Time lags, positive reviews and a straight-to-camera opening sees Dark Star flirt with breaking the fourth wall. Who better to do that than John Carpenter? And in his debut no less. A rather loose science-fiction marks his first outing in the director’s chair, and while his characters shoot for the stars, he does not. “You guys are doing such a swell job,” the man in the opening video says to these yet-to-be-met astronauts. They must keep up their good work, but Carpenter must offer something in the field of quality. Dark Star is not that great, but considering its uber low budget, it is simply rather stunning to see the state of the sci-fi genre in the mid-1970s.
That pre-Star Wars boom is a dark period. 2001: A Space Odyssey had not just set the standards too high, but influenced just about everyone working in that field. Claustrophobic quarters filled with flashing lights and wires all over the place, it is typically 70s of Carpenter, and an interesting aesthetic to take on. To his credit, it is not as if there is much choice when navigating the early days of Hollywood’s deplorable love for science-fiction. Even literature was struggling to get a foothold on the way forward through alien lands and distant planets. George R. R. Martin’s first novel, Dying of the Light, is a grim affair indeed. So too is Dark Star, a generic concept brought to life with some smart tricks and a barely visible budget.
What little cash there is to throw around is used almost exclusively on technical merits. Hyperdrive, lighting, little props that simulate the transportation of a vehicle through space. Dark Star has some nice opportunities throughout to lean into the cheapness of the production, but it cannot help but take itself seriously. Carpenter tries his hardest to pull something serious out of purple-lit sets and sleepy actors, and rightly so. This is his first feature. He is surely excited, desperate to create something that will set light to the hearts and minds of the audiences he hopes to reach. That much is a noble cause, and it does salvage much of Dark Star. Here are the early innovations of a great craftsman. His tools are not quite there, but to see the early days of this director and the sketch marks that would soon take form over the years and decades of his work is wonderful.
Had Dark Star been a blueprint-like project, then the quality would be excusable. It is not awful and does have some entertaining moments to it. The rigid camera structure takes some getting used to, especially when most of the shots are close-ups of bearded men who are impossible to differentiate from. We must rely on our keen eye for noticing different facial hairs. One man has a beard that does not connect to his moustache, another does. These are the character developments that Carpenter presents here, and that low budget sci-fi feeling lingers on throughout Dark Star. It is neither an obstacle or a highlight, it is just something that feels impossible to ignore, and Carpenter knows it.