wanted to be sure and clarify that right up front, because when the film was first released to the paying public they didn’t seem to realize it was supposed to be funny,” says Dan O’Bannon, the movie’s screenwriter and lead actor, in a written introduction to “Dark Star.”

One can understand the public’s reaction.  Later in the introductory essay, O’Bannon says, “My second film–‘Alien’–was basically ‘Dark Star’ made scary.  I figured, ‘If I can’t make them laugh, maybe I can make them scream.’  The rest is history.”

So, finally, after something like four decades, we get a frame-by-frame digital restoration of the film, presented in Blu-ray high definition.  That’s saying a lot for a cult film made on a shoestring.

“Dark Star” was the first film John Carpenter directed.  It started out as a student project in 1970, and with the addition of about fifteen minutes of additional footage, Jack H. Harris Enterprises released it theatrically in 1974.  One can easily see in it parodies of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Dr. Strangelove,” as well as hints at stuff to come, like Carpenter’s “Halloween” and, especially, “The Thing.”  All told, though, it looks exactly like what it is–a student production, made for a total of $55,000.  Over the years it has picked up the cult following I mentioned, and as I say that usually means a film is bizarre enough or cute enough for a select audience to enjoy it for its quirky eccentricities.  “Dark Star” does it all.  The acting is amateurish, the pace is awkward, the special effects primitive, the jokes sophomoric.  Yet there is a certain endearing charm about it that has delighted audiences since the beginning.

The movie is just weird enough and silly enough to watch as a curiosity, and the folks at VCI offer it all cleaned up in its original theatrical version, not the later shortened edition.

The movie’s setting is the distant future, when Man has gone beyond the solar system and expanded his role in the universe.  It is the job of the spaceship “Dark Star” to locate unstable planets in the far reaches of space and blow them up before their orbit becomes a hazard to other planets in their systems.  The problem with this distant future is that all of the actors sport beards, mustaches, and haircuts from the mid Seventies:  another of the movie’s endearing qualities.

The entire story takes place aboard the spacecraft, which has been away from Earth some twenty years.  Problems arise when the crew–Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle), Boiler (Cal Kuniholm), Talby (Dre Pahich), and Sgt. Pinback (Dan O’Bannon)–begin to go a little bananas isolated in the confines of their ship all this time.  They can’t even remember their own first names.

Then an alien beach ball with feet gives them trouble, an elevator turns on them, and a bomb with a mind of its own decides to detonate despite human orders.  OK, it’s HAL with an attitude.  O’Bannon is the best part of the show, the designated dork, goofier than the rest of the crew to begin with, he’s definitely been in space too long.  It’s nice when you’re the screenwriter; you can give yourself the choicest parts.

Carpenter’s music is actually the best thing in the show, however, including a pleasant country-western song called “Benson Arizona.”  Pretty good, too, is the film’s finale, which involves a surfboard and owes much not only to Major Kong in “Dr. Strangelove” but to Ray Bradbury’s short story “Kaleidoscope.”  If you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best.

Although the Blu-ray case says the screen dimensions are 1.78:1, VCI render the picture in its original aspect ratio, 1.85:1, meaning you’ll see thin black bars at the top and at the bottom of the screen.  The company use a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 encode to do the job.  More important, they have done what they say is a frame-by-frame restoration of the film, so it looks better than it’s ever looked for home playback.  Here’s the thing, though:  The filmmakers shot the movie on 16 mm stock and blew it up for theatrical release.  So even in a restored, high-definition transfer, don’t expect the sharpest image you’ve ever seen.  Indeed, the PQ appears fairly soft most of the time.

Nevertheless, on a home screen that is relatively much smaller than a theater screen, it probably looks better in its more compacted form than it ever did in a theater.  Besides, cleaning the print of most ticks, flecks, and scratches helps a lot, and this is the best we’re probably ever to see the film.  Black levels are not quite as deep as I’d like, and object delineation is a bit fuzzy around the edges, a tad blurred within.  Colors show up well, however, looking bright and realistic enough, and you’ll find little or no objectionable grain in the picture.

The sound comes to us via lossless LPCM 2.0 and 5.1 surround, the latter track the one I used.  Nevertheless, it’s a bit scruffy, sometimes veiled and hollow.  While the 5.1 sound doesn’t provide much surround information, you will enjoy a fairly decent front-channel stereo spread, a reasonable bass response, and a respectable dynamic range.  Along the way, you’ll also encounter a touch of background noise, some of it intentional, but none of it objectionable.

VCI’s Blu-ray edition contains the same extras found on their “Hyperdrive” DVD edition, and for the most part these bonus items can be more fun than the movie.  First up is a commentary by “super-fan” Andrew Gilchrist, followed by two interviews, one with sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster, thirty-five minutes, and one with actor Brian Narelle (Lt. Doolittle), forty minutes.  Then, you’ll find a “3-D Guide to the Dark Star Ship,” an original “Dark Star” trailer; a written introduction by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon; and some fascinating bits of trivia.

More important, though, the disc contains one of the best documentaries you’ll get with any movie, “Let There Be Light:  The Odyssey of Dark Star.”  This 2010 documentary is almost two hours long, divided into some nineteen chapters, and includes interviews and comments from many of the film’s cast and crew.  It makes for engaging viewing.
The extras conclude with twelve scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Shots:
Confirmed devotees of “Dark Star” will have to own the film in high definition.  I don’t blame them, as this new Blu-ray is surely the best way to watch it.  Nevertheless, for me the whole movie is too slow and too spaced out to care much about.  If you’re watching it for the first time out of sheer curiosity, that’s one thing, but repeat viewing is another.  Be that as it may, it wouldn’t be a cult classic if everybody liked it, now would it?