• Dark Star



    Released by: VCI Entertainment
    Released on: November 6, 2012.
    Director: John Carpenter
    Cast: Brian Narelle, Dre Pahich, Cal Kuniholm, Dan O’Bannon
    Year: 1974
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    The Movie:

    Everyone has to start somewhere, right? Even established genre stalwarts like director John Carpenter and writer Dan O'Bannon had to cut their teeth before hitting the big time. Originally shot as a student film at USC, Dark Star is the result of that collective teeth cutting, an interesting and entertaining picture that shows much of the promise we know was to come, but not on the level of those projects that would make them ‘big names.' Parts of it work really well, parts of it not so well, but it's obvious that both men learned from what they did here and the film's sense of humor is consistently entertaining.

    Set in the future, the film follows the crew of the titular space ship who has been sent out into space ahead of some massive colony ships in hopes of finding a planet unsuitable for hosting human life and to destroy them. Twenty years of this seemingly endless voyage has started to take its toll on the crew, however, and things start to fall apart when their commanding officer is accidently electrocuted. It gets worse from there - the cabin depressurizes and the surviving crew is forced to live in the food storage, shortly after which the ship's supply of toilet paper goes up in flames. To stay sane, Sergeant Pinback (Dan O'Bannon) has taken to chasing around the ship's adapted alien for fun.

    When they eventually find a planet to blow up, the ‘smart bombs' they send out to do the work for them don't really cooperate, and instead Bomb #20 turns its sights on the Dark Star itself. If they want to make it out of this situation alive, Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) will have to have a philosophical debate and convince the bomb not to blow them up.

    Funny and well paced, Dark Star isn't for the serious science fiction fan, but it is a good send up of a lot of the genre's clichés and overused formulaic plot devices. The film's low budget shots in the optical effects and the wardrobe but if nothing else it's got some heart to it. Carpenter and O'Bannon are obviously having a good bit of fun with this project and there not only times where that shines through but where it's infectious as well. The cast do a fine job with the material, playing everything as straight as they need to in order to make it work, while Carpenter's score adds enough atmosphere and quirk to the picture to help things out here and there. The plot is screwy and goofy and it doesn't really amount to very much but the movie is a fun one so long as you don't expect to have to take it too seriously. It is, as O'Bannon notes in his opening text introduction to the picture, meant to be funny after all.

    Note: There are two versions of this movie. As most Carpenter fans are aware, Dark Star was originally made as a 68 minute student film. Producer Jack Harris saw the picture and convinced Carpenter and O'Bannon to add another fifteen minutes of footage to make it feature length, and that longer version was to theaters in 1975 through Bryanston Pictures. Some of the additions to the longer cut include the meteor storm scene, a scene that takes place in the crew's living quarters and a scene where Doolittle treats us to a musical number. Opinions obviously vary as to which version is preferable. The past two disc DVD special edition included both cuts (the theatrical cut on disc one and the original cut on disc two) but this Blu-ray disc includes only the longer version.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    VCI brings Dark Star to Blu-ray in a VC-1 encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.78.1 widescreen. Noise reduction has been added here and quite liberally at that, making what should have been a grainy looking 16mm film into a smeared and waxy beast. Detail and texture both suffer for this, and the picture quality winds up looking artificial rather than film like. There are a few positives worth noting in that print damage has been cleaned up quite a bit and for better or worse the picture is quite clean in that regard. Colors look very good here but unfortunately compression artifacts are evident throughout. It’s unlikely anyone expected Dark Star to look amazing on Blu-ray but films shot on 16mm have been transferred to the format with impressive results in the past. Unfortunately, the DNR on this transfer excludes this release from being added to that list.

    Audio options are presented in LPCM 2.0 Mono and an LPCM 5.1 Surround Sound, both in English, with optional subtitles provided in English and Spanish. Honestly there’s not a load of difference between the two mixes, but most probably wouldn’t have expected that anyway. Dialogue is clean and clear if fairly flat here and there while the levels remain properly balanced. Both mixes are pretty clean and would presumably do a fair job of representing how the film would have originally sounded – low-fi, but easy enough to follow and understand.

    The extra features department seems to mirror the previous VCI special edition DVD release. Extras start off with a commentary from ‘Dark Star super fan' Andrew Gilchrist who definitely knows his way around the history of the film. Here he talks about the film's humble beginnings, how it mutated into the theatrical version, how Carpenter and O'Bannon wound up working together on the project and more. He does a good job of putting out interesting facts and trivia along the way, providing context and background information for the various players who show up in the picture. All in all, it's a solid track and quite an informative listen.

    Complimenting the commentary is an interview with popular science fiction author Alan Dean Foster (34:44), who wrote the novelized version of Alien based off of O'Bannon's script, who talks about O'Bannon's work and about this film in particular. Rounding out the interviews is a bit with Brian Naralle (40:07) who plays Doolittle in the film. Here he talks about his experiences on the set, his coworkers, and more.

    Also included here is Let There Be Light: The Odyssey Of Dark Star (156:45, it's actually longer than the film itself and longer than the cut included on the DVD by about forty minutes). Included here are new interviews with star Brian Narelle, cinematographer Doug Knapp, art director Tommy Lee Wallace, visual effects artist Greg Jein, voice artist Cookie Knapp, film director Jack Harris, Diane O'Bannon, director Jeff Burr, as well as archival interviews with John Carpenter among others. Director Daniel Griffith has definitely gone the extra mile here to track down as many people as possible involved with the film and to let them share their side of the story of its genesis. This is a pretty thorough piece that leaves no stone unturned an impressive documentary that traces the film's history and explains its importance quite effectively. It’s also well put together, using ‘Ship’s Log’ style video entries in keeping with the movie’s style to help string together the various parts that make up the whole.

    Rounding out the extras is a 3-D guide to the space ship featured in Dark Star, a Star Wars-esque written introduction to the film by the late Dan O'Bannon, a brief selection of trivia, animated menus and chapter selection. The film’s original theatrical trailer, included on the last DVD release, is not included here.

    The Final Word:

    Dark Star remains a milestone in low budget filmmaking, a micro budgeted epic that would go on to have far more influence than it probably should have. An occasionally brilliant send up of sci-fi movies it stands as a testament to how creativity, imagination and talent can overcome budgetary restraints any day of the week, a relentlessly entertaining and very funny film well worth revisiting. This makes it all the more disappointing then that VCI’s Blu-ray is slathered in noise reduction problems – because, the omission of the shorter cut of the film and the trailer notwithstanding, this is otherwise a nice package.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!