John Carpenter's Dark Star: A comfort film under the guise of a slacker sci-fi
The idea of the director who made The Thing working with the screenwriter who wrote Alien working together is one that will have most film fans naively smacking their lips with the kind of expectancy that can only be illustrated by a gif of Christian Bale in American Psycho. What's so special about Dark Star, though, is that it happened before either of them fully knew what they were doing. Described by writer Dan O'Bannon as being both the most impressive student film in history as well as the least impressive professional film in history, it's also probably the most blindly ambitious film that either he or John Carpenter ever worked on.
Dark Star is, in a lot of ways, the predecessor to Alien. It's a story of a few working-class guys who are only referred to by their surnames, stuck on a spaceship together with an alien on board. The biggest differences are that the alien isn't an H. R. Geiger monster, it's a beachball, and rather than Sigourney Weaver and John Hurt starring, it's John Carpenter's classmates. Given that it was filmed on essentially zero budget with equipment borrowed from USC's film department, much in the same way as George Lucas's THX 1138, the scope of the narrative can only be admired for its fearlessness.
Tasked with a mission to take care of unstable planets across the universe by blowing them up, it's a near-future story about contempt through overfamiliarity as much as anything else. Pinback, Boiler, Doolittle and Talby are the only living humans that currently exist on the titular Dark Star spaceship. These guys have been travelling together with little stimulation outside of themselves for twenty years. They're doing something extraordinary by travelling among the stars, but none of them care anymore because it's all they do. Except for Talby, who sits in a little R2D2-shaped bubble on the top of the ship so he can gaze out. But even he's burdened with Doolittle, who tries to encourage him to spend more time with the guys and just ends up reminiscing about how much he misses his surfboard on Earth.
With such a shortage of budget and resources, this is a comedy by necessity. Unlike Carpenter and O'Bannon's future work, they didn't yet have the opportunity to make anything at all serious because the scope of their ambition to make a film set in space grossly outweighed their ability to make it look at all convincing. Special effects shots using Mattel figures of spacemen and toy cars, upturned ice cube trays for control panels and, of course, a spray-painted beach ball for an alien would all be dead giveaways in a film that tried to take itself at all seriously.
One of the more memorable scenes is the one I'd seen before seeing the film itself. Being a big fan of John Carpenter, I'd ended up in a bit of a YouTube hole one night where it was a suggested video. I knew enough about it to know vaguely what to expect, but what proceeded was four and a half minutes of pure joy as Doolittle teaches a sentient bomb phenomenology.
It works totally fine in isolation, but the set-up peppered throughout the film only serves to enhance it. Throughout, the ship's computer - named Mother just like in Alien - is trying to convince the bomb not to explode as a result of false information. Having complied a few times, the bomb stroppily announces that it won't cancel its detonation process another time, so when it all goes wrong again Doolittle is the only one who does what he can to rectify the situation rather than reverting to a caveman-like state. He asks the ship's captain, Powell, for advice from his cryogenically frozen state - a state he's been in since he died as a result of his chair exploding earlier in the mission. A disembodied voice that gets no explanation for its existence other than that it belongs to Powell tells him that he has to teach the bomb phenomenology, and off he goes for the aforementioned scene.
This begins what is essentially the film's end. Although Doolittle is initially successful in convincing the bomb not to explode, it all goes too far. Talby is sucked out into the vacuum of space, again not dissimilar to the ending sequence of Alien, as the doors open to let Doolittle back in, so he tries to chase him in aid. Meanwhile, in introducing the idea that the bomb shouldn't explode because it can't be sure that anything but itself actually exists, the bomb comes to the conclusion that it should carry out its only purpose in life, exploding, for that reason exactly. And it does.
With nothing but a radio signal between them, Doolittle and Talby are the only two left and they're floating away from each other following the blast of the bomb. In their last moments, they rediscover the joy of life. Doolittle, floating towards a distant planet, realises that he's about to burn up in the atmosphere and die as a shooting star, a beautiful way to go. Talby is drifting into the Phoenix Asteroids, a cluster he's long been fascinated by. As a piece of debris from the ship passes him, Doolittle grabs it and uses it as a makeshift surfboard for his final voyage.
If nothing else, it's a love letter to making do and finding a way for something to work when there isn't anything to work with. After 20 years of mind-numbing boredom in a situation that should be extraordinary, they're able to find the extraordinary once again when they're faced with their ultimate ends. For Doolittle, it's something as simple as surfing to his death, and for Talby it's becoming part of the asteroid cluster that's occupied his thoughts for as long as we've known him.
It may look like shit, and it may not be acted very well, but surely there can be no greater comfort in life than the idea that mundanity resumes no matter what happens to us or what situations we find ourselves in. If the crew of the Dark Star are subjected to it, then there's no reason why the rest of us wouldn't. But if the crew of the Dark Star can find what's beautiful about where they are once again, then so can we.