DARK STAR – DVD review

“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.” –Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter and actor, “Dark Star.”

One can understand the public’s reaction. Later in his introductory essay to the film, 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.”

“Dark Star” was director John Carpenter’s first film. It started out as a student project in 1970, and with the addition of about fifteen minutes of additional footage it was released theatrically in 1975. One can easily see in it parodies of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Dr. Strangelove,” as well as hints at stuff to come, like “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 a cult following. That usually means a film is bizarre enough to be enjoyed by a select few for its quirky eccentricities. “Dark Star” qualifies on all counts. The acting is amateurish, the pace is awkward, the special effects primitive, the jokes sophomoric. It’s just weird enough to watch as a curiosity, and the folks at VCI offer it in two forms: The original uncut version shown in movie houses and a shorter Special Edition prepared for video in 1983. Of the two, I recommend the uncut version.

The 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 entire story takes place aboard the spacecraft, which has been away from Earth a good many years. Problems arise when the men begin to go a little bananas isolated in the confines of their ship all this time, and then 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, 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 best parts.

The picture is rendered via 1.85:1 widescreen (or thereabouts) in both the Special and uncut versions. O’Bannon said that when first preparing the Special Edition, he was nauseated at seeing the poor caliber of so many existing cassettes; so the print we have on DVD is close to the film’s original quality. That doesn’t provide much comfort, however, as the DVD image often looks faded, fuzzy, or blurred, at least compared to the standards of more-recent, up-the-minute, multimillion-dollar spectaculars. Unfair, I hear “Dark Star” fans cry out, but that’s the way it is. On the other hand, there are a few scenes that appear to have been taken directly from a crystal-clear, fine-grain master. Go figure.

The sound is digitally processed stereo, but it, too, is pretty scruffy: Dull and soft focused, with some background noise, a limited dynamic range, and very little left-to-right channel separation. Forget about the rear speakers.

VCI include some notes on Carpenter and O’Bannon on the disc, as well as a scene index and a written prologue to the film. But they provide no language or subtitle choices beyond English.

Parting Shots:
Confirmed devotees of “Dark Star” will have to own the film on disc. I don’t blame them. But for me the whole thing was too slow and spaced out. Watching it for the first time out of inquisitiveness is one thing. But a repeat viewing, for which DVDs are intended, is something else. Well, it wouldn’t be a cult classic if everybody liked it!