Futile and Beautiful: Remembering John Carpenter’s Dark Star

When George R. R. Martin bought and reopened The Jean Cocteau Cinema in downtown Santa Fe it was August 2013 and he threw a debut weekend bash. The theatre hosted free showings of classic films, a triple feature which included Orpheus directed by the theatre’s namesake, Forbidden Planet complete with an appearance by the original specimen of Robby the Robot, and one that would become my favorite sci-fi film of all time, a philosophical, absurdist comedy in space, John Carpenter’s first directorial credit, Dark Star.

That summer I was 18 and at the tail end of what I at the time considered to be my last piece of adolescence. My friends and I loitered in parking lots, letting nostalgia seep into the present. My tastes were still transparent and unformed. Each thing I consumed that summer formed me (which is why most of my nerdy tendencies are really just memories). The fact that the uber famous George R.R. Martin was investing his money, time, and influental je ne sais quoi into my town felt like a harkening back to the Santa Fe of my parent’s generation in the 80’s when the famous elite were regular faces in the downtown scene. It felt like good timing. Dark Star felt like good timing.

The apathetic crew of the scout ship Dark Star have been aboard their spacecraft for 20 years. They live in a time of such technological advancement that being an astronaut is suddenly, stutteringly like being an intergalactic janitor. There is so much angst aboard this ship, and so much lanky seventies hair, as they float throughout the galaxy destroying unstable planets with their sentient talking bombs. Their pleasant, feminine voiced Computer is constantly reminding them of the deterioration of the ship, the futility of their task, their lives. The Crew consists of  Lieutenant Doolittle (Brian Narelle), a former surfer from Malibu California, Sergeant Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) who in a video diary admits that he is actually fuel specialist Bill Frugge, who took the real Sgt. Pinback’s place on the mission after his suicide, Corporal Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) keeps an immaculate mustache and plays target practice, reclusive Talby (Dre Pahich) watches the universe go by in the observation deck, and Commander Powell who was killed in hyperdrive and is still cryogenically frozen aboard the ship.

To me, Dark Star has always felt like a portrait of the existential attitude. Space is the perfect stage for the nausea and futile absurdity of individual human existence. People die, you are confined to a finite enclosed box, and sometimes 20 years feels like 3. The best scenes of the movie are depictions of the ways the characters find to make themselves feel alive. In this world where we are so bored and disenchanted by technological advancement and working a job that requires nothing of us but destruction and mindless tasks, it is the small glimmering beautiful things that keep us going, that make us laugh. Dark Star, as a film, gives us many such moments. We see Doolittle in an intimate moment in the bowels of the Dark Star with his water-bottle organ, which plays a dripping, whimsical tune. Pinback’s struggle to catch his alien beach-ball-mascot is funny and surreal, but we also see him experience real terror in the wind tunnels of the ship. With the heart of a poet Talby escapes to the vast unending space of the observation deck and  tells us of the unexplainable beauty of “The Phoenix Asteroids”. His description becomes a parallel for our own existence: “they glow,” he tells us, “glow with all the colors of the rainbow, nobody knows why”.

Dark Star was John Carpenter’s college thesis film, and it feels that way. Overtly philosophical and brooding, but also enlivened with the humor and easy eye for beauty. In another of my favorite scenes we get to see the sleeping quarters of the ship. Commander Powell’s bed is a neat military island amid the mess of a bachelor pad. Above Corporal Boiler’s bed the words “THE BIG BOILER” have been spray painted. As Computer serenades them with elevator easy listening entitled “When Twilight Falls On NGC 89” Boiler wipes the table clean and begins to stab a knife between his fingers rhythmically. Pinback sheepishly puts on a pair of googley eye glasses, getting really close to Boiler’s face. A puff of cigar smoke is emitted. Pinback return to his bed. He pauses and then pulls a rubber check out from his jumpsuit and shakes it in Doolittle’s face. “DAMNIT!!” Doolittle screams.

Carpenter, later in life described Dark Star as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, but in space, which is apt. Dark Star perfectly elaborates a kind of listless, in between feeling, which is why, during my last summer before college it resonated so deeply with me. In the final moments of the film Talby finally gets to view the spectacular Phoenix Asteroids and in the last moments before death he becomes a part of them and circles the universe forever. As Doolittle is falling toward the burning atmosphere he takes a piece of the broken Dark Star and surf across the stars for the last time. What a beautiful way to die…

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