The micro-budget film that changed sci-fi forever

You can see the influence of Dark Star in Carpenter’s subsequent filmography too. “There is a deep streak of anti-authoritarianism in much of Carpenter’s film canon, as there is in Dark Star,” says Muir, who points out you can see the same qualities in a lot of the protagonists of his later films, in Escape from New York’s Snake Plissken and MacReady in The Thing, another film about men stuck together, growing increasingly paranoid and distrustful of one another.

Writer Doug Naylor, the co-creator of BBC space sitcom Red Dwarf, remembers watching Dark Star on video with his writing partner Rob Grant. “It was grungy. A different kind of sci-fi than we’d been used to seeing.” They both agreed the scenario would make a great basis for a sitcom, he says, “then we did nothing about it for several years”.  

Eventually they did return to the idea. He and Grant first explored this thematic ground in their radio sketch Dave Hollins: Space Cadet, “about the lone survivor of a space accident going slowly crazy,” before writing Red Dwarf, in which vending machine repair man Dave Lister finds himself the last human left alive, stranded on a mining vessel three million years in the future with a hologram of a man he despised and a creature that evolved from his pet cat. You can see elements of Dark Star in the passive aggression bickering that characterised its early series, with their balsa wood sets, the humour undercut with a bleak, existential streak – but also in the sense of ordinariness that permeated the show, despite the fact it was set in space.

“It was about ordinary guys getting on each other’s nerves and that’s what we thought was so hilarious,” says Naylor. The show might have been set three million years in the future, but fundamentally it was about dead-end jobs, “and Rob and I had both had dead-end jobs, so we could write that”. Red Dwarf is still running over 30 years on, a contender for one of the longest running shows to still feature the same cast. “The seed of that was Dark Star,” says Naylor.

You can still also nods to Dark Star in 21st Century films like Alex Garland and Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi Sunshine and, arguably, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy series. Despite its micro-budget beginning and props made from old vacuum cleaner parts, Dark Star has endured.

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