The Unsung Legacy of Dan O’Bannon and DARK STAR

|Zach Jansen|

During his thirty-five-year career, screenwriter (and sometimes director) Dan O’Bannon (1943-2009) had fewer than a dozen screenplays produced. But a quick check of his IMDb page shows more than thirty writing credits to his name, mostly due to one script: Alien (1979).  Director Ridley Scott and creature designer H.R. Giger get the bulk of the credit for the Alien franchise’s success, but O’Bannon’s screenplay remains the basis for every Alien film, video game, comic book, or toy. He is the connective tissue that binds more than forty years of genre cinema, from the 1979 film to the upcoming third Alien prequel.

O’Bannon launched into filmmaking alongside iconoclastic director John Carpenter, with 1974’s Dark Star. Dark Star started as a 45-minute student film, budgeted at $65,000 (about $312,000 in 2019). In addition to writing Dark Star, O’Bannon also designed the special effects, edited the film, and appeared in front of the camera as Sergeant Pinback. In addition to directing, Carpenter scored and co-wrote the project. When shopping for distribution, the novice filmmakers faced an obstacle: the movie was too long for a festival short and too short to release as a feature. Instead of shelving the project, the duo decided to increase its runtime, adding a subplot about an alien creature pursuing Pinback.

After brainstorming how to depict the alien without putting someone in a rubber suit, O’Bannon and Carpenter landed on the idea of painting a beach ball red and affixing a pair of rubber reptilian feet to it. O’Bannon loved the design because it fit with the mundane absurdity of the film’s plot. Carpenter embraced it because it discouraged viewers from psychoanalyzing the creature.[1] The id-based alien does what it does because that’s what it was made to do.

This approach to Dark Star’s alien also put it in line with the film’s themes. The crewmembers of the scout ship Dark Star have traveled the galaxy destroying planets for twenty years. They carry out their mission because, at this point, it’s all they know. Then there’s Bomb 20, a thermostellar device that realizes it only exists to explode. On screen, these elements could easily have come across as disconnected, even arbitrary. Instead, they come together to create a [wry, sometimes hilarious] film about accepting one’s purpose in life.

In O’Bannon’s next film, he fully developed the concept of an id-driven being. Writing about Dark Star, he remarked

This movie is a comedy. I wanted to be sure and clarify that right up front, because when the film was first released to the paying public they didn’t seem to realize it was supposed to be funny.… My second film—Alien—was basically Dark Star made scary. I figured, “If I can’t make them laugh, maybe I can make them scream.”

There would not be Alien (or its numerous imitators) were it not for Dan O’Bannon. But first, his bizarre sense of humor resulted in Dark Star and its unknowable, unstoppable, laughable “monster”: a beach ball with claws.

[1] Jason Zinoman, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror (New York: Penguin Books, 2012) 58.

Edited by Greg Hunter

Dark Star screens as part of Trash Film Debauchery on Wednesday, August 21. Get tickets and learn more on the Trylon’s website.

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