#25: Starman


1984

Director John Carpenter

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen

Introduction     Plot     Impressions     Wrap-Up

My rating: A qualified Class B (2/7, hot blue-white star), largely because, while the movie is well-scripted, directed and acted, I simply didn’t care for it.  It’s a good story, mind you, with very nice characters and a good mix of action and romance, and if you like that kind of thing, it’s really quite good.

Introduction

Starman is a very good movie, but I didn’t like it.  That makes it difficult for me to review it, fairly or otherwise.  I think I disliked the movie because of the story, which simply did not appeal to me, and not because of the execution…

I’m still trying to figure out why John Carpenter directed this movie.  Well, I suppose it’s actually sort of obvious:  after two fairly successful ’80s films (The Fog and Escape From New York) and the commercial failure The Thing, he took on Christine because it was the only thing available to him.  So, when the opportunity to show his versatility and do something different came along, how could he turn it down?  The studio, it is said, offered him the film because he could show strong emotion in the context of an action film—largely at the urging of the movie’s executive producer Michael Douglas.

Strangely enough, Columbia Pictures had a choice of two scripts:  Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and this one, which had Michael Douglas behind it.  Columbia opted for Starman, which turned out to lack the commercial oomph of E.T.

The film did well, grossing about $28 million, but it did cost about $24 million to make.  It also marked the last time that Carpenter had a commercial mainstream success—the big budget Big Trouble in Little China was also something of a failure at the box office.  It is worth noting that Jeff Bridges, who played the titular lead, was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his performance in Starman.  It’s probably also worth noting that this movie spawned a television series starring Robert Hays, but that the television series lasted only one season.

Plot

Boy comes to Earth but his spaceship is shot down by the military.  Boy takes on the form of Girl’s dead husband.  Boy kidnaps Girl to drive him to the planned rendezvous site.  The military attempts to capture Boy along the way to the rendezvous.  Boy and Girl start to bond when Boy tells Girl he means her no harm.  Girl saves Boy from trouble.  Boy saves Girl from trouble.  Boy ditches Girl to keep her from harm.  Girl catches up with Boy and saves him again.  Boy and Girl make love.  Girl takes Boy to the rendezvous site.  Boy leaves Earth forever, but leaves Girl with a special gift.  The day is saved, and Girl is healed from her loss.

Impressions

Visually, the movie doesn’t offer us much, since it’s set on Earth and there’s little in the way of fantastic stuff—but what there is, is extraordinarily well done.  The alien space ship shows up at the beginning and the end, and it’s quite convincing, though at the outset I thought it was a planet with an icy set of almost rings and didn’t discover my mistake until the end, when it shows up at the rendezvous site and its scale becomes apparent.  The alien scout craft, in which the starman arrives, is good, and there’s some very nice footage of various military aircraft.  There’s also an explosion, which is nicely done, and presumably uses the chromakey technique as the Starman and the widow are in the foreground.  The least convincing effect, as the starman clones a body and grows it to maturity in minutes, isn’t all that bad, though it isn’t really all that believable, either.

The score was composed by Jack Nitzsche (it is one of only three films directed by Carpenter but not scored by him as well; Nitzsche gave us the score to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as well as the title theme for An Officer and a Gentleman), and it gets the job done.  A lot of people apparently really like it, though to me it sounds rather as if someone got their hands on a synthesizer and wanted to replicate church music.  You can hear it by clicking here.  It’s primarily electronic in nature, and prominantly features two themes associated with the two lead characters.  By the by, Karen Allen’s character Jenny Hayden and her husband sing the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to do is Dream” in a home movie, and that’s actually Bridges and Allen singing together, and doing a fine job as well.

Jeff Bridges gives an intriguing performance.  His Starman has to learn English, the ways of humanity, and even little things like how to walk and talk in a human body.  Bridges makes that process work, and even at the end of the film—only three days in a human body, remember—he still displays a lack of understanding of human nature, stilted language patterns, and the odd gait and bird-like movement patterns he displays throughout the film.  Of course, it’s worse at that point because his body, a cloned vehicle, is dying, and Allen even manages to convey that without much help from vocalizations.

Karen Allen also does a fine job, though her work may actually be more difficult than portraying an alien.  She’s got to believably depict a grieving widow who is confronted with a man who looks almost exactly like her dead husband.  Allen does a fine job, and her Jenny Hayden is a touchingly realistic wounded woman in a very strange situation.

The script is a very solid effort, with one or two minor problems.  For me, the question of how a woman can fall in love with an alien who has taken on the appearance of her dead husband and kidnapped her is central to the movie.  There are two key scenes which help to explain Jenny’s emotional journey.  The first is when the starman removes the clip from the pistol and demonstrates that he means Jenny no harm.  She’s aware that he has only three days to reach the rendevous site, and that if he isn’t recovered, he’ll die.  The second key to Jenny’s growing feelings is the starman’s resurrection or healing of a dead deer, an act of compassion that deeply moves Jenny.  It also foreshadows what he will do further down the line when Jenny herself is killed; the starman heals her and then abandons her so that she will not be in any further danger.

Jenny, of course, is in love by then, and furthermore knows that the starman is going to need her; she follows him and saves him from being captured—without her intervention, the starman’s lack of experience with humanity would almost certainly have seen him picked up at a roadblock.  That may be the point at which the starman begins to realize that there is a bond between the two.

The science behind the film is rather iffy.  It’s become something of a trope that aliens will possess near-magical powers—presumably it’s an application of Clarke’s law, that a sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic.  That said, the powers the starman deploys are nothing short of miraculous, and frankly stretch the bounds of credulity.  On the other hand, within the bounds of the film, those powers are self-consistent and do not truly destroy the willing suspension of disbelief.  Furthermore, they do seem to be the product of technology, since each requires the use of a small metal ball, which is consumed by the effect.  Indeed, each exercise of those miraculous powers is more or less required by the story…

Wrap-Up

As I’ve said, this is a pretty good movie.  It has all the elements of a solid, if slow-paced, action film, and the romance is very well-drawn.  Carpenter’s direction is spot on, and employs some of his signature technique to frame the story properly.  Even the ending—a doomed love that simply cannot last between two people from very different worlds—is well-done, with Jenny receiving a gift from the Starman that helps to assuage some of her regrets from the death of her husband.

That said, if you’re going into the film with the expectations that it will be a tense thriller, you’re going to be disappointed.  It is, first and foremost, a love story.  But if you like love stories and science fiction, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better outing than this one.

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