Dark Star will always have a special place in my heart—not because of its status as a classic, but because of the way I found it.
Back in the day when you had to pop in a videotape and program the VCR so you wouldn’t miss something (I know it sounds like TiVo, but there’s a reason that technology has been improved upon), I found a portion of Dark Star that kicked in right at the end of something I recorded. What the VCR lacked in convenience and usability, it made up for it with these little surprises.
At some point, some family member had likely taped a movie from TV and put the tape on extended record. For you young ‘uns, that was a way to record 6 or more hours on a 2-hour tape (at about 1/3 the picture quality). Dark Star had come on after whatever I taped over, and when I taped over the beginning of the tape, there was about half of this weird Sci-Fi movie left over. It was a late-night movie, poorly recorded, and I only knew what it was from one station-identifying clip right before commercial, saying “We’ll be right back with Dark Star.”
Does this sound confusing? This was so common back in the day, I’m surprised there’s not a word for it.
What came on at the end of what I intended to tape was Sgt. Pinback’s ordeal with a low-budget alien which was so obviously a spray-painted beach ball I was instantly captivated. I wondered what kind of budget they had if the alien was so clearly a beach ball, and how they made (and sold) a movie that had so much to do with arguing philosophy with a bomb.
I can’t remember who came into the living room and watched it with me, but eventually the whole family saw it. I couldn’t find a copy of this movie at a local video store, and the clerk looked at me like I was crazy for asking for it. Channel 4 was known for playing rather obscure old movies, so I figured it never made the leap to VHS.
I finally tracked down a copy, and the movie finally made at least a little more sense.
Considering the fact that this was made in 1974, it makes a lot of sense that the pointlessness of their mission was a commentary on current events that had a direct effect on young men eligible for the draft.
From Den of Geek: “Most alternative movies in the early 70s had either Watergate or Vietnam as subtextual themes and Dark Star is no different. For dazed and confused hippies in space blowing up planets, read naïve young soldiers drafted into the army to fight an unknown enemy.”
The bomb’s refusal to cooperate was inspired by Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Released in 1968, it might have been the inspiration for at least one of them to enroll in film school.
Since this movie was originally a student film, it was only 68 minutes long and therefore not long enough for theatrical release. I highly recommend “Let There be Light: The Odyssey of Dark Star” for the whole story of making the movie, getting distribution, adding scenes to increase the running time and all the other stories behind the story. It’s a doozy. There aren’t quite as many different versions of the film as there are of Blade Runner. There are at least three different lengths, and different releases have additional special features. The original film length is 68 minutes, there’s a director’s cut which is 72 minutes which deletes most of the added footage, and the theatrical release is 1 hour, 23 minutes (84 minutes).
The longest version is the one I watched for my rewatch. I recommend buying the full theatrical-length version (84 minutes). The extra scenes with Sgt. Pinback are what interested me instead of just taping over it. The movie is available online at: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x39408j Since it’s the same running time, it should match closely to the times referenced in the film’s highlights I have documented with the time markers. If you decide to follow along with a version that’s at or near the 84 minute runtime, the time markers of highlights should come within a minute of your version. The version from the link is about 30 seconds off from my time markers.
The movie was written by both Dan O’Bannon (Sgt. Pinback, later the writer of Alien, among other films), and John Carpenter (voice of Talby and known for many films in the horror, thriller, and sci-fi genres). If you look them up and recognize one of their films, you might notice the development of their ideas within Dark Star. For example, if you’ve seen “Aliens” (1986), also directed by John Carpenter, the Knife Game scene is quite memorable in “Aliens” for Bill Paxton’s energetic performance.
Dark Star Highlights and minute markers:
Opening scene, the incoming transmission mentions a 10 year delay, estimating they are approximately 18 parsecs away, and an acknowledgment of the death of Commander Powell. The crew is also congratulated for the fine job they’re doing in their “important mission”—blowing up planets in unstable orbits.
The crew has been experiencing cabin fever from 20 years with only 4 crew members, a few nudie magazines, a selection of music that has not been updated, a box of prank toys, liquid meals, and a laser rifle.
9:30 Pinback mentions Commander Powell would’ve named the planet they’re about to blow up—showing that he’s still not dealing with the death of Powell.
11:00 Boiler takes a hit from his roach clip which was pretty wild to see as I was a kid when I finally tracked down a full copy of the movie.
14:30 Electrical storm damages the ship which activates the bomb bay mechanism nearly releasing Bomb #20.
19:05 Boiler’s Knife game—Pinback tries to get his attention with prank glasses with pop-out eyeballs attached to “Slinky” style metal coils. Boiler blows cigar smoke in his face to wordlessly tell him to back off. Pinback, dejected, tries to get Doolittle’s attention with a rubber chicken.
20:44 Doolittle retreats to play his “piano”. This is part of the added footage to qualify for theatrical release. Although the additional scenes included my personal favorite—the battle with the beach-ball alien, this one goes on for far too long. After nearly 3 minutes, it mercifully ends at 23:20.
24:48 When talking to Talby (which is acted by Dre Pahich but voiced by John Carpenter), Doolittle mentioned that their mission was 20 years, but they have only aged 3 years. It would stand to reason they’re getting cabin fever from experiencing 3 years, not 20. Other info about the movie states they’re on 20 years of cabin fever, so I guess they’re experiencing that amount of time but it’s not aging their cells at the same rate…?
Talby waxes poetically about The Phoenix Asteroid. Doolittle states he can’t talk to the others, and how he misses his surfboard.
26:47 Boiler attempts to break up the boredom by engaging in unauthorized target practice with the lid to the heating unit. Out of all the places in the ship to do this, he has chosen the corridor where Pinback is “sunbathing” in a lawn chair in the corridor outside of the Food Storage Locker, which is their makeshift quarters. From the other scenes, it’s quite obvious Boiler could have done this where he wouldn’t get caught.
28:22 While Boiler comes close to threatening Pinback with the laser rifle, the ship’s computer interrupts to remind Pinback it’s time to feed the alien. Anyone who has seen a kid who has grown tired of a pet, and drags their heels when getting around to feeding or cleaning up after the animal will recognize Pinback’s reluctance.
This is right about where the old videotape that introduced me to Dark Star kicks in.
29:05 Pinback’s scenes with the alien are great. Even the actor who did the alien movements did a fine job. The actor who did the alien, which was made of a spray-painted dime-store beach ball and gloves from a “Creature from the Black Lagoon” costume, did very well at conveying the creature’s moods. The hands, body movement, and sounds were effective at showing human emotions while remaining quite alien. Its haughty refusal of the begrudgingly presented head of cabbage went through ennui, annoyance, irritation, and rage.
30:40 Alien refuses, then eats his own toy, then “stings” Pinback. Like all irritating pets, it disappears, then attacks its caregiver.
33:34 The elevator scene begins. This was done in a hallway, so the parts where he’s dangling were done with him laying down.
37:56 The beach-ball alien was attached to Pinback, and he had to punch it and flail around to make it look like the alien was attacking him. It reminds me of another film my husband and I reference when we see this sort of scene with an actor “fighting” with an inanimate object. We usually shout: “Make it look like it’s killing you!” In Ed Wood, the biopic of the director of one of the worst films ever made (Plan 9 from Outer Space), they had “borrowed” a rather expensive prop. It was a full-sized octopus, but they were in a hurry, and didn’t grab the motor. Martin Landau, who played an aging Bela Lugosi, was instructed to flop the heavy rubber tentacles to make it look like the creature was killing him.
38:40 Tickled/attacked by the alien, then Pinback has to try not to get crushed by the elevator. They did a great job of making it look like he’s dangling; there’s a board supporting Pinback’s back, and they shoot it from almost “underneath” the actor, without showing the board.
40:30 The alien causes the second malfunction with bomb #20, which then causes the *spoilers* destruction of the ship.
44:50 I just love it when Pinback gets clonked on the head with the access panel. Poor guy. He’s so good at suffering. In the documentary, it’s mentioned that Dan O’Bannon had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), when it wasn’t recognized, and he had to suffer without a proper diagnosis, and no advice or help. Alien, particularly the chestburster, was inspired by the pain he endured from years of this condition. It also seems as though the explosive panel, which had him trapped by the midsection, was a reference to his condition.
47:30 Pinback is PISSED after the elevator ordeal and shoots the alien. Since it really was just a ball filled with gas, it bounces around the room like a balloon losing air after being punctured.
49:30 Pinback is very eager to tell the guys about what happened, but is ignored. Exasperatedly, he said: “Well, if you don’t care, I just won’t talk about it anymore!” Doolittle, completely apathetically: “That sounds like a fine idea, Pinback.” Pinback, musing whether they’ll encounter intelligent life in the Veil Nebula, is cut off by Doolittle, with: “Who cares.”
51:10 As Pinback tries to tell the guys the story of how he wound up on the mission, Boiler starts talking to Doolittle, wondering how long ago it was that Pinback first told the story of how he isn’t actually Pinback, but rather a fuel maintenance technician. Since they’ve only aged 3 years on the ship, and the other guys think they heard this tale 4 years ago…
52:40 Talby goes to the computer room to pinpoint the malfunction.
54:11 Boiler: “What’s Talby’s first name?” Doolittle: “What’s my first name?”
54:29 Pinback records a message (on an 8-track marked My Diary), and by replaying previous recordings, reveals more about how the voyage is affecting him. 55:54 Still not dealing with Commander Powell’s death and expressing rage that Doolittle is taking command. He’s angry that since he’s thinks the only person who is objective on the ship (though he’s actually the most subjective and has deep needs for acceptance), he thinks he should be in command. This also explains that Boiler might be the only person on the ship he can talk to. Doolittle is not only aloof, but higher up in command. Talby is higher up—in the ship’s observation deck, withdrawing from the rest of the crew. And the only other person, Powell, though dead, is in cryonic preservation. Since his synapses aren’t firing at 100%, there’s not much point in talking to him.
58:44 You can get a good look at the space helmet which looks a LOT like an old popcorn popper from the 70s. I had a friend who had one of these.
~1 hr, 2 min: Check out the muffin tin on Talby’s chest. In the documentary, they addressed this issue—they’re guys. They didn’t recognize it as a muffin pan, so they didn’t think anyone else would notice the guy has a muffin tin on the chest of his spacesuit. The silver duct tape does a good job of blending in with the spacesuit.
1 hr, 4 min: In an attempt to fix the malfunction, Talby is blinded, and steps into a laser beam, and by shorting the connection, it created an additional malfunction with the bomb. This malfunction further damages the previous damage from 40:30.
1:08:50 Commander Powell wants to know how the Dodgers are doing when he is awakened by Doolittle, who needs guidance reasoning with bomb #20 since the bomb is determined to detonate as originally scheduled. “So many malfunctions. Why don’t you ever have anything nice to tell me when you activate me?” Implying that Doolittle has had to wake Commander Powell during previous crises.
1:12:40 Doolittle’s costume, with vacuum tubes and what looks like a heater filter on his chest, tries to reason with the bomb. On a spacewalk, instead of talking to it over the intercom, he goes out to talk to it, face to face. Or…face to circuit board.
1:22:29 What surfing scene would be complete without a song about Benson, Arizona?