John Carpenter’s feature debut is a rough, but relatively complete collection of modes he would go on to employ to great success over his career. The jagged, tactile Carpenter of Objects resides within the ship, encompassed in space by the Carpenter of the Ether, here embodied by a black emptiness that fuzzes over Dan O’Bannon’s low budget props. Even this early Carpenter film shows a knack for crafting a productive interaction of concrete physicality and the unknown, here taking the form of a spoof on anthropocentrism and its solipsism.
There is genuine poignancy in the approach to the subversion of said target as well, most notably in Talby’s (Dre Pahich) preference for spending most of his time brushing his fingers through the void in the observation dome. This mirrors his ultimate fate, a permanent observer of the cosmos with a cluster of asteroids that circles the entire universe, being lost in space itself a popular metaphor for death. This sort of metaphysical suicidal ideation is spurred by the death of Commander Powell (Joe Saunders), who later makes a surprise appearance cryogenically preserved as the flight’s diminishingly lucid spirit guide. These, ahem, phenomenological gestures towards the extra-dimensional make this one of Carpenter’s most spiritual films, and really rather lovely by the end, pivoting its anti-humanism from nasty biting physical comedy to wonder at that which lies beyond it. It’s not his most graceful work, but it is among his most ambitious.
Carpenter’s signature dual role as film scorer plays out a bit rudimentary in his first outing, but is highlighted by a memorable thematic and tonal grace note in the form of country western tune “Benson Arizona.” The “frontier” parallel is clear, but more ironic is the homey nature of the tune against the subtly terrifying vastness the ship drifts through. A more literal interpretation of pining for the earth is possible as well, validated by the line “my body flies the galaxies.” This is one of the richer notes that mark the film’s primary narrative theme, humanity’s infinite capacity for colonialism, which is pitted against its pettiness in the form of the crew’s childish bickering and ostracism. These are the people tasked with the destruction of worlds, yet they bumble as any comic buffoon does, and their dynamic bears the abusive hallmarks of The Three Stooges, or really any classic film comedy troupe. There’s an extended sequence that calls to mind Looney Toons wherein Dan O’Bannon’s character, Pinback, must chase an alien around the ship and confine it in a storage closet. As nature does humanity, it foils him from beneath his foot time and again, eventually leading to the destruction of the ship.
Said destruction revolves primarily around the film’s centerpiece, the miseducation of an artificially intelligent planet-destroying bomb. Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) follows Commander Powell’s frozen head’s advice and imbues the robotic bomb with the same individualist solipsism first conceptualized by Descartes in an attempt to give it the ability to introspect beyond a slave mentality so that it will not listen to the command it was given to explode. Ironically, it eventually decides its innermost purpose in “life,” despite all this coming from programming such as to wait for the command to do so, is to explode, and so it does. Individualism, one of the prime American motives for Westward colonialism, which also lent its mythos to a collated national identity in the original space race, is thus interrogated as an incestuous social phenomenon whose roots lay completely informed by original national identity and propaganda.
The thematic pivots Carpenter makes are emotionally effective, conceptually bold, and intelligent, but on a filmmaking level, unfortunately, they show his inexperience, lacking the grace and narrative holisticism of his later works. It is, however, certainly an overlooked work in the filmography of the great master. Carpenter would dabble in comedy later in his career, but never quite so directly as this straight genre effort. One wonders what he might have contributed to the comedy genre had he stuck with it, seeing as he went on to become arguably the most influential single filmmaker in his eventual genre of all time.