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Dark Star

Year: 1974
Production Co: Jack H Harris Enterprises
Director: John Carpenter
Producer: John Carpenter
Writer: John Carpenter/Dan O'Bannon
Cast: Dan O'Bannon, Cal Kuniholm, Brian Narelle, Dre Pahich

This film has an interesting tonal approach that veers between high comedy and a dispassionate, almost documentary tone.

It's also a little hard to take very seriously because the special effects style is very much anchored to the period (as well as cheap), but if you can look past all that you can see the kernel of an intriguing idea about the dangers of artificial intelligence (albeit not done with as much finesse as Kubrick and Clarke did a few years later with HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey).

It's 20 years into a mission and three astronauts are flying through space in the Dark Star, a spaceship loaded with self-aware onboard explosives. They're looking for planets to destroy because of unstable orbits that could endanger nearby systems marked for colonisation.

It starts with the escape of an alien life form they've captured and keep onboard as a kind of pet (it's hard to tell whether the obvious fakeness of the creature is a comment being made by the film, or whether they only had the budget for a beach ball and a jar of glitter paint).

The ship's computer is a softly spoken female voice that keeps everyone in the loop and reports on problems throughout the ship, but she has her work cut out for her when the escaped life form damages a communications laser. It sends an errant signal to one of the bombs to deploy, and the computer successfully reasons with the nerdy-voiced explosive and convinces it to return to the bomb bay.

With the communications laser problem getting worse and the crew trying to go about their business (including a whiny, slightly crazy video diary entry about morale and a forgotten birthday), things go from bad to worse when the bomb, apparently determined to fulfill its purpose, comes out of the bomb bay again and refuses to return, intending to launch.

Worse still, the fault means it's stuck in the levers and hydraulics that are supposed to drop it, but intends to detonate anyway. The most senior crewmember goes outside to try and reason with the machine, and an interesting conversation ensues about how we're trapped by our senses, and how the information we're getting from the environment might be false. The results are conclusive but devastating for the crew.

Throw in a dead commander encased in ice who they can still communicate with, a love of country and western music and a surfing story that has an amusing and iconic conclusion and it's a mishmash of themes and ideas for not much money – just what Carpenter's always been good at.

There's some great staging (like in the cramped, three-chair cockpit area), but a lot that's either superfluous or merely side notes on how the isolation of space travel can drive anyone insane. Pinback is none of other than screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, who'd go on to co-write Alien and a hundred other classic sci-fi and horror movies.

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