Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Blu-ray Review: DARK STAR - Thermostellar Edition (1974)

DARK STAR (1974)
- Thermostellar Edition - 

Label: VCI Entertainment
Region: Region-FREE
Rating: Unrated  
Duration: 83 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1080p Anamorphic Widescreen (1.78:1) 
Audio: English Uncomptessed LPCM 2.0, Enhanced LPCM 5.1
Cast: Brian Narelle, Dre Pahich, Dan O'Bannon, Cal Kuniholm  
Director: John Carpenter

Synopsis: In the mid twenty-first century, mankind has reached a point in its technological advances to enable colonization of the far reaches of the universe. DARK STAR is a futuristic scout ship traveling far in advance of colony ships. Armed with Exponential Thermosteller Bombs, it prowls the darkest reaches of space on a mission to seek out and destroy unstable planets ahead of the colonist. But there is one obstacle that its crew members did not count on -- one of the ship's thinking and talking bombs is lodged in the bay, threatening to destroy the entire ship and crew! 

The Film: DARK STAR was originally intended to be a sixty-eight minute student film from two uber-talented University of Southern California filmschool students. Maybe you've heard of them? We have John Carpenter who went on to direct HALLOWEEN (1978), THE THING (1982) and THE FOG (1980) just to name a few and the other half of this dynamic duo is Dan O'Bannon whom would go on to pen screenplays for ALIEN (1970), DEAD AND BURIED (1981), and LIFEFORCE (1985) plus directing the iconic punk rock zombie horror-comedy RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985). Shooting the film on the cheap it came to the attention of b-movie producer Jack H. Harris, whom produced EQUINOX (1960) and THE BLOB (1958), who then convinced the aspiring filmmakers to shoot an additional fifteen minutes of extra footage and released the expanded version theatrically in 1975. Now thirty-seven years later the film is a certified cult classic and Carpenter and O'Bannon are legends of genre cinema, clearly something special was brewing during the filming of this no-budget sci-fi satire with nods to Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) and the visionary space epic 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Shot on a shoe-string budget with massive amounts of heart, passion, and creativity the film is a testament to the young filmmakers who made it, a spaced-out comedy about boredom and madness in space.

For some this lo-fi sci-fi satire might be a bit of slog for those unable to look beyond the confines of it's limited production, a space suit that prominently features a muffin pan definitely draws attention to itself, no doubt, as does the pet alien that is quite just an over-sized beach ball with the Creature from the Black Lagoon's feet attached to the bottom, but in the spirit of the film's satirical tone it somehow works, the effects are dated but tolerable. 

We have four stoned space truckers suffering through the monotony and madness of space hurdling through cosmos detonating "unstable" planets armed with a cargo bay with a self-aware, smart-bombs, one of which develops a few philosophical quirks after a meteor shower strikes the ship.

It's a fun cast of characters and the highlight for me was Dan O'Bannon's  acerbic  Pinback who keeps a video diary becoming more and more unhinged with each entry, he's joined by Talby (Dre Pahich) who spends his time zoned out on the ship's observation deck, Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) who enjoys blasting scrap metal with a laser blaster when bored and a homesick surfer dude named Doolittle (Brian Narelle) all of whom are joined, sort of, by Captain Powell (Joe Saunders) who was electrocuted during a fatal seat malfunction but somehow kept "alive" frozen in a block of ice in a state of suspended animation

Blu-ray: VCI's Thermostellar Edition of John Carpenter's DARK STAR (1974) claims to be a new HD master sourced from a 35mm theatrical print that's benefited from a frame by frame digital restoration. Presented in it's original widescreen aspect ratio (1.78:1) the anamorphic image is certainly not 1080p perfection but it's quite clearly the best it's ever looked. Colors are a nice but muted, fine detail is wanting and the image is a bit soft, not offer much in the way of clarity or crispness, for a film shot primarily on 16mm it's not as grainy as one might expect. I suspect some digital noise reduction has been applied and with it some of the detail has been -scraped from the image. DARK STAR was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical presentation, not sure if the original 16mm elements have survived but perhaps a better image could have been sourced if so, not that I would know but it seems doubtful that anything other than theatrical prints would exist and what we have here is probably the best we will ever see. 

Audio options include uncompressed LPCM Mono 2.0 and a newly created "enhanced" LPCM 5.1. Either option is fraught with some distortion in the form of minor crackle, pop and hiss, the 5.1 mix opens it up a bit but I preferred the original mono mix myself. There are optional English and Spanish subtitles

Lovers of the film will enjoy the supplemental materials which are ported over from the 2010 Hyper-Drive Edition from VCI, at the top of the set we have a pre-feature Written Intro by writer/actor Dan O’Bannon which warns viewers of the poor video quality, I am assuming this was written for the initial VHS release for the feature. 

Next is the feature-length documentary Let There Be Light: The Odyssey of “Dark Star” (116mins) produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures whom also brought us the fantastic The Bloodiest Show on Earth: The Making of Vampire Circus documentary for Synapse Films' Blu ray edition of  VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972). The documentary features recent interviews with art director Tommy Lee Wallace, actor Brian Narelle, voice actor Cookie Knapp, Bill Taylor, Dianne O’Bannon, cinematographer Doug Knapp, producer Jack H. Harris, and archival interviews with Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter plus more, the Carpenter interview is audio only, a more recent video interview would have been fantastic. It's a mighty exhaustive effort and it's hard to imagine that any stone related to the film has been left unturned, in fact, I might watch this several more times before I even think about watching the feature again, honestly. 

Interview With Sci-Fi Author Alan Dean Foster (35mins) features the King of Adaptations, whom also wrote the Dark Star novelization, discussing the difficulties adapting a film, getting into the head of the characters to expand the story to get the novel to the proper length given the shortness of the source material. 

Interview With Brian Narelle (40mins) who portrayed Lt. Doolittle discusses the cast of the film, the ease of  working with Carpenter and in contrast the fiery nature of Dan O'Bannon, his own career and recognition by fans of the film, it's cult status and a few fun anecdotes.


Feature-Length Audio Commentary by Super Fan Andrew Gilchrist is a bit dry, he's a Brit and his voice tended to have me drifting off into space appropriately enough as he rattled off bits of trivia and his personal connection to the film. How I wished for a John Carpenter of Dan O'Bannon commentary but it's not to be.

The last features and least notable are a 3D Guide to the Dark Star Ship, a CGI model of the ship which allows you to explore a few levels of the ship and a simple screen text trivia track.

Special Features: 
- Let There Be Light: The Odyssey of “Dark Star” (1:56)
Interview With Sci-Fi Author Alan Dean Foster (34:44)
- Interview With Brian Narelle (40:08)
- 3D Guide to the Dark Star Ship
- Full-Length Audio Commentary by Super Fan Andrew Gilchrist
- Written Into by Dan O’Bannon
- Trivia:

Verdict: DARK STAR (1974) is not a masterpiece of science fiction nor a genius comedy but it's an interesting film, an absurd and quirky science fiction satire that while dated is quite a fun watch. Fans of John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon's  should take notice, it's a shame that their partnership fizzled after it's release, they were an inspired pairing and I cannot help but wonder what the collaboration might have wrought. 3.5 Outta 5