In Match Cuts, we examine every available version of a film, and decide once and for all which is the one, definitive cut worth watching. This week, in honor of John Carpenter’s new film “The Ward,” we’re looking at his very first film: “Dark Star.”
-Original Movie Cut (1974): 68 minutes
-Theatrical Cut (1975): 83 minutes
The four-man crew of the spaceship Dark Star is twenty years into their mission to locate and destroy unstable planets that pose a threat to future Earth colonies. The spacemen, led by Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle), dump bombs on the unstable planets then blast away at hyperspeed before they explode. Their lives between detonations are boring and tedious; the crew is so disengaged and disinterested in their jobs that they barely notice that Dark Star has been damaged in an asteroid storm, and that the malfunction could have disastrous consequences for their next bombing run.
REASON FOR MULTIPLE VERSIONS:
“Dark Star” began life as a University of Southern California student film by co-writer/editor/co-star Dan O’Bannon and producer/director/co-writer John Carpenter. Screened locally on campus and at a few festivals, the film garnered positive reviews and zero distributor interest until Carpenter brought it to veteran Hollywood producer Jack H. Harris. As the man who shepherded movies like “The Blob,” “Equinox,” and “Schlock” to theaters, Harris had a good track record with young directors and science-fiction, so he decided to to take a chance on “Dark Star.” He gave Carpenter and O’Bannon roughly $60,000 to expand the 68 minute film to feature length by shooting several additional sequences. In the most famous, the ship’s resident alien escapes from his room during dinner and leads the hapless Sgt. Pinback (O’Bannon) on a high wire chase through the ship’s ventilation system and elevator shaft.
Though he begrudgingly fulfilled Harris’ requests, Carpenter didn’t like working with his new producer and hated his demands. Thus the “Original Movie Cut” as it’s described by VCI, the distributors of “Dark Star”‘s current DVD edition, which according to their official site “honor[s] the filmmakers’ wishes.” Confusingly, though, this Original Movie Cut does include at least one sequence that was shot for Harris’ Theatrical Cut (the Pinback elevator chase). That suggests this “original” version is a cross between the first director’s cut Carpenter screened at USC in 1974 and the one that Harris released to theaters in 1975.
KEY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MULTIPLE VERSIONS (SPOILERS AHEAD):
The previous section laid out the main differences for the films: the Original Movie Cut runs 68 minutes while the Theatrical Cut is 15 minutes longer with three additional sequences. Both cuts open in identical fashion: a video message from Earth to the Dark Star followed by the crew blowing up their nineteenth unstable planet. From there the two versions split: the longer cut shows the Dark Star come under assault from an asteroid storm. The full scene isn’t available on YouTube (none of the cut scenes are, unfortunately) but you can see a glimpse of it at 1:06 of the “Dark Star” trailer:
This scene is particularly important to the narrative because the asteroid storm damages a crucial laser needed to control the Dark Star’s bombs; in the Original Movie Cut, which is missing this scene, the malfunction that ultimately causes the destruction of the ship and the death of our slacker heroes has no clear cause. This sequence also introduces us to the ship’s computer, voiced by Cookie Knapp. Carpenter must have hated how this computer looked (which you can see at 1:46 of the trailer above) — with numbers and letters arranged on an old monitor so they look like a human face — because almost every shot of it in the Theatrical Cut of the film is missing from the Original Movie Cut.
Less important to the narrative but also missing from the Original Movie Cut are two scenes that immediately follow the asteroid storm. In the first, Doolittle, Pinback, and Sgt. Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) unwind after their close call with a trip to the food storage locker they’ve converted into sleeping quarters. Not a whole lot happens — Boiler even gets so bored he starts up a game of 5-finger filet — and that’s the point: space travel in “Dark Star” ping pongs between white-knuckle excitement and bloody fingered boredom. Eventually Doolittle leaves and goes to another room, where he plays a homemade musical instrument made out of empty bottles and assorted knick-knacks. After he plays some music (written, like the rest of the film’s atmospheric score, by John Carpenter) he goes to see Sgt. Talby (Dre Pahich) in the observation deck, which looks like a giant version of the Pop-O-Matic bubble, and the two cuts resynchronize.
IF YOU ONLY WATCH ONE VERSION OF “DARK STAR,” WATCH:
The Theatrical Cut. Even if the Original Movie Cut is the version Carpenter and O’Bannon prefer, Jack Harris got this one right. Though O’Bannon dismisses the “Dark Star” that audiences got to see by saying that he and the other filmmakers “had the world’s most impressive student film and it became the world’s least impressive professional film,” the quote-unquote “professional” version plays better. Ironically, the stuff that Carpenter complains Harris wanted cut — the scenes of the crew sitting around and killing time — are longer and more extensive in the version Harris demanded. The Original Movie is more streamlined, I suppose, but it’s also an easier sit. The theatrical cut gives you a better taste of the soul-crushing boredom of space travel, which I’m pretty sure is a big part of what Carpenter and O’Bannon were after in the first place.
Even more importantly, the asteroid storm scene that’s missing from the Original Movie Cut sets up the MacGuffin that eventually triggers the film’s explosive finale. Without it, the end of “Dark Star” is missing its motivation. When Talby tells Doolittle he’s “found the malfunction” in the Theatrical Cut it’s obvious he’s talking about the broken laser. When he says the exact same line in the Original Movie, it doesn’t make any sense. What malfunction? It’s the first we’re hearing about it. I suppose you could make the argument that Carpenter and O’Bannon wanted the ending to have more of an air of randomness and inescapability. But the Theatrical Cut has those as well (a freak asteroid storm’s pretty random and inescapable too, y’know). It also has a more satisfying narrative throughline.
The Theatrical Cut is still only 80 minutes long. It’s not like it’s massive time commitment to go for the “longer” version of this movie. It may not fly by at hyperspeed like the Original Movie, but it’s a more satisfying trip.
The Original Movie Cut and Theatrical Cut of “Dark Star” are available together on a two-disc Hyperdrive Edition DVD. Which is your favorite cut of the film? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebookand Twitter!