Dark Star,
and a few more films

#216  [archive]
NOV. 15, 2023

Dark Star (1974)

I first saw this at a sci-fi convention before I'd even dropped out of high school. It was hilarious then, and it's hilarious now — an outer space comedy, gently mocking Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

The 'Dark Star' is a spaceship, on a 20-year mission to seek out unstable planets and blow them up. The crew is as unstable as the planets they target, and in all their galactic travels they've found only one alien life form — a mischievous creature shaped like a beach-ball, played by a beach-ball.

It's frickin' brilliant, and even while you're laughing it also works as science fiction. There's an entire sequence in an elevator shaft that's at once deliriously fake yet believably realistic. Neat trick.

The film plays better, I think, if I say nothing more about the plot and jokes, so let's talk trivia:

John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13) and Dan O'Bannon (writer of Alien) made this as a film school project, originally just a short film. As funding became available over several years, they added extra scenes bringing it to feature length.

In addition to Carpenter and O'Bannon, several of their buddies working on this later became familiar names to closing-credit readers:

• Nick Castle, who directed The Last Starfighter 

• Ron Cobb, who owns a page on this very website

• Jim Danforth, who worked special effects on They Live 

• Robert Greenberg, f/x on Re-Animator 

• Greg Jein, model-maker of the mothership for Close Encounters of the Third Kind 

• John Walsh, who worked on Blade Runner 

• Harry Walton, who created the ED-2000 for RoboCop

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Digital Man (1995)

A damaged or rogue military cyborg is on the loose in this low-budget made-for-cable flick — specifically, made for SyFy, which is almost a guarantee of garbage.

The so-called Digital Man cyber-soldier is a bald guy in a tin suit, but he or it speaks with an eastern European accent, and goes about its destruction in keeping with the rules of the Geneva Conventions. It spares the children, and it's even rather polite with adults until they start shooting.

The special effects are truly bad, even for 30 years ago, and there's not an original idea anywhere here. The whole mess skates on the brink of being a waste of time, but there are a few wisecracks, and the movie is watchable. 

Roll call includes Adam Baldwin (Firefly), Paul Gleason (The Breakfast Club), Don Swayze (brother of Patrick), Clint Howard (brother of Ron), and a few other vaguely familiar and affordable faces. There's also a pretty redhead, and any movie is better with a pretty redhead.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Stop Making Sense (1984)

This is Jonathan Demme's carefully assembled coverage of Talking Heads on a 1983 tour, and if you like David Byrne and the band you'll have a grand time. Me, I like 'em fine, but after watching and listening for an hour and a half, I've seen and heard enough Talking Heads for November 2023.

This is perhaps the half-dozenth concert film I've seen, and by far the best, but I'm not sure whether that's because this is a great film, or simply because most concert films are trash. They're all quick cuts and crowd shots, usually with backstage blah-blah and/or pointless footage of ticket-holders queuing outside.

Demme shows us the concert and nothing but the concert, with shots that last long enough to see what you're seeing before the next cut. There's always interesting composition, and many pull-back reveals. It seems perfectly edited, giving us time to visually see everyone in the band hard at work. The cameras are always in the right place. 

So is Stop Making Sense "the greatest concert film ever made," as argued by everyone who would know about such things? I dunno, but it's quite a good film of quite a good rock show, and it's refreshing to see a concert film so simply competent that I never wanted to click it off.

Verdict: YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

Get Shorty (1995)
The Internet's Own Boy (2014)
Line of Duty (debut episode; 2012)
The Man Who Thought Life (1969)
Not Wanted (1949)
Nothing But a Man (1964)
Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)
Romper Stomper (1992)
Room Service (1938)
Who Farted? (2019)

... plus occasional 
schlock and surprises 

• • • But wait, there's more  • • •

Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Brainwaves (1983)
Cellular (2004) 
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)
The Day My Parents Became Cool (2009)
The Decline of Western Civilization (1980)
Downsizing (2017)
Frankenhooker (1990)
Hugo (2011)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
Love Happy (1950)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The Man with Nine Lives (1940)
Phone Booth (2002)
PickAxe (1999)
Poison (1990)
Revelations (1993)
Same Kind of Different as Me (2017)
Saved! (2004)
Scared to Death (1947)
Secret Weapons (1985)
The Shooting (1966)
The Soloist (2009)
The Train (1964)
Welcome to New Orleans (2006)
Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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