Movie spaceship of the day: the Dark Star

, | Features

John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) not only featured the best spaceship ever, it was also the most influential science fiction movie from the ’70’s with “star” in the title. Its design not only prefigured George Lucas’ sordid triangle fetish explored to unsavory detail in his subsequent trilogy about argumentative robots, but also SpaceshipTwo for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. The movie was also co-written by and stars Dan O’Bannon, who would return to the theme of carnivorous beachballs in “Alien” and “The Thing,” though handled here with considerably more plausibility and menace. Dark Star was also the first film to use prohibitively expensive CG and stuntwork to convincingly depict vertical action sequences in low-grav environments and the first sf film to evoke zero comment from NASA. Its psychotic onboard computer stuff also predated Kubrick’s 1968 landmark 2001 by -6 years.

But more even than most films, Dark Star is about a spaceship. As every child-sized fan of blue-collar fictionalization now knows, its crew’s mission was to roam around the universe blowing up unstable planets unfit for colonists like the ones in WALL-E if they’d had a destination. We’re given to understand that Dark Star’s crew is, like the society of when it was made, near insane with boredom and mutual loathing. What little we’re shown of the ship’s schematics underscores these impressions: a shared barracks whose principal recreational component is a rubber chicken; a dark closet; a turret; a captain made of ice; and a workspace even human centipede segments might have found a little close for comfort. Talk about wormholes! Even the Antarctic researchers in the Thing at least had Lets Make A deal reruns and their bourbon-flavored chess.

But back in 1974 this seemed the best way for our species to experience the majestic infinity of the universe. Forty years later, we now know that the reality will be much smaller, and ultimately cost almost as much as John Carpenter’s 1974 Dark Star.