Set to the country ditty “Benson, Arizona,” the intro spaceship sequence of Dark Star is an apt career-opening moment for John Carpenter, whose directorial debut – like so much of his underrated genre output – is steeped in classic Western tropes. Nods to Howard Hawks, however, are here married to a tongue-in-cheek spoof of Kubrick’s 2001, whose sentient, emotional HAL is reconfigured by Carpenter and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (future scribe of Alien) into a chatty female motherboard and a stubborn bomb who wants to explode in the loading bay despite being informed that the launch order was an error. Somewhat episodic in nature, the film – made while Carpenter and O’Bannon were completing their postgraduate degrees at USC’s film school – concerns the various misadventures of the titular ship’s three astronauts. Their mission is to destroy unstable stars to facilitate intergalactic colonization, though the filmmakers primarily use the trio’s story as a vehicle for updating the sci-fi genre for the ‘70s hippie-slacker-drug counterculture via goofy gags and a fittingly grungy, ramshackle aesthetic. Dark Star isn’t nearly as funny as it once was (as a kid, its humor seemed considerably more inspired), but it nonetheless has its amusing moments, such as Pinback’s (O’Bannon) cartoony elevator-shaft pursuit of a beach ball-shaped pet alien, or a final, cosmically loony image of a surfboarding spaceman. And more interestingly, it contains glimmers of its director’s future trademarks, from its minimalist synth score and efficient widescreen panoramas to its inventive use of low-fi special effects.