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DARK STAR
Blu-ray. Fabulous Films.

Dark StarJohn Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s student film turned feature has long had a cult following, and the subsequent careers of both men have only helped enhance its reputation. That’s good – because it means that this small movie has had a life way beyond what it should have – and bad, because it inevitably raises expectations to unreasonable levels. In the end, Dark Star probably suffers because it can’t live up to what people think it will be. And that’s a pity, because taken on face value, it’s not a bad little film.

Essentially a low-fi counterpoint to the clinical excesses of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark star is a study in boredom, as four astronauts – ‘truckers in space’, as Carpenter’s original idea suggested – sit in the cramped titular spaceship, a rapidly disintegrating junk heap on the frankly ludicrous mission of destroying unstable planets. Tedium, homesickness and personality clashes have left the crew – now minus the deceased (or at least cryogenically frozen) commander – unmotivated, to say the least. Within this ennui comes a couple of ‘action’ sequences – an escaped alien (a ridiculous looking beach ball with feet) and a malfunctioning bomb that refuses to abort its detonation – unless it can be shown a philosophical argument in favour of shutting down.

The 16mm, student film nature of the movie is often apparent, though Carpenter and O’Bannon often use this to their advantage – everything looks run down and cheap, and cast are as far removed from the clean-up astronauts of 2001 as you could get. But the humour often fails to hit its mark, the scene with the alien feels like padding (which is what it was) and the special effects are pretty rotten. However, there is always something interesting to compensate – interesting lines of dialogue, moments of eerie strangeness and a bitter-sweet ending help raise this out of the ordinary. But don’t expect any of the visual flair that Carpenter would bring to subsequent films like Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween.

There are two versions of the film on this disc – the original theatrical cut and a so-called ‘director’s cut’, which is about ten minutes shorter. This latter version is rather dubiously justified as being the original version of the film before veteran producer Jack H. Harris got involved and needed the film filling out to feature length, but that’s not really true – the original version was only about 50 minutes long, and much of the extra footage – the whole alien sequence for instance – is still here. What it does delete are some badly-paced moments of the crew sitting around feeling bored, where their boredom is all too convincingly conveyed to the viewer, and the result is a much pacier version of the film – so I would suggest that if you can only watch one cut, it should be the ‘director’s cut’.

There are few extras, but the one that is included is a doozy – a two-hour documentary that follows the Dark Star story from Carpenter joining USC through to the final, unsuccessful theatrical release. There are interviews with most of the significant cast and crew, though Carpenter’s part is literally phoned in, and he seems pretty disinterested in the whole thing. Possibly for this reason – or possibly because it’s closer to the truth of the matter – the late O’Bannon (represented by his wife and some archive interview footage) comes across as possibly the more creatively significant of the two on what was very much a collaborative effort, no matter who got the official director credit. It’s a fascinating documentary – and thankfully not as self-indulgent as the opening moments suggest – and one that is worth the price of the disc alone. .

DAVID FLINT

BUY IT NOW (UK)

 

 

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