Spherical Panavision - 1.85:1
"When Dark Star was originally released in theaters, certain scenes were hastily created in order to lengthen the film to commercially required running time. Carpenter and O'Bannon felt that these additions, deemed necessary by exhibitors, degraded the quality of the film. The worst of these scenes have been omitted from the laserdisc version, bringing it nearer the filmmakers' original vision. The deleted scenes have been included at the end of the program for the edification of the viewer."
- from the back cover of the laserdisc jacket of Dark Star
The long-awaited Dark Star laserdisc release was announced over two years ago, but wasn't completed, pressed and shipped until recently. What were we waiting for, you might ask? Why, we were waiting for a director's cut of the film as originally intended by the filmmakers, and such was finally provided by Dan O'Bannon.
I already had the VHS edition which states "presented as originally intended by the filmmakers." It's no different, as I recall, from the theatrical release, so I wasn't expecting much difference with the laserdisc edition (except that maybe the bottle and diary scenes would be cut and placed at the end of side two in a supplementary section). But I knew something was up just comparing the stated running times - 83 minutes for the video (the box erroneously states 91 minutes), 72 minutes for the disc. 11 minutes is a pretty big chunk to cut out of an already short movie, and what I saw when I played the disc was shocking, horrifying, ungodly evil.
What I saw was a hacked-up pile of plotless student film, with the most important scene now considered "padding" and tacked on at the end of the disc, and the second-most important scene completely missing! And guess what...the blame for this mishap lies solely on the shoulders of writer/co-star Dan O'Bannon, who supplied the print used for this disc release.
The plot of Dark Star, the movie as released in theaters, is fairly simple -- but don't read this paragraph if you don't want the plot spoiled. A spaceship (the Dark Star) crewed by four incredibly-bored men is on a mission to destroy unstable planets. An unstable planet is a planet with a decaying orbit that will spiral into the planet's sun, causing a supernova and thus destroying the entire solar system. The ship encounters an asteroid storm in the film's most famous (and important) scene, and the bomb-drop communications laser is damaged, causing the bomb (which can talk) to think it's time for a bomb run. The computer is able to talk the bomb out of blowing up at this time, but the bomb is obviously perturbed by this mistake. Later, the ship's alien mascot (which looks like a giant beachball with claws) causes the communications laser to malfunction, and the bomb comes out of the bomb bay ready to drop yet again. The computer manages talks the bomb back into the bomb bay again, but the bomb is very miffed and assures the computer that this will be the last time! When it finally comes time to actually drop the thing, one of the astronauts manages to interrupt the communications laser, which causes the bomb-drop mechanism to completely fail! This time, the bomb refuses to disarm itself and insists on blowing up at the preprogrammed time, no matter that it's still hanging around in the bomb bay!
The plot of the "director's cut" laserdisc is a bit different. The scene where the asteroid storm damages the communications laser has been cut from the film. It's now tacked onto the 9 minute supplementary section at the end of the disc, which consists of scenes deemed as "padding," and thus the most important plot point of the film has been eliminated! Also cut is the scene where the beachball alien causes the second malfunction, thus eliminating the need for having this creature in the film at all! Now the lengthy scene with the beachball creature appears to be padding as its only connection with the plot has been completely obliterated! Worse, this scene is completely missing from Image's disc since it hasn't even been included in the supplementary section! ARRGGGHHHH!!!!! So what we are left with in this "director's cut" is a bomb which suddenly malfunctions for no apparent reason, not to mention the two most important scenes in the film cut as "padding!" A text note appearing on the disc's supplementary section states that "...although the scenes are interesting, they neither add nor detract from the original story." Ha! This has to be a mistake! The film can't possibly work without the two malfunction scenes, and I don't imagine how anyone could possibly see this "director's cut" as anything but an insult! The least Image could have done was to have placed the "deleted scene" supplementary section at the end of side one - that way, they could have chapter-marked the disc in such a way to allow home viewers the choice of programming of the scenes back into the film should they wish to do so.
You know, I was so upset I almost forgot to mention the quality of the disc. Although not a widescreen effort, Dark Star has been nicely letterboxed with an approx. 1.78:1 aspect ratio (fairly close to the 1.85:1 Spherical Panavision original) - great to know they did something right! The film does contain a fair number of scratches, but that is to be expected from a film which began its life as a student thesis project at USC film school. Otherwise, the print is quite good, with a decent amount of detail and color; it looks a hundred times better than my VHS edition, and makes me a hundred times madder that it is unwatchable due to the hacking of scenes! The CX-encoded digital Westrex mono sound has a limited range due to the film's original sound mix/editing, but it is remarkably free of noise. There are a good number of chapter stops, a total of 18 for the film, plus one for the "padding" material. The disc was pressed at Kurare (Japan) and is also Table of Contents encoded.
By the way, in case you're curious, all the scenes deemed as "padding" and placed into the supplementary section are as follows: The asteroid storm (ARGH!), the scene in the food storage locker (cutting out a great joke and some important character development) and Doolittle's bottle-playing scene (fine by me). And again, the scene with the alien fiddling with the communications laser was completely eliminated from this disc.
Irritated fans may wish to write to Image Entertainment (if you haven't already done so) to complain about this horrendous pile that was to be the great Dark Star. I'm sure they've already received many scathing letters, and if they receive enough then maybe (just maybe) they will repress the disc and show the film as originally intended by the film's VIEWERS! We hope. In the meantime, if you happen to see Dan O'Bannon, grab him by the shoulders, shake him vigorously, and shout "WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?!"
Extra Scenes from the 1974 Release.
Note: What follows are Dan O'Bannon's personal responses regarding his Dark Star laserdisc edition:
This first "letter," Mr. O'Bannon's official response to anyone complaining about his laserdisc edition of "Dark Star," was scrawled on the back of an envelope and given to Image as his official reply:
To whom it may concern,
The Image laserdisc of Dark Star is as official as it can ever be. I personally supervised the transfer, and I also personally supervised the cassette version ("Special Edition") from several years ago. In the interim, I simply changed my opinion about the best way for Dark Star to go into posterity. As for John Carpenter's view - he doesn't give a shit.
The following tripe was Mr. O'Bannon's personal response to The Mad Man From Mars' review of "Dark Star" in Pond Scum #29, as well as in response to an early letter written to him by Craig Endler (which we reprinted):
Dear MMFM (attn. JF and Mr. Endler),
When it comes to matters of creative judgment, there is no right or wrong, there is only personal taste.
I am flattered that you feel so passionately about poor old Dark Star. To tell you the truth, this version was made more for the gratification of John Carpenter and myself than for anyone else. It may grind your ass, but it was a distinct pleasure to see it, at last, without those meandering, lower-than-low production value scenes. I'd like to cut out more. Your opinion that the most important scenes were excised (while offering your own selection of scenes to cut) is little more than perverse.
Speaking of asses: according to Aesop, a man and his son and their ass were making their way into town, when a bystander spoke up. "How stupid do you have to be," he inquired, "to walk when you has an ass?" So the boy got on the ass. A little farther down the road, Bystander #2 was so offended by what he saw that he, too, was moved to speech. "You spoiled whelp!" expostulated he, "how can you ride while your venerable father walks?" So they traded places. Yet farther on, Bystander #3 muttered loudly, "Heartless old bastard, making a child walk!" So they both got on the ass and went a little farther, where Bystander #4 pointed a trembling finger and intoned, "Outrageous! How dare you stress the spinal column of a helpless animal!" Ever responsive to public opinion, the man and his son slung the ass under a pole and staggered into town with it, where they encountered MMFM, who grabbed them by the shoulders, shook them vigorously, and screamed: "SHOCKING, HORRIFYING, UNGODLY EVIL!" Whereupon they all fell into the river.
In spite of your rancid, offensive tone, it's good to see you take an interest. Maybe if you and the "many bummed-out fans" raise enough of a stink, Image will be moved to issue another edition of the full (gack) length Dark Star. Mr. Endler (who manages a civilized Sprachgefuhl, perhaps because it occurs to him that the objects of his complaints may actually read his words) mentions an unanswered letter. Try a whole campaign...or a reader's poll.
You close your "review" by inciting your readers to assault me, while shouting, "WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?" Always a pleasure to hear from the moviebuying public.
And finally, just to round O'Bannon out a bit a get a better understanding of his filmic beliefs, we take this opportunity to reprint his comments on "Alien," as it appears in the booklet contained within Fox's Special Collector's Edition laserdisc...
When I conceived of "ALIEN" back in 1976, it was my purpose to introduce a new demon into the public consciousness. I am no longer certain that this was a worthy goal; no matter, it is done. Perhaps it would be better now for that demon to die. But...he (he?) is here...imprisoned on the shiny silver of this laserdisc...for you to let out."
You know, at a time like this, it's really tempting to say something on the order of "Gee Dan...at least laserdisc aficionados appreciate those films you were involved with, even if you yourself could care less about them or the people who enjoy them...," but we think O'Bannon's personal comments make their own perfectly-understandable statement. Maybe we'll see Dan's own hacked-up version of "Alien" someday soon, with all the creature footage removed from the film...
Review by the Mad Mad From Mars
Originally Published in "Pond
Original Review: 07/92
Last Updated: 04/20/97