Monday, February 11, 2013

Darkstar: The Motion Picture

A followup to my review of Darkstar: The Interactive Movie comes...

Darkstar: The Motion Picture

J. Allen Williams took 90-minutes' worth of cutscenes from the game and spliced them together into a feature film.

In case you don't know, Darkstar is the independent film/adventure game written, produced, animated, scored and directed by J. Allen Williams. I didn't care too much for the game, but when I heard he had retooled the cutscenes into a movie, I had to check it out to see if it flowed better as a movie than as a game.

Captain John O'Neil wakes up on a starship with no memory of who he is. His crew is in no better shape. The computer tells him the navigator (Allan Burk) is dead, first officer Ross Perryman is missing, and pilot Paige Palmer is still in stasis. O'Neil himself has been asleep for over 300 years, and the stasis chamber damaged his brain with permanent memory loss. The ship is adrift around a habitable planet.

He wanders the ship, discovers some crew logs and tries to piece together what happened: Earth was destroyed by the penal colony they set up on Mars, and now his mission is to travel to a distant phenomenon known as Darkstar. It's a region of space that will take them back in time to just before everything happened. His task is to deliver a documentary to the past to warn them what will happen if they build that penal colony.

Apparently something went wrong. The ship's coolant tanks were punctured, so now the engines are idle. They've been drifting in space for 300 years, along with a Martian vessel that doesn't have enough fuel to make it home. Now it's up to O'Neil to repair the ship and travel to the planet to retrieve water.

Does it work better as a movie?

Well, surprisingly yes. The story flows much better as a movie compared to the game because there are no illogical puzzles in your way, no random buttons to look for, no long transitions between nodes, no death endings around every turn that punish you for exploration, and no hunting for biolocks.

The ten-part documentary that easily lasted an hour in the game has been compressed to about ten minutes. It narrates the backstory, shows a few things blowing up, explains the mission and concludes, so there's no dwelling on long, poorly acted starship battles.

The cutscenes are more tightly edited, so now there's less time to notice how flat the acting is. It's still apparent, but not as blatant.

Unfortunately this also means a lot of transitions are missing. Captain O’Neil moves through the ship from a first person perspective, and it works quite well most of the time, but there's no sense of where he is. When there is no transition, he just shows up in a new location without showing how he got there or where on the ship he is, and it leaves the viewer a bit lost.

For example, after removing the clamp from the shuttle bay doors (which has no code), suddenly O'Neil is back by the hibernation chambers and Paige Palmer is awake and pointing a gun at him. But it wasn't shown that he entered that area, or why he went back there. There's no sense of where on the ship everything is in relation to everything else, and it's confusing without some context.



The movie looks pretty good on a TV screen. Nice to finally see it in full definition, although there are multiple places that look like they were filmed at lower resolutions (such as Mary Jo Pehl's segments) and they're much more noticeable as a movie than they were in the game. Given that the footage was assembled over a ten-year period, I wouldn't be surprised if that's exactly what happened. The blue-screen effects don't always look very good, but the bad parts go by much quicker in the movie edit so they're easy to ignore.

Now I see just how much of SIMON and MAGS I missed when I played the game. SIMON does have a pretty big role in the movie, and thanks to the lack of game elements there's no way to miss the story this time. I got to see everything I didn't see when I played the game. Or did I...?

Sadly, just like the game, Darkstar: The Non-Interactive Movie fails as a story. Now that I finally saw the Martian Scythe pilot sequence I missed in the game, I'm disappointed it doesn't fill in any gaps. In fact, I think I got more information during my playthrough than I got in the movie.

When I played the game, one cutscene showed that O'Neil sabotaged two of the other ships carrying the message to Darkstar, but that's not in the movie. I also found a suitcase with a note implying the three had conspired to ditch loyalty and the mission, go through Darkstar together and sell information about the future or something, but that's not in the movie either.

So what was the plan??

O'Neil and Perryman were supposed to be planning something with that Martian, but we're still not told what. The game implies O'Neil might have been a very bad person before he lost his memory, but was he? It's not shown, or even implied. What were they going to do when they went through Darkstar? Why the murder and sabotage?

At the end, Peter Graves narrates about redemption and second chances. What's he talking about? What was O'Neil's second chance? How can we accept he's redeeming himself now when we don't know what he was planning to do with his first chance?

The backstory is explained instead of shown, and everything that was supposed to be happening now is unclear at best. This makes me so sad because there's potential for a good story in here. Even with all the important cutscenes from the game edited together into a full movie, the story is so vague it borders on making no sense at all. If anything, it only hints at what could have been had this been a real movie.

Unless you're familiar with the Darkstar project, you're probably not going to get into this. Suspension of disbelief is much different for a movie compared to a game, and audiences on the outside won't be able to see past the flaws to take it seriously.

But the music is great. It's the best part of the production! I would've been totally content to see Darkstar: The Movie-length Music Video, like Pink Floyd's The Wall, or Mike Oldfield's The Wind Chimes.

Darkstar The Motion Picture is better than the game, it looks good for what it is and has a lot of talented people behind it, but it falls short in so many ways. I still feel so bad for not liking it, but I'm glad I gave it a chance.

(Buy it on Amazon)
(Official site)
(Soundtrack!)

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