For anyone who's ever gone to a sci-fi convention and had to sit through a numbing parade of shoestring zero budget space epics, Dark Star is an example of how to do it right. Boosted by clever scripting, imaginative special effects, and a truly unique atmosphere, this made a solid calling card for John Carpenter (who proceeded immediately to bigger and better things with the one-two punch of Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween) and late writer Dan O'Bannon (who went on to write Alien, Dead and Buried, Return of the Living Dead, and Hemoglobin). Unlike the thousands of other student films, this one managed to beat the odds and find a theatrical release courtesy of Jack H. Harris (Dinosaurus!). Like George Lucas' THX-1138, this was expanded from a student project at UCLA, though in this case they simply tacked on extra scenes to the existing project (blown up from 16mm) instead of remaking it. The '70s trappings, such as rampant facial hair, uncontrolled sideburns, and hysterically dated "technology" on the ship, actually make the film more endearing; if you've ever wanted to go make a sci-fi film in your own backyard, this is the movie to inspire you. On the other hand, new viewers stepping into it cold now may be left completely baffled and find it tedious if they're not in the right frame of mind; just keep in mind that this was way before Star Wars and went on to influence several films including the excellent Moon and even Carpenter's last film (to date), Ghosts of Mars. In the film's most justifiably famous sequence, O'Bannon (who wrote Alien which was inspired by this film) attempts to hunt down an alien he brought on board (because "we needed a mascot") and finds himself trapped in a very long open elevator shaft. Though the huge beach ball alien is a goofy sight, the sequence is a perfect marriage of suspense, uneasy humor, and clever composition and editing, trademarks which also distinguish the film as a whole.
Dark Star has been most widely available in its theatrical 83 minute cut, though a "Special Edition" on VHS and laserdisc presented the 68 minute original variant with the extra scenes tacked on to the end. The VCI DVD presents both versions through seamless branching; when playing the shorter version, the DVD player simply skips past the cut scenes, causing a fleeting pause during the film's playback. Despite the filmmakers' objections, the extra scenes aren't overly detrimental to the film's pacing, so the smoother playback of the full cut is generally a more satisfying experience. The transfer is about the same as the laserdisc, along with a decent Dolby Digital 5.1 sonic overhaul with Carpenter's bizarre score (a mixture of electronic space-age drones and Country & Western!) constantly swirling in the rear and side channels. The atrocious UK disc from Fabulous is especially harsh on the eyes and best avoided.
On the other hand, Germany (who apparently loves Carpenter given their elaborate special editions of titles like Starman) has issued it numerous times on DVD via Certain Home Entertainment and Starlight, eventually porting it over to Blu-Ray. The good news is this HD release features a different transfer; the bad news is it's easily the worst in the format's history. The print has turned very red (dark scenes and space exteriors are now look like they're drenched in wine), and digital noise swarms over nearly every scene in addition to the already present heavy grain. It ain't pretty at all. The audio doesn't fare much better; the English track sounds thin and muffled, while the German dub is presented in 5.1 and stereo mixes, neither of which impress very much. (Very, very tiny optional German subs are also included.) The only saving grace here is an audio commentary by Carpenter fan Dave Coleman and writer Mark Stenslaw, who do a decent job of sketching out the history of the film, its various versions, and the references and cinematic flourishes which would crop up in the director's later films. Unfortunately they seem to have recorded their track only to the shorter version (which is absent on this disc), so you get long, minutes-long gaps of silence at random intervals. If you want the commentary, the Blu-Ray's about the same price as a DVD so you might as well go with that option; just keep your expectations as low as humanly possible since the film looks absolutely terrible. Rumors have circulated for quite a while about a VCI special edition in the US, so hopefully they'll step up to the plate eventually and deliver a transfer and special features package that actually does justice to a film that deserves much better.