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John Carpenter's Dark Star inspired Star Wars ships and 50 years of sci-fi

Contributed by
Jan 4, 2018

Strap into your crash couches and prepare for an out-of-this-world examination of famous sci-fi movie spaceships selected from a fantastic fleet of memorable star-bound Hollywood vessels. Each week will be devoted to looking under the hull of some of the coolest, craziest rocketships in all of geekdom.

Light speed ahead ... and welcome to SYFY WIRE's Flight Deck!

First up is the broken-down, blue-collar scout ship the Dark Star.

Science fiction films churned out of Tinseltown during the heady days of the space race had a certain brilliant sheen to them. That was the way they saw the future, and perhaps it was also meant to imply that anything sleek, shiny, and bright couldn't possibly erupt in a roiling fireball or implode in a sickening crunch of tempered steel (even if it wasn't at all true).

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On the silver screen, films like Conquest of Space, 2001: A Space Odyssey, First Spaceship on Venus, and Journey to the Seventh Planet showcased spotless pieces of technology that served their perilous missions with precision ... unless you were a psychotic artificial intelligence or religious zealot.

TV's Star Trek further reinforced an optimism Americans needed to be confident in NASA's space program, soothing taxpayers' hopes that their billions were being well spent in the name of optimistic exploration of the cosmos in sexy, scrubbed-down spaceships.

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In the rebellious era of the '70s, as the Apollo program was winding down, a new type of space vessel emerged out of the hallowed gates of Hollywood. One 1974 film featured a deteriorating 20-year-old spaceship that had the look (and smell) of an intergalactic locker room, with its entire stock of toilet paper destroyed in a freak explosion, payload of disobedient Thermostellar Triggering Devices, seeping radiation leaks, an obnoxious, bounding beachball alien, and an automatic food processor spewing out chicken-flavored goo.

 

That irreverent film was director John Carpenter's (Halloween, The Thing) first theatrical offering, Dark Star, chronicling the mundane mission of its disgruntled, unstable crew of Pinback (played by Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon), Talby, Doolittle, and Boiler and its orders to stamp out unstable planets to aid in the colonization of the galaxy.

At once a spoof on overly serious sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and an ambitious attempt to turn a student film into a socially relevant entertainment, Dark Star offers up mania and severe boredom aboard a floating fiasco.

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This was no sterile star-hopping vehicle glinting starbeams off its burnished hull into the great black void. No, the Dark Star was a shoddy, pieced-together jalopy cruising the far reaches of outer space, badly in need of a dry dock tune-up as short circuits and myriad malfunctions mounted.

This hilarious Carpenter film, produced for a mere $60,000 and written while he and O'Bannon were still in film school at USC in 1972, has attained the celebrated ranks of cult status and paved the way for future flicks and shows displaying a rough, lived-in look like Star Wars, Alien, Firefly, Red Dwarf, and Spaceballs. After Dark Star, sci-fi movies embraced the worn and weathered look as workplace realism replaced the innocent optimism of space travel.

 

Dark Star's titular spaceship was designed by legendary concept artist Ron Cobb (Alien, The Last Starfighter) while eating a syrup-saturated stack of buttermilk pancakes at the local IHOP, adding to the legend of this lowbrow project beloved by fans worldwide. Co-writer and star O'Bannon provided the kit-bashing miniature SFX.

A run-down relic of an earlier age, the Dark Star is the first Hollywood vessel that should have been condemned and sent into mothballs or placed in an Air and Space Museum as an excellent example of more sordid times.

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Next up: Aliens' burly colonial marine transport, The USS Sulaco!

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