Monday, 2 March 2009


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...

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.


Jez Winship said...
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Jez Winship said...

(Warning: I give the ending of Dark Star away in the final line here)
Both films are laments for the dreams of the sixties in a sense, too. Bruce Dern is very much the hippie child of nature, with his loose cotton robe and affinity with the creatures of his pocket eden. Joni Mitchell's line 'we've got to get back to the garden' from Woodstock crystallises this 60s impulse, and her lament that 'they paved paradise and put up a parking lot' from Big Yellow Taxi could be the tagline for the film. Perhaps they approached Joni to do the songs for the soundtrack before turning to Joan Baez. Not that Joan doesn't do a darn fine job, mind (and those songs unfailingly bring a tear to my mind - particularly when sung during the final scenes, with Huey - or possibly Dewey or Louie - watering the garden with his little watering can, flowers childishly painted on the side). But Dern also shows his demented Manson side, killing in the name of a higher cause which only he seems to care about. He may suffer guilt over this for the rest of the film, but nevertheless, as with the Manson murders in the 60s, this marks the end of something - of the innocence or purity of an idealistic dream. It reminds me in a sense of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship album Blows Against the Empire, another end of the 60s work which turns its back on the earth in an implicit admission of defeat. This LP, an early example of the dreaded concept album, tells the story of a bunch of hippies in a fascist America of the future, who steal a starship and blast off to Andromeda on a wave of Jerry Garcia guitar soloing. 'We are leaving, you don't need us anymore' sings Paul Kantner. Beautiful as much of the music is, it's message is all a bit despairing. Dreams of escapism, leaving the messy problems of Earth behind - the 60s are over, the San Francisco ideal of creating a new communal society didn't work.
It has to be said (and it's been said before) that Silent Running does have one huge central flaw. Bruce Dern's character has devoted his life to the study of botany and the biosphere. And yet, as the ship moves further away from the sun and its light dwindles, he is baffled by what has caused the leaves to shrivel and brown and the grass to wither. Good grief, even if the earth has been turned into a temperature controlled ubermall, surely he will be aware of the concept of seasons and the rather crucial role played by sunlight in the sustenance of life. It might seem like a rather churlish quibble, but if you're making a science fiction film, you need to maintain a basic level of plausibility. I don’t know whether the ending is intentionally pessimistic, but those lightbulbs aren’t going to last for ever, either. Are Dern’s murderous efforts in vain after all?
Dark Star's alien is particularly fine. It always raises a laugh because it’s so unashamedly unaltered from it’s beachball origins, with just a few painted spots and a couple of clawed feet added as a token gesture towards effects. It resembles a large hopping and squeaking pumpkin. Dan O'Bannon's Pinback is a great comic character, with a touch of poignancy at times, particularly in his bathetic confessions to his video diary. The scene in the elevator shaft is hilarious, but also a skillfully sustained suspense sequence. The humanisation of the machines, from the impassively calm voice of the computer (which retains its icy poise even when announcing imminent destruction) to the testy irritability of the bombs, may have been influenced by 2001, but their presence can also be felt in the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in Marvin and Eddie the Shipboard computer and others. Indeed, the whole tone, of bringing the mysteries of the universe down to earth so to speak, is strikingly similar to the Hithchiker’s Guide, from the lighthearted approach to grand philosophical matters to the hippyish mien of its characters (tea-drinking ape-descendant Arthur Dent aside, of course). Dark Star, like Silent Running, ends with a great song, too, a gruff country number called Benson Arizona, which with it’s sparkling pedal steel guitar is about the least likely and yet strangely apposite kind of music you’d expect in a science fiction film. The surfing finale, with Doolitle puffing out in a tiny blaze of light as a shooting star has got to be one of the coolest endings ever. He goes out having a grand time.