All this week The Bloodsprayer is looking at the work at Dan O’Bannon. There will be a number of entries about Dan singularly as a writer, editor, animator, and actor. I have the privilege to talk about Dark Star, O’Bannon’s 1974 collaboration with John Carpenter. After attracting financing from producer Jack Harris (The Blob, Equinox), O’Bannon and Carpenter beefed up the sixty three minute running time of their satiric sci-fi student film to create their first feature. While Carpenter took his standard position in the director’s chair, O’Bannon proved himself to be a jack of all trades filling the entire litany of credits I listed earlier and a couple more. Dark Star certainly hints at what lay ahead for its director, but more than that, in one film it beautifully illustrates the many wonderful talents Dan O’Bannon had to share with film lovers and the film industry over the course of his incredible career.
O’Bannon is best known as a screenwriter, and not only does the script he and Carpenter penned feature a crisp, wry satire, there is also a clear line between Dark Star and O’Bannon’s best known film, Alien. The titular Dark Star is a deep space vessel which has been traveling for twenty years hunting rogue planets to destroy. Over the course of their journey their captain has died and been cryogenically frozen, their whole supply of toilet paper is destroyed, and madness has begun to set into the crew. While Sgt. Pinback cares for the ships “beach ball with claws” mascot, the rest of the crew confronts a computer malfunction that causes one of the independent minded bombs housed on the ship to become convinced that it was time to detonate. Their only hope to stop the bomb is to beat it in a philosophical battle of wits before the whole crew becomes literally one with the universe.
Drawing from diverse influences such as Dr. Strangelove’s cutting wit, the isolated paranoia of 2001, the lost astronauts of Ray Bradbury’s story “Kaleidoscope”, and the existential dread of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22. Carpenter and O’Bannon’s film represented a space faring Earth unseen in typical fare like Star Trek and Lost in Space. These men, some 20 years from Earth, are long haired rock and rollers who wax poetic about “phoenix asteroids” and their desperate longing to surf once more. They are capable men who have been isolated so long even the most major malfunction of the ship barely raises an eyebrow. Coated in a layer of subtle comedy, Carpenter and O’Bannon explore the effect total responsibility for massive destruction would have on a group of men and how they would become isolated from each other. O’Bannon’s character Pinback even claims to be someone else entirely, as if he is distancing himself from what he has experienced. At the same time the actors give wonderful deadpan line readings of gems from the script such as. “My rocket pack stopped working. Oh man.” It may not sound funny on paper, but delivered by Brian Narelle’s Lt. Doolittle they are sure to elicit a laugh from the most jaded of viewers.
While forming this wonderful script for Dark Star, O’Bannon managed to inspire himself. His character Pinback has to deal with the “beach ball with claws” mascot. The wily bugger leads him on a harrowing chase around the ship and through an elevator shaft. O’Bannon handles the comic frustration in the scenes perfectly, putting another feather in his already well feathered cap. The beach ball’s confounding ability to disappear and quickly turn the tables on Pinback inspired O’Bannon to work on a script about a more menacing extra terrestrial. Dispensing with the beach ball, he cast his new creature in the guise of one of the paintings of H.R. Giger who he had met while in Spain working on an aborted adaptation of Dune by Alejandro Jowderowky. This new script, once entitled Star Beast, would become the basis for perhaps the most influential science fiction movie this side of Star Wars, 1986’s Alien. Meanwhile the character of Pinback would become loved in science fiction circles, even prompting a band to name themselves after the character. As for O’Bannon, he was typically humble when asked about his acting saying in a 2007 interview with The Den of Geek., “It was an obvious thing to do in Dark Star. Since we weren’t paying anybody, the other actors were unreliable in terms of showing up and I was going to be there..”
While his onscreen performance and his behind the scenes writing probably are the most well known of the aspects of Dan O’Bannon’s involvement with Dark Star, his involvement behind the scenes was far more extensive. One of the reasons that the student film so impressed Jack Harris was the optical effects created by O’Bannon in conjunction with Rob Cobb, an artist and illustrator whose credits include everything from Jefferson Airplane covers to 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, Alien, Total Recall, and Joss Weadon’s Firefly. These displays gave the early ‘70’s film the same high concept futuristic tone that propelled Kubrick’s 2001. Not only did O’Bannon’s work help secure the complete funding for the feature length Dark Star, it also landed him work on George Lucas’ Star Wars where O’Bannon was tasked with animating the climatic display when Luke uses the force to shoot the Death Star’s reactor shaft. So basically without Dark Star John Hurt would still get dinner invitation and The Empire may not have needed to strike back.
As if acting, writing, and serving as special effects coordinator were not enough, O’Bannon also served as production designer, capturing the claustrophobic feeling of the Dark Star which forms a nice juxtaposition to the vast openness of space around them. More importantly, he also edited Dark Star. While much of the camera movement created by John Carpenter and cinematographer Douglas Knapp (who also shot Carpenters Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York) is strikingly prescient of the director’s future work, O’Bannon’s editing switches wisely between frenetic cuts during the suspense scenes and long, languid, uninterrupted sequences dealing with the wry, comic boredom or the crew’s sense of ennui. One of the most difficult things about Dark Star is the pitch black comedy, and more than once it was O’Bannon’s clever use of a cut to prompt a laugh and break the tension.
When people talk about Dan O’Bannon’s contribution to the world of film, the many great scripts that he wrote often come up, but Dark Star at it’s core proves that no matter what route O’Bannon would have taken into the film world, his impact would have felt the same. To take on so many disparate roles in film production with responsibilities both in front and behind the camera, one has to have a passion for film, for the cinematic life. No one can say that Dan O’Bannon did not have that passion. As a first film, Dark Star does have it’s faults, but unlike the uneasy dread that fills the crew of the deep space vessel, Dark Star always makes me laugh, and knowing that there are people out there as dedicated to the craft and as talented as Dan O’Bannon is the kind of thing that keeps me coming back to genre cinema time and time again.. When Pinback bemoans his chores saying, “Aww, I got to do everything around here.”, I always think about how close O’Bannon was to doing just that.