I saw the New England Premiere of Dark Star (after seeing the Alan Dean Foster novelization in bookstores) and was prepared for something great. I was disappointed.
From the trailer I had seen, I was expecting something more like Alien – Monster Runs Loose on a Spaceship. We got it, too, although that wasn’t the main part of the film (see below). It’s not surprising that Dan O’Bannon (who played Pinback in Dark Star – the guy chasing the Beachball) later produced and co-wrote Alien.
You have to understand that the reason the film looks like a cheap film is because it WAS a cheap film. It started life as a student film made by John Carpenter (who directed), O’Bannon, and others. Their original version lacked the Beachball subplot. They were forced to add that and shoot extra scenes to pad the film out. Jack Harris, the movie exec who agreed to “produce” the film, apparently pissed off a lot of the student filmmakers, who reportedly have “Fuck You Harris!” show up on one of the monitors in the background. I’ve never seen it.
For a student film, it’s not bad. Like a lot of student films (especially student science fiction films) it seems more interested in creating atmosphere and style and images than in giving you a rational plot and story. The film really doesn’t make a helluva lotta sensed. “Blowing up unstable planets?” Who the hell sends a crew of misfits out on a mission with a collection of ultra-powerful bombs to do something like that? Sounds like the kind of thing that could seriously backfire.
The elements of the story (such as it is) as absurdist tropes that read like things you’d stumble across ion a Robert Sheckley story. Or Doug Adams.
The comical monster loose in the space ship.
The crew running out of toilet paper
The intelligent bomb that questionsd its mission
The Dead Captain in cryo-freeze who gives advice
The Stoner guy in the Watch Bubble
The crewman who rides a surfboard down into the atmosphere
(Actually, the end of the film feels a lot like Ray Bradbury’s Kaleidoscope, in which the crew of an exploded spaceship each go to their own fate. Bradbury turned it into a play, and the story was itself released as a film in 2012. One member even falls to earth as a shooting star, although without a surfboard. ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2188867/ ))
The film had its moments. It’s the first film or TV depiction I know of where the space ship wasn’t depicted as a neat, pristine environment, but looked like a crowded shack inhabited by six guys cooped up too long, with dirty walls and junk piled up. It would be another three years before [Star Wars gave us a mainstream Future is Dirty film.
So, yeah, it’s disappointing and overrated. It has some interesting bits and images. Its best parts rip off Bradbury and Van Vogt by way of Jerome Bixby. Its effects are cheap for a studio film, but not bad for the student production it was. Worth a watch, especially since it was the starts of the careers of John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon.