An escalation of insanity

Anticipating those galaxies far away

Published: Dec 18 2015, 01:01:am

Friday, June 4, 1977.
DARK STAR. Co-written and edited by Dan O'Bannon. Music by John Carpenter. Co-written, produced and directed by John Carpenter. Running time: 83 minutes. General entertainment.
THIS IS THE VOYAGE of the starship Dark Star. Its five-year mission is to explore new worlds, to seek out planets unstable in their orbits and to blow them to glory before their erratic motion can endanger the order of the cosmos.
    When we join the crew of the Dark Star, the ship has been in space for about 20 Earth years, though for the men on board not quite four years have passed. All is not well.
    Powell (Joe Sanders), the mission commander, is dead. The remaining crewmen, including acting commander Doolittle (Brian Narelle), Talby (Andreijah Pahlich), Boiler (Carl Kuniholm) and Pinback (Dan O'Bannon), are in an advanced state of mental decay.
    Their spacecraft is not faring much better. The combination of neglect and natural wear has taken its toll of the ship's once-sophisticated equipment. Mafunctions and breakdowns have become a way of life.
    Dark Star is 2001: A Space Odyssey gone to seed. An affectionate spoof of the shiny-new school of future film-making, director John Carpenter's deliberately scruffy little movie is as effective as it is offbeat.
    The film, completed In early 1974, was a first feature for the then 26-year-old Carpenter. The project was the extension of a student movie begun three and a half years earlier by Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon when they were classmates at the University of Southern California film school.
    During the shooting, commercial investment money was offered to the young moviemakers, and a $6,000 short grew into a $60,000 feature. While Carpenter worked as its producer, director, composer and screenwriter, co-scripter O'Bannon created the special effects and production design, acted in the film and edited the finished product into a smooth-flowing whole.
    On screen, their feature belies its shoestring cost. Although hardly qualifying as a blockbuster, Dark Star still manages to create its own self-contained world, one that convinces filmgoers to suspend disbelief and enjoy the escalating insanity aboard ship.
    Working from a script that's right out of the underground comics, Carpenter introduces us to the most highly-trained sanitation engineers in the universe. A desultory lot, their personal eccentricities are matched by those of their machines.
    Generally in charge of things is the ship's scatter-brained computer ,  a machine that communicates in a breathy, Jackie Kennedy-Onassis-like voice (credited to Cookie Knapp). Aware of the many malfunctions in her systems, she must occasionally argue with the ship's cargo of independently-minded thermo-stellar bombs, all of whom talk like petulant parochial-school boys.
    The performances, as might be expected, are considerably less polished than the story ideas. For the most part, though, those ideas, enhanced by O'Bannon's professionally executed special effects, are enough to hold our attention.
    Carpenter's shaggy astronaut story should find favour among the same filmgoers who enjoyed 1974's Young Frankenstein and made director L.Q. Jones's A Boy and His Dog (1975) a surprise hit. Dark Star rockets to the edge of hysteria and boldly goes where few films have ever wanted to go before.
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THE WESTERCON XXX ORGANIZING committee could hardly have asked for a better boost. When the 30th edition of the West Coast Science Fiction convention — the first ever held outside the United States — opens here on July 1 [1977], Vancouver's interest in the technological myth-makers should be in rapid ascent.
    Raising the level slightly is this afternoon's opening of John Carpenter's Dark Star at the Coronet. Sure to lift it into orbit is the June 24 premiere of Star Wars, the eagerly awaited George Lucas outer space extravaganza.
    Hailed on the cover of Time [May 30,  1977] as "the year's best movie," Star Wars is booked into Granville Street's Vogue Theatre. It is, according to the enthused newsmagazine, "a grand and glorious film that may well be the smash hit of 1977."
    Like Carpenter, Lucas attended USC, and his first feature was an expansion of a film school short. Encouraged by his friend, director Francis Ford Coppola, he impressed the big studio executives with an  atmospheric science fiction thriller called THX-1138 (1971).
    His second feature, the delightful American Graffiti (1973), impressed them even more. It is currently [1977] number eleven on Variety's list of all-time top-grossing pictures, with domestic (U.S. and Canada) earnings in excess of $47 million.
    Success builds confidence among investors. In 1973, 20th Century-Fox gave Lucas the green light — and a $9.5 million budget — to realize his most elaborate fantasy, the story of Star Wars.
    Late last year, the studio was convinced that it had a major hit on its hands. The planned release date was moved back so that the publicity department could build a more appropriate campaign.
    In December, Ballantine Books published a novelized version of Star Wars by science fiction writer Alan Dean Foster. Two issues of Marvel's new Star Wars comic book (cover dated July and August, 1977) have already reached newsstands.
    By the time the film opens here, everybody should know the basic plot of this swashbuckling space opera. They'll know that it is the story of heroic farmboy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who, together with one-time rebel general Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and their faithful robots, saves the beautiful Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and fights for freedom in the galaxy.
    That familiarity ought to suit Westercon just fine. It will make the atmosphere that much more convivial when an expected 900 science-fiction fanciers converge on the University of B.C.'s Totem Park Convention Centre for the four-day gathering.
    Guest of honour and the occasion's keynote speaker is author,  critic and editor Damon Knight. Billed as a "special guest" is Knight's wife, writer Kate Wilhelm, who is expected to take part in some innovative, feminist-oriented programming.
     Foremost among this year's convention members is the legendary novelist Robert A. Heinlein. He will be one of many best-selling authors attending , a group that so far includes Poul Anderson, Frank Herbert, Larry Niven and Robert Silverberg.
    As is traditional for such events, the program will consist of talks, panels and presentations, as well as an art show, displays of memorabilia and a costume ball. As has become traditional at previous editions of the local Vancouver fan convention, there will be wall-to-wall movies.
    Program chairman Ed Hutchings has assembled some 50 hours of feature films, with what he calls "a concentration on the classic." Among the promised attractions is  director Fritz Lang's little-seen, two-part retelling of the Nibelungen legend.
    Thus, as Luke Skywalker battles Darth Varder in the stereophonic Star Wars, Wagnerian hero Siegfried will once again walk the earth to slay a dragon and bathe in its blood.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1977. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: As this posting finds its way into cyberspace, people are sitting in theatres around the world experiencing the December 18 premiere performances of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As one who enjoyed a first night performance of the original Star Wars in 1977, as well as its two sequels — 1980's The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi — I can understand the excitement. What I can't do is get excited myself. There's something off-putting about the media emphasis on the inevitability of massive box-office returns, and mass merchandising attached to this Christmas "event." Something in me recoils from such hard sells.
    It's worth remembering that Star Wars creator George Lucas's success was a combination of brilliance, good luck and superb timing. Nor was he alone in appreciating the popular culture's new appetite for fantasy and science fiction. His contemporaries, Dark Star collaborators Dan O'Bannon and John Carpenter, went on to make major contributions to the genre. O'Bannon, who died in 2009, is remembered for the story and screenplay of 1979's Alien, and has been credited in every subsequent edition of the franchise. Two of his stories written for the upscale comics magazine Heavy Metal are included in the 1981 animated Heavy Metal feature, and he wrote the screenplay for director John Badham's 1983 urban thriller Blue Thunder. Although his work with director Alejandro Jodorowsky, adapting Frank Herbert's classic novel Dune, never reached the screen, he produced hits for Tobe Hooper — 1985's Lifeforce, based on Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires — and for Paul Verhoveven: 1990's Total Recall, based on Phillip K. Dick's We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.
    John Carpenter's directorial credits, while not as financially stunning as those of Lucas, are every bit as inventive and far more eclectic. He co-wrote (with Debra Hill) and directed the genre-defining slasher film Halloween (1978), resulting in a franchise that has spun off seven sequels and a 2007 reboot. He's created cult films, such as 1981's Escape from New York, 1988's They Live and 1998's Vampires. In addition, he's remade some science fiction classics — The Thing in 1982; Village of the Damned in 1995 — adapted Stephen King's devil car novel Christine (1983), and directed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar nomination (for 1984's Starman). John Carpenter has the rare talent of crafting films with a dreamlike quality that create lasting impressions. And, the icing on the cake for movie music fans, he is often his own composer. Dark Star includes my own favourite science fiction country and western ballad: Benson, Arizona, written by John Carpenter. 
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Extras Afterword: Historians of the science-fiction fan community recall that Westercon XXX, the event chaired by VPL librarian Fran Skene for the British Columbia Science Fiction Association, made a substantial (for a fan convention) profit of some $2,000. I'm happy to report that both the lady and the organization are alive and well as of this posting.