Search this blog and The Mike's favorite blogs!

November 29, 2009

What's My First Name?; Or, "Why Dark Star Matters"

(TO YOU, THE READER: Have a horror, sci-fi, or cult film you think matters? Want me to take a shot at it? Email suggestions for future "Why Midnight Movies Matter" columns to, and I'd be more than happy to feature your favorite film here!)

For my second attempt at pointing out why I think a Midnight Movie matters, I chose a film that started the career of two filmmakers and has overcome a shoestring budget to still be floating around the galaxy of midnight cinema 35 years later. That film is John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon's Dark Star.

Phase One: Introductions
John Carpenter needs little introduction to horror fans. In 1978 he hit a horror home run with Halloween, which started the slasher craze and became the highest grossing independent film of all time, and followed it up with a string of genre hits like The Fog, The Thing, Escape from New York, and Christine that made him the head of genre cinema through the late 1980's (when he got a raw deal from filmgoers on three straight fantastic films - Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, & They Live - but that's a different story for a different article).

Dan O'Bannon is slightly lesser known than Mr. Carpenter, but has made an impact on sci-fi and horror cinema in his own way. In 1979 he conceived the story behind Alien and wrote that film's script, and followed up by writing the criminally underloved Dead & Buried and later the blockbuster Total Recall; as well as writing and directing cult smash The Return of the Living Dead.

Saying that these men have been important to cult cinema is an understatement. But what a lot of people don't know about either filmmaker is that they both made their cinema debut while collaborating in film school at USC on Dark Star - a philosophical sci-fi parody that went from 45 minute, 16 mm film festival hit to 83 minute, 35 mm distributed film after being found by producer Jack H. Harris (who also backed The Blob, which makes me think I need to worship him.)

Phase Two: Tight Corridors, Dark Corners, Aliens, & Dan O'Bannon
Early in Dark Star, there's a scene where the ship's computer (with a female voice that could easily earn it the name Mother) informs two of the characters, Boiler (more on him later) and Pinback (played by O'Bannon himself) that it's time for Sgt. Pinback to feed the alien. If you're like me, you were expecting the alien to not be a beach ball with feet glued to it. Seriously, look the the left. Beach ball.

What happens next? Well, the alien gets loose. Suddenly - we've got an alien loose in the ship, crawling through ducts, lurking where our characters can't see it, attacking when the moment seems right. In fact, it gets so bad that our character decides to take up arms and dispose of the pesky alien. Do I even need to state the connection to O'Bannon's work on Alien? Didn't think so.

Additionally, many of the sets inside the ship, though less intricate due to the budget of the film, clearly foreshadow the imagery of Alien later on. There are also shades of Star Wars in the ship's corridors and computer systems, and that's no surprise either - George Lucas hired O'Bannon to work on effects for Star Wars after seeing Dark Star and liking his work.

Phase Three: Cynicism and Apathy: The Carpenter Way
In case it hasn't been evident so far, I'm a big fanboy when it comes to John Carpenter and his work. Among my favorite aspects of Carpenter's style is that there always seems to be an underlying theme of apathy from the characters and a cynical stance toward authority and government. This is evident from minute one of Dark Star, as we're introduced to a video of a man who appears to be speaking for all of Earth sending a message to the crew about their great work. It's a polite, well-plotted message, that instantly gave me the feeling that these people weren't really worth much to the bigwigs back home.

Additionally, the character of Boiler seems very much like characters we'd see in his later films. A broad-shouldered fellow with a bushy 'stache, Boiler is the kind of guy who'll bring out the heat ray gun for target practice, and also the type of guy who'll turn an uncaring ear when more sensitive characters are talking about their concerns. In short, he's the uncaring alpha dog type, who of course never ends up solving much despite his self-perceptions. The character had me thinking of Richard Masur's Clark from The Thing or even the thugs from Carpenter's last theatrical film (thus far) Ghosts of Mars. Carpenter always seems to like having a "tough guy" in the cast to use as necessary, and Boiler is a great example of that in his earliest film.

Phase 4: "What's My First Name?" - Fluid Concepts of Identity
Outside of the scenes involving the fantastic Bomb #20, one of my favorite bits is a simple dinner scene on board the ship in which three of our four characters engage in a conversation about their identities. It begins with the stir crazy Pinback talking about how he came to be on the ship by being mistaken for a crew member that killed himself before launch, a story so kooky we're never sure if he's telling the truth or not. The self-focused Boiler turns away from Pinback's story and starts talking to the acting captain, Doolittle, wondering whether Pinback told them this story 4 years ago, and Doolittle begins to show a little bit of his own confusion as to his predicament. Boiler asks him what the fourth crew member's (who prefers to isolate in the observation deck) first name is and, after a long pause, Doolittle looks up confused and asks: "What's my first name?"

In one scene, the identity of each character is either established to be constant or changed entirely. Boiler, who's already been determined as the crew member least interested in the reasons for their predicament, continues to present the same manner as he has the rest of the film, but the other three characters are brought into a different light immediately. Questions are raised about Talby (the observation deck recluse) and his lack of interaction with others, and it's made clear that his peers don't know much about who Talby really is. Pinback is shown to be sporting two personas, and it seems like he's willing to take on a different role depending on the situation he's faced with. Doolittle, who seems like the most stable of the bunch previously, suddenly becomes a man who has no certainty of his role in the mission, let alone his place in life. And that's where the most interesting connection to O'Bannon and Carpenter's future lies in my eyes.

Carpenter's films have often centered on a character's identity, but have also at times completely ignored the importance of knowing who someone is. In Assault on Precinct 13, much is made of criminal Napoleon Wilson based on his reputation, but he's unwilling to tell others how he got his nickname - reminiscent of Boiler and his attitude of superiority (Though Wilson is far more charismatic than Boiler). The Thing is Carpenter's most obvious identity focused film, where the events of the film call into question whether or not each character is who they say they are, which is similar to Pinback's story of actually being a technician who stepped into the suit of the real Pinback, the same way the Thing steps into the skin of it's victims (This could also go for Jeff Bridges' character in Starman, who steps into a dead man's life to get into his adventure). Talby is a mystery who we never learn much about aside from his philosophies on existence, similar to nameless characters in Carpenter's later films like Roddy Piper in They Live or Donald Pleasence in Prince of Darkness. Talby, like these characters, becomes an instrument for his beliefs instead of a person, and it's not really necessary for us to know his name. Doolittle's lack of faith in who he is and inability to even remember his name is similar to the transformation we see with Keith Gordon's lead in Christine, who loses track of his identity as his obsession with the titular vehicle overcomes the subconscious parts of his brain.

Not to be outdone, O'Bannon's films borrowed identity concerns from these characters too. Dead & Buried and Return of the Living Dead both have a zombie theme, and the idea that others become different creatures that no longer have their human sense is evident here, especially when Boiler gets overly angry late in the film. But the most obvious example of a character doubting his own identity that O'Bannon wrote is Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in Total Recall. The parallel between Doolittle's "What's my first name?" or Pinback's belief he might be Bill Freug and Arnold's "If I am not me, then who the hell am I?" is blatant.

I've wasted a lot of words on talking about a silly little sci-fi parody, but while watching it I couldn't help notice how much of it I'd seen paralleled in later films. Dark Star is a little film with no budget that may have been a little too spaced out, but the signs are there that bright futures were coming for these two filmmakers. Seeing those signs is more than enough to make me think Dark Star is a film that matters in the history of midnight cinema.

No comments: