Thursday, 21 February 2013

GFF 2013: Shooting Star

Tonight, Sheffield electronica duo Animat furnish cult sci-fi Dark Star with a fresh soundtrack as part of the Glasgow Film Festival. We revisit the film's creaky corridors and find its lustre undimmed...

A long time ago on a university campus far, far away, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon started work on a small-scale student flick by the name of Dark Star. Their budget was shoestring and their progress slow, piecing together the initial cut over the course of three years. But with wit, invention and a vital wellspring of filmmaking chutzpah, the duo worked alchemy. Beach balls became aliens, baking trays were repurposed as space suits, and an hour-long student film became a full-length feature with lasting cult appeal. A sharp satire with a goofy sensibility, Dark Star combines slapstick humour with Cartesian philosophy; the destruction of planets with the monotony of long-term isolation; existentialism with gags about toilet paper. It roughed up the pristine visions of a then freshly popular genre (thanks to Kubrick’s 2001), and launched its creators’ careers in the process.

Carpenter and O’Bannon met while enrolled in the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television – by then already boasting at least one poster-boy alumnus in the form of George Lucas (whose feature debut THX 1138 was based on an earlier USC short). Both Carpenter and O’Bannon donned multiple creative hats to make Dark Star a reality: as well as directing and producing, Carpenter provided its iconic score and co-wrote with O’Bannon; in addition to scripting, O’Bannon’s credits include production design and editing, plus a role in front of the camera playing Sgt. Pinback. And, as comprehensive making-of doc Let There Be Light makes clear, the list of unofficial roles extended further still. With zero ventilation in the astronauts’ helmets (made, as they were, of toys and tape), breathing was tricky. Therefore, the scene in which Doolittle (Brian Narelle) teaches phenomenology to a bomb was filmed one line of dialogue at a time, with O’Bannon on hand to help recuperate wilting actor Brian Narelle the moment Carpenter called ‘cut’. This can-do DIY approach is a big part of the end result’s abundant charm: while you can see the frayed edges and corner-cutting, it’s all the richer for it. The aforementioned inflatable extra-terrestrial is a case in point: flagrantly cheap, but endearingly memorable.

Viewed forty years on, Dark Star seems very much a product of its origins (both in terms of its 70s counter-culture tropes and its microbudget aesthetic) but it has dated gracefully. Even if it hadn’t, it would retain a prominent place in the chronicles of cinematic sci-fi by virtue of its progeny alone. Carpenter’s subsequent successes need little elaboration, with the likes of Escape from New York and The Thing establishing him as a genre titan (even if the crown has since slipped). The late O’Bannon enjoyed a comparatively less feted career, but one nonetheless studded with gold: Dark Stars beach-ball chase became the basis for Alien’s stalking xenomorph; further script work included the original Total Recall and Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars remake; and in 1985 he received his first director’s credit, for seminal shocker Return of the Living Dead. Meanwhile, Dark Star’s DNA cropped up again and again – from the Millennium Falcon’s hyperspace blur to the galactic misadventures aboard Red Dwarf’s eponymous mining ship – establishing an enduring legacy for this most unorthodox of space odysseys.

21 Feb – CCA Theatre @ 21.30

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