Controversial Blus: Dark Star (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

John Carpenter has a real talent; his films run the gamut from wonderful to captivating misfires.  And Dark Star, his first feature film made when he was still a student, is certainly no exception.  In fact, despite its obvious budgetary limitations, it holds up as one of his most successful ventures.  To be honest, though, I feel the creator's stamp of writer Dan O'Bannon on this that Carpenter.  Maybe that's partly because he also stars in this, but really it's in the humor, not to mention the obvious similarities to his next, much more famous film, Alien.  Whoever deserves however much credit, though, it's an utterly successful collaboration and a great little film that deserves a great release.  And, well, there is a blu-ray...

Update 4/5/17: It really doesn't feel complete without having all three versions on here, so I've included the Hyperdrive Edition to the comparisons.  👍
If you haven't seen it, Dark Star is a comedy set in space.  It's not really a parody or spoof (though there's some 2001 in there to be sure), but a clever piece of character humor.  There is some semblance of a plot; we have a space alien and the crew faces imminent death during a tense climax.  But for the most part, it's just a light-hearted look at a small crew of men going completely stir-crazy.  Their biggest threat isn't the creature loose on their spaceship or the intelligent bomb that's determined to blow them all up.  It's boredom.  This film takes man's epic battle with the doldrums beyond the stars and it's pretty great.
This film has a terrific look to it.  Cheap or not; it's very well designed, and the sometimes home-made looking special effects actually become part of the appeal.  Also, everyone in the cast nails it.  O'Bannon is the most fun to watch, but everyone is spot-on.  The music is also by John Carpenter and very effective; but don't expect "a John Carpenter score" like we know them today.  The soundtrack here owes a lot more to its sci-fi peers than Carpenter's more recognizable style.  And all these elements work together in service of the writing, the real star of the show.  It's just smart, fun and still able to pull you in, all these decades later.
I suppose now I should talk about the two cuts.  There's sometimes a little confusion surrounding this title, thanks to the fact that there are two versions of this film in popular rotation.  In short, this film was originally 68 minutes long.  That's how it was first screened for the public.  Then, when it got a great reaction and the chance for a distribution deal, more scenes were shot to bring it to proper feature length (83 minutes), so it could get a wide release.  And fortunately, the additional material is not only up to par with the rest of the film, but raises the entirety of the film up a level.  When I watch the short version, I really miss the scenes.  It's like watching a cut of Vacation where some editor said, "hey, this story doesn't need all the parts with Randy Quaid and Imogene Coca.  Snip snip, and now this film really flies!"  That might be true, but it's so disappointing to not have all their moments you've come to love.  To me, the original cut is academic.  If you just want to see it to know what the film was like originally, great.  But to truly experience Dark Star, the extended cut is the only way.
Dark Star has only been released by VCI in the United States.  They released the 1992 laserdisc, the 1999 DVD, the 2010 DVD "Hyperdrive Edition" re-release, and most recently the 2012 "Thermostellar Edition" blu-ray.  The initial laserdisc featured the shorter version and just included the extended material as separate deleted scenes.  Both subsequent DVDs (and just about all international discs) included both cuts.  But the blu-ray makes the curious decision to pare that down and only release the longer, extended cut.  Disappointing for some to be sure, and reason to hang onto your old DVDs.  But that's not even what makes this blu controversial.
 1999 VCI DVD top; 2010 VCI DVD middle; 2012 VCI blu-ray bottom.
So the first thing you should notice is that the 1999 DVD's non-anamorphic.  That's one thing the 2010 DVD corrected, at least; and obviously the blu-ray doesn't have that problem.  The 2010 DVD, however, is unfortunately interlaced.  In fact, the blu-ray is clearly an improvement in just about every area: detail, clarity, and it's properly matted 1.85:1 framing has more picture on three of four-sides compared to the old DVD's 1.82:1 and even a bit more than the newer DVD's 1.78:1.  The color timing is different on all three releases, and while it's clearly worst on the 1999 DVD, it's hard to say which is better between the 2010 and 2012.  They're different, but without any insight from the DP or an official source, it's going to come down to taste.  Personally, I prefer some shots on the blu and some on the DVD, so that particular aspect winds up as a tie for me.
2010 VCI DVD left; 2012 VCI blu-ray right.
But there's something off about the blu.  It's very soft.  Now you might say, hey, it's an ultra-low budget, old student film.  VCI has talked plenty about the conditions of the materials they had to work with.  This is as good as it could ever look.  But this film was shot on 16mm (then blown up to 35mm for wide release), and one thing we should know from all the 16mm we've looked at before here on this site is that 16mm is high on grain and low on detail.  Well, this film's low enough on detail, but where's the grain?  Ahhh... that's why it's so soft.  This film has used DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) or other digital software on the master to smooth away all the grain.  It sure doesn't look like a 16mm film now, and that explains why the whole thing's so soft.  In fact, the 2010 standard def DVD actually resolves more natural film grain and even actual picture detail than the blu-ray.  Grain haters may think it's great; and admittedly, since this is 16mm, we didn't erase as much detail like other heavily DNR'd blus have in the past.  But we've definitely lost ground between 2010 and 2012, not gained it.

Meanwhile, we get two audio options on the 2010 and 2012 releases.  There's the main stereo mix, where the audio's not exactly crystal, but unlike the grain scrubbing, I'd say it's fair to blame any audio issues on the original materials.  And then they've also included a more boisterous 5.1 mix that still has the same root issues, but both are clear enough for music and dialogue so long as don't expect it to sound like Avatar 2.  They're in LPCM on the blu.  Oh, and interestingly, the original DVD only had the 5.1 mix, so including the stereo mix on the later releases was a nice nod to the purists.
And extras?  You want extras?  Well, the original DVD had nothing but the trailer, but the biggest selling point of the Hyperdrive re-release was the wealth of new DVD extras, that necessitated making it a 2-disc set.  And the blu-ray?  They didn't create anything new, but they ported everything over.  Well, except for the trailer.  I wonder why they left that off?  Oversight, or maybe they felt it was too low quality for HD and they didn't want to remaster it?  Oh well, the trailer's always the least important extra (except for booklets, amiright fellas?), and everything else is here.

And what is all of that?  Well, the main attraction is a 2-hour documentary by the fine folks at Ballyhoo Pictures.  They get really in-depth and talk to everyone they can, from Tommy Lee Wallace to Dan O'Bannon's widow.  Carpenter doesn't participate, but they do include some vintage interview clips with him, so he's not so glaringly absent.  It's a pretty terrific doc.  Then, there's an audio commentary by a "super fan," which sounds horrible, but is actually pretty good, as he has really studied the film and its history and comes off as a well informed expert providing a lot of great information.  A lot of better-known journalist commentators could actually take some notes from this guy.  Then there are long on0camera interviews with actor Brian Narelle and author Alan Dean Foster.  All these extras are taken from the DVD, so they're basically SD quality upconverted to HD, but it's fine for extras.  And the Foster interview is particularly interesting, I found.  Finally, there are some odds and ends like a trivia track, an introduction written by Dan O'Bannon and an interactive map of the spaceship from the film.  Again, no trailer.
So for now, if you don't already own Dark Star, I recommend the blu.  It's a terrific little film, packed with extras.  But if you've already got the 2010 DVD set, this is a very minor upgrade if it's an upgrade at all.  You lose detail, which is a big step down, plus the trailer if that bugs you.  But you fix the interlacing, which is an almost even trade-off.  Certainly, if you've already got either one, I wouldn't spend money to replace it with the other.  And I'm forever day-dreaming of the day the a label like Arrow or Synapse can wrestle this title away from VCI and give us a truly definitive version.  Unfortunately, that's not likely to happen any day soon.  So us fans may gripe, but we've all got one of these discs on our shelves.

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