"What would you be like after 20 years aboard Dark Star, the spaced out spaceship? The ultimate cosmic comedy!"
The Dark Star and her crew are nearing the end of their 20 year mission to destroy unstable planets which might interfere with interstellar travel, but not all has gone well. The captain has died and been stored in deep freeze, the rest of the crew is nearing madness from boredom and apathy, and the entire supply of toilet paper burned up in a storage room fire. To make matters worse, the small alien the crew has been keeping as a mascot escapes and sets into motion a series of escalating disasters. It all comes to a head when the AI in the ship's last bomb mistakenly believes it has received orders to detonate even though it is still attached to the Dark Star. After consulting with the dead captain, it is decided the crew's only hope is for someone to exit the ship and engage the bomb in a philosophical discussion which might convince it not to explode. Weird things happen.
By now you probably don't need a list of the films John Carpenter has directed. (Since he sticks his name in the title these days, I'd say he makes it pretty easy to remember.) Dan O'Bannon, on the other hand, might not be so familiar to those of you who didn't have your noses buried in Starlog Magazine throughout the 80's. Just in case you need a refresher, O'Bannon is the man who penned such movies as Alien, Return Of The Living Dead, Lifeforce, and Total Recall. (Yeah, I know, Lifeforce, but overall it's still a pretty good batting average.) With their combined pedigree it would be natural to think a collaboration between these two heavyweights would be something amazing, especially since their idea was to make a movie paying tribute to Stanley Kubrick's 2001.
But what if I told you this meeting of giants took place while the two were still film students in college? And what if I told you the sum total of the budget for this interstellar epic totaled around $60,000, just a mere $10,440,000 short of 2001's price tag? Would that lower your expectations a bit? I hope so, because you see, the effects in this film are legendary... in that special Ed Wood sort of way. You get spacecraft with aluminum walls which sway suspiciously whenever someone bumps into them too hard. You get spacesuits pieced together from muffin pans (muffin pans!) and other familiar kitchen utensils. And best of all, you get one of the most ridiculous space aliens of all time, an oversized beach ball with a pair of Creature From The Black Lagoon gloves glued to it, all airbrushed a nice orange with yellow polka dots. (Look at that picture up there; you KNOW you want to watch this.) Scramble all that together with a cast who couldn't be called actors even on a charitable day, and that's the "epic" that is Dark Star.
And yet, here we are 34 years later still talking about it. So what is it about Dark Star, much like THX-1138 before it, that somehow manages to lift it out of the ranks of the student films and earn it a place in theaters? Well, it's probably the fact that Carpenter and O'Bannon really are pretty talented, and even though they were unpolished and under-budgeted on this movie, their potential still shows through. The best example of this, believe it or not, turns out to be the confrontation with the beach ball. While the sequence is played mostly for laughs (it is a guy chasing a balloon after all), the filmmakers still incredibly manage to squeeze a little tension out of the proceedings by way of some clever camera angles, a perfect use of claustrophobic sets, and the effective trick of overlaying the proceedings with a female computer voice ticking off an ominous countdown. In fact, the technique worked so well that O'Bannon freely admits to recycling the idea for Alien. (Look, I'm not saying you'll wet yourself while watching the breathtaking beach ball scene from Dark Star, okay? I'm just pointing out that it ends up being much more effective than it has a right to.)
Despite the slapstick silliness of the alien scenes, however, most of the movie relies instead on deadpan existential humor as it explores the effects which twenty years of isolation have had on the crew. Guys sit around pining for lost surf boards, pondering the fact they can't remember their first names, or just staring out into space for weeks at a time. These aren't the efficient professionals of Kubrick's 2001, but rather a motley crew of blue collar schmoes slowly going mad. One excellent sequence has a crewman obsessively recording video diaries detailing how everyone is getting on his nerves, usually just because they've sat next to him... again. If there's a highlight though, and a scene for which Dark Star is most remembered (besides the beach ball, of course), it's the one in which the character of Doolittle takes the advice of the ship's dead captain (I'm not explaining that) and exits the ship to teach the self-aware bomb Phenomenology.
I'm not going to tell a lie here, I had to look up Phenomenology to make sure I remembered exactly what it was. (PHIL 101 was a looong time ago.) The least convoluted definition I could find is "a philosophy or method of inquiry based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness and not of anything independent of human consciousness." (And that's the least convoluted!) There's a few ways to follow that definition to a conclusion, but the one taken by Dark Star leads to the idea that reality is an entirely subjective experience; nothing exists outside your own consciousness. In introducing the concept of subjective reality to the bomb, Doolittle hopes to convince it that the commands it thinks it heard weren't real because it's not possible to know objectively that anything is real. What results is the kind of hopeless circular argument that's been carried out by countless inebriated arts & humanities students the world over. See if this sounds familiar.
BOMB: "I recall distinctly the detonation order. My memory is good on matters like these." DOOLITTLE: "Yes, of course you remember it, but what you are remembering is merely a series of electrical impulses which you now realize have no necessary connection with outside reality." BOMB: "True, but since this is so, I have no proof that you are really telling me all this."
Alright, in fairness, these kind of arguments also go on in classrooms and lecture halls in which the participants may or may not be drunk, but you can tell O'Bannon was having fun writing stuff he and Carpenter likely tossed around after a pitcher of beer. Anyway, the argument does convince the bomb to momentarily halt the detonation sequence so it can think all this over. But the problem is that accepting reality as purely subjective leads to only one logical conclusion. Within a true subjective belief system, everything is a projection of a single consciousness. You. The entirety of the universe exists solely within you because you're the only consciousness that exists. In effect, in a subjective reality, your consciousness is God. The bomb, being a logical machine, naturally arrives at this conclusion. Which means the crew of the Dark Star is screwed.
BOMB: "False data can act only as a distraction. Therefore. I shall refuse to perceive you. The only thing which exists is myself... In the beginning there was darkness, and the darkness was without form and void. And in addition to the darkness there was also me. And I moved upon the face of the darkness. And I saw that I was alone. Let there be light."
At which point, the bomb explodes.
Ah well, so goes the potential pitfalls of dealing with modern philosophy. It doesn't always have to end badly, though. Pope John Paul II is widely recognized as incorporating Phenomenology into his writings and most people think he turned out okay. (He never claimed to be God at least.) He began wrestling with subjective philosophies all the way back in 1953 when he wrote a doctoral thesis entitled "Evaluation of the Possibilities to Construct Christian Ethics Based on the System of Max Scheler" (Scheler was a student of Edmund Husserl, the originator of Phenomenology.) and probably reached the zenith of his thought on the subject in his 1969 book known in America as The Acting Person: A Contribution to Phenomenological Anthropology. The ideas in that book would form the foundations for the pope's Theology Of The Body, a dense work George Wiegel believes is a “theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.”.
I'm not going to tell a lie here either. I don't have the intelligence necessary (or stones for that matter) to attempt to reduce Pope John Paul II's synthesis of Phenomenology, Aquinas, and Augustine into a coherent sound byte. And after two weeks of looking, I've yet to find anyone else who can do it in less than book form. As Gregory R. Beabout notes, "The Acting Person is a difficult text. In fact, at the Catholic University of Lublin, students have been heard to joke that Wojtyla wrote [the book] with full knowledge that he would one day be pope so that it could be made assigned reading for priests in purgatory." To keep things brief, let's just agree that he did come up with a solution, basically inventing a new theological language in the process, and everybody's still arguing about it.
But the question arises, why even bother coming up with a whole new theological language just to teach the same old things? Wasn't the old language good enough? Absolutely, but after a couple of hundred years of listening to modernism, people are starting to forget how to speak it. Father Richard M. Hogan suggests that "since most in our era think subjectively, inductively, and experientially, they are ill prepared to hear, or even less, understand the truths and practices of the faith taught in a structure and outline which is objective, deductive, and principled. Even the vocabulary and language used in either the Thomistic or Augustinian synthesis is foreign to the modern ear. If the Revelation of Christ is to be grasped and understood today, it needs to be presented to people in their own language and in their own modes of thought. In a word, it needs to have a subjective, inductive, and experiential garb and it needs to use words which are part of the common coinage of modern culture." The alternative is to ignore philosophy, refuse to learn the new languages, and leave the world on its on to figure things out. That didn't work out too well for the Bomb though did it? Just think how much more explosive people can be.
Well, this brings an end to our mini-marathon of John Carpenter movies, and probably mercifully so considering the long and rambling nature of the posts which accompanied it. It also, coincidentally enough, brings an end to the first year of this blog. My primary reason for doing this has always been to encourage myself to keep studying the teachings of my faith, and given the bizarre method I've chosen to do that with, I had no real reason to expect anyone to read a word I've written over the past year. (Let's face it, this blog is a niche within a niche within a niche.) So my sincere gratitude to all of you who, for whatever reason, have decided this stuff is worth your attention. The support has been humbling. Thanks.