We ran this double-bill about a month ago, it went down quite a storm. There's a lot of love out there for these two films. Makes you feel all warm inside...
DARK STAR & SILENT RUNNING
Dir: John Carpenter & Douglas Trumbull
Bombed out in space with a spaced out bomb…
The bastard offspring of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 are here to get their due.
Taking direct aim at the pomposity of Kubrick’s film, DARK STAR presents us with the mundane reality of life in space. The human reality. Not the gleaming surfaces and sterile atmosphere of 2001, but the grubby, dirty, unshaven, bored and slovenly facts of men drifting through eternity.
Their mission? To destroy unstable stars and planets. Their problems? Boredom; the fact that they don’t like each other but are essentially trapped together; that there’s almost nothing new to see in the empty blackness of space; that there’s an alien onboard that they picked up somewhere as a pet, which looks like a beach ball with clawed feet, and which is the cause of a prolonged amusing confrontation with actor Dan O’Bannon, who would later take the premise of this scene and play it for scares instead of laughs when he wrote the script for ALIEN. The captain is dead, but on ice, and hooked up to technology that allows his brainwaves to express themselves. Oh, and a recent meteor/firestorm has short circuited one of the talking bombs on board, which has now achieved consciousness and is attempting to detonate without launching: ‘I explode, therefore I am.’
DARK STAR started life a student thesis film, until producer Jack Harris (he of the original version of THE BLOB) liked what he saw, and kicked in enough money to finish the film to feature length. It’s quite an achievement for a student feature.
Sure, it looks cheap. Hell, it is cheap. But Carpenter and crew get away with it, because it’s well written and it looks good. The cramped and dirty confines of the spaceship, the samey-ness of the corridor (lets face it it’s a single set, built in a garage and shot over and over from lots of different angles) actually works for the film, not against it. Carpenter and O’Bannon make all this stuff part of the point of the film. They make it integral. It’s part of the gag, because like so many man made things they are samey. They’re functional. And just imagine being trapped in that in the eternity of space…
Personally I think it’s still one of Carpenter’s best films (not sure he’d like to hear that, but there you go). Up there with ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE FOG, and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and topped only by his remake of THE THING (probably his masterpiece). The stand out scenes? A man having a phenomenological argument with a bomb, and the ending - which I won’t give away - but even with such limited resources, it is a truly great image.
SILENT RUNNING on the other hand, has a few more serious intentions. It is about the last of Earths great forests floating through space in giant geodesic domes, and the lonesome gardener who tends them and ends up cut adrift, alone; in the forests, in space, with only a few robots for company.
Mark Kermode is a huge fan of this film. And while I’m not always in agreement with the man (and often find him frankly annoying), I’m with him on this: It’s a great film. With a great soundtrack (by Peter Schickele and featuring two folksy ballads by Joan Baez), and a great central performance by Bruce Dern (one of the greatest actors of the seventies), who deserved so much more recognition than he got, because he’s right up there with Nicholson and Hopper and all his other contemporaries who broke bigger than he did. In many ways he’s better than them all. Like Christopher Walken, he is fascinating on screen. He draws the eye to him no matter what the role. Check him out in Joe Dante’s THE BURBS – his performance is a joy; screamingly funny.
Director Douglas Trumbull had worked on the effects for 2001, and would go on to create effects for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and BLADE RUNNER. His career as a director never really took off. It’s not hard to see why with material like this… it’s hardly mainstream stuff. But, like Carpenter with DARK STAR, he achieves so much with so little. The ecological message of the movie is probably more pertinent now than ever. Perhaps that will help it hit home for you. I certainly hope so. It is a melancholy and, in its own way, beautiful film. Perhaps like Mark Kermode and me, it might even make you shed a tear.