KLAATU YOU (6)
February 5, 2020
One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite pre-Star Wars science fiction movies.
DARK STAR | d. JOHN CARPENTER | 1974
Here is a celluloid koan for ya: why did the creative minds behind the two most revolutionary horror films of the late 70s — Halloween (1978) and Alien (1979) — start off making a stoner space comedy? John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon were at USC when they collaborated on a 16-mm SF goof called Dark Star, which bloomed into a low-budget, midnight-ready cult feature in 1974. From the hirsute ship crew to the clunky tech to the trippy analog effects (including Carpenter’s Atari-oid modular synth score), the film is saturated with hazy 70s vibes that, while revealing some serious dorm room resourcefulness, also prophesied the turn towards gritty design taken by Star Wars, Alien, and much subsequent SF.
Equally Zeitgeisty is the film’s comic take on the peculiar 70s tension between the cosmic and the crass. One crew member refuses to leave the transparent observation dome, immersed in galactic Big Mind; another just wants “something to blow up.” And despite some sublime 2001-worthy graphics, the film ends with a ridiculous green-screen superposition: the Malibu-bred Lieutenant Doolittle, having survived the destruction of the ship, surfing space junk down to an unknown planet whose atmosphere will incinerate him like a “falling star.”
O’Bannon cribbed this finale from “Kaleidoscope,” a bleak Ray Bradbury tale about a crew of astronauts drifting apart after a ship explosion, grumbling at each other through their coms until the radios crackle into deathly silence. Though written in 1949, Bradbury’s existential set-up still works wonders in the pulp 70s of Dark Star, whose currents of irritable isolation and paranoid dread return us to our celluloid koan, which in turn calls up two unforgettable sequences.
In one, Doolittle attempts to philosophize with an intelligent “Thermostellar Triggering Device” who refuses to cancel its detonation sequence despite threatening the life of the ship. Unfortunately, Doolittle’s skeptical arguments, designed to stir doubt in the purpose-driven AI, leads it to embrace an extreme solipsism that justifies its final narcissistic immolation.
If that’s not enough of a 70s parable for you, there’s the scene where O’Bannon’s voluble and hapless Sergeant Pinback is attacked in an elevator shaft by “the alien aboard”: an inflatable pumpkin-hued beach ball with claws whose absurd lineaments cannot disguise the Giger horror that O’Bannon and Ridley Scott would subsequently invoke in its place. This is the thing about the meaningless void of space: nobody can hear you scream, but nobody can hear you laugh either.
KLAATU YOU: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Matthew De Abaitua on ZARDOZ | Miranda Mellis on METROPOLIS | Rob Wringham on THE INVISIBLE MAN | Michael Grasso on THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN | Gordon Dahlquist on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | Erik Davis on DARK STAR | Carlo Rotella on THE OMEGA MAN | Madeline Ashby on KISS ME DEADLY | Adam McGovern on SILENT RUNNING | Michael Lewy on THIS ISLAND EARTH | Josh Glenn on WILD IN THE STREETS | Mimi Lipson on BARBARELLA vs. SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS | Vanessa Berry on THE FLY | Lynn Peril on ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN | Peggy Nelson on SOLARIS | Adrienne Crew on LOGAN’S RUN | Ramona Lyons on THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH | Kio Stark on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Dan Fox on FANTASTIC PLANET | Chris Lanier on IKARIE XB-1 | Devin McKinney on IDAHO TRANSFER | Mark Kingwell on THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO | Luc Sante on THE TENTH VICTIM | William Nericcio on DEATH RACE 2000 | Rob Walker on CAPRICORN ONE | Gary Panter on ANGRY RED PLANET | David Levine on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Karinne Keithley Syers on ALPHAVILLE | Carolyn Kellogg on IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE | Sara Ryan on ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN | Lisa Jane Persky on PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE | Adam Harrison Levy on BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES | Gerald Peary on CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON | Susannah Breslin on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE | Seth on WAR OF THE WORLDS | James Hannaham on GOJIRA/GODZILLA | Lydia Millet on VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED | Matthew Daniel on FANTASTIC VOYAGE | Shawn Wolfe on ROLLERBALL | Erin M. Routson on WESTWORLD | Marc Weidenbaum on COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT | Neil LaBute on 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA | Vicente Lozano on DAY OF THE DOLPHIN | Tom Roston on SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE | Katya Apekina on A BOY AND HIS DOG | Chelsey Johnson on THE BLOB | Heather Kapplow on SPACE IS THE PLACE | Brian Berger on THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS | Anthony Miller on THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.
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