Posted April 1, 2011 by editor in Retrospectives

John Carpenter’s Starman

I think most folks would agree that as a director, John Carpenter’s warm, fuzzy, light and breezy side (if he even has one) is not very well represented within his overall filmography to date (even if you include all the non-directorial movies he wrote or produced). This being the case, Starman is something of a rarity and in my opinion a consummate pleasure to revisit. While not saccharine sweet (there is peril and a reasonable threat level that Carpenter maintains throughout); Starman is a very long way from the likes of Halloween, The Fog, etc. And this is no bad thing. It’s good to see what the man does with a PG-rated movie.

Assuming that most folks reading this retrospective have seen the movie, I won’t dwell too long on the plot. Suffice to say it’s the story of an alien race who, upon discovering the welcome message contained within NASA’s Voyager 2 deep space probe, send a lone envoy to Earth. He is subsequently shot down by NORAD defences and becomes stranded.Our inquisitive alien takes the form of Jeff Bridges and after a few false starts, begins to learn all about the human condition from the recently widowed Karen Allen whose dead husband he has modelled his appearance on. The two learn to trust and then love each other while they take a road trip across the country. They manage to evade the less than friendly ‘hell-bent on alien dissection’ homeland security types constantly pursuing them, and with the 11th hour help of SETI investigator Mark Shermin (a slightly clunky Charles Martin Smith), the now dying Starman manages to safely rendezvous with his escape ride off the planet and leaves. It’s a love story really.

If any of it sounds at all familiar (especially to E.T. fans out there), there’s a good reason. It seems Columbia owned and oversaw the development of both scripts at around the same time and sold off E.T. in favour of green-lighting Starman. Logic suggests that perhaps the concept of E.T. as envisioned on the page was already an altogether more ambitious, costly and technically difficult one to shoot than Starman. So Columbia preferred to back the cheaper option. Just a theory of course, but it seems to have some mileage.

As it turned out, E.T. ended up phoning home first of course, two whole years before the Starman made his somewhat similar journey, and in the process had almost become a licence to print money. Once you know of the root DNA link between the two movies, it’s interesting to see how many plot beats are in lockstep between them.

If you’re John Carpenter in 1983 and you’ve suffered the pain and disappointment of your last big movie (The Thing), a real passion project, getting (ironically considering the last paragraph) ‘E.T.ed’ into oblivion the previous year, you could be forgiven for deciding to change tack and opt for something altogether more sweet in nature and bankable commercially. Carpenter is on record as saying that the decision to take on Starman was partly a response to a tangible feeling that his directorial future may have hung in the balance after The Thing tanked at the box office. He felt a new direction was required even though Christine (the excellent Stephen King adaptation which he directed in ’83 between The Thing and Starman) turned out to be a significant success. I wonder about that really, and watching the movie again I find myself doubting Carpenter could have done such a wonderful job on Starman if it was really as cut and dried as he makes it sound. But who knows, maybe we can take him at his word and he’s just that good a director. Make no mistake; hokey as it can be, Starman has a real heart beating away, the kind that an indifferent director would surely have stifled mercilessly.

The movie stars (as mentioned) Jeff Bridges as the Starman, and Karen Allen as his initially reluctant human guide and love interest Jenny Hayden. I’m not sure who else in 1984 could’ve better inhabited the role than Bridges – I have this nightmare about some crazy alternate universe where a young Charlie Sheen bagged the part and sported the ‘Major League’ haircut and glasses – yikes! Seriously though maybe Jeff Goldblum would have been interesting in the role, but Bridges brings the weirdness to an otherwise pretty ordinary looking dude.

Now, I’ll admit it’s almost impossible for me to be completely objective when it comes to big Jeff, as he’s been one of my favourite actors since I was a little kid watching him in movies like Thunderbolt & Lightfoot and Stay Hungry. I’m also aware that he’s a polarising force with audiences. It’s kinda weird though because while I think that his performance as the Starman is nuanced and effective, it does occasionally now feel a little clunky, and it certainly doesn’t have much of the usually so animated fun Jeff in it. I guess that’s only right and proper for the movie, if a bit of a shame. Once again the effects of nearly 30 years come into play, as I think that his performance here has sort of become a template (or at least one of them) for the ‘awkward alien trying to understand humans’ acting technique that now seems possibly a little quaint. His vocal ticks and body posture range from subtle to almost full-on slapstick and is a lot of fun to watch.

So what of our leading lady? Karen Allen for me (and perhaps many others) will forever be remembered most fondly as Marion Ravenwood, the firebrand character she first played in Raiders of the Lost Ark (and reprised in the god awful Crystal Skull debacle). Don’t get me wrong; Ravenwood was a firecracker, but for me, Allen’s turn in Starman is the more satisfying performance to watch. She plays it in a wonderfully understated way with a vérité that suits her naturalistic blue collar acting style. A lot of actresses would surely have overacted the built-in silliness of it all but Allen keeps the reality lid tightly on, which is a great natural counterpoint to Bridges’ asymmetric groove. She looks wonderful too, both attractive and homely. This renders her character believable and instantly likeable.

And now a moment’s indulgence if you will… In all my retrospectives, I’ve been in the privileged position of being able to write with the sort of dual dimensionality that only comes from a movie significantly touching your early life maybe as a child, a teen or a young adult, and then pitching that against how the movie plays many years later. I find it to be an invaluable perspective tool that I can’t help but tap into as a major source of my own commentary. I like the kind of context layering that it provides. One significant variable that has emerged though has been a simple one; do I now, or have I ever owned the movie in question on Blu-ray/DVD/video? In the case of Starman I have not, and for the purposes of this retrospective I had to go buy it from iTunes.

Upon watching the movie it became clear to me that in the 27 years since I first saw it at the flicks on its initial release, I for the most part, have only seen it on TV, and either just caught the last thirty minutes, or even just the very end scene at the crater. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen the whole thing (until now). This meant that some of the movie was indelibly imprinted on that bit of the brain reserved for such things, while other scenes played almost like I’d never seen them before. Weird!

Production-wise it’s not a big FX extravaganza, which is good as it didn’t have the budget. I think most of the sparse FX work is effective and still meaningful now, if a little clunky. The cloning scene at the top of the movie is a good example of how some shots still hold up well (the baby animatronic) and some don’t (the stop motion shots). And you gotta love the simplicity of dangling Jeff Bridges upside down and compositing him into a right way up shot.  For the record, I love traditional effects work, and there are some shots here that still look great. It also seems that Carpenter had some of those super bright lights left over from Christine which looked awesome (particularly when enhanced with Carpenter’s trademark electronic sound effects).

What did jar a little watching it this time around were some of the plot contrivances we’re asked to accept. For example, Jenny spends quite a while acting like she’s being kidnapped and that her life is in mortal danger; however this attitude seems a little over the top considering what she’s already seen (it’s an alien in the shape of her dead husband), and that Bridges’ character hasn’t acted violently towards her. This drama/tension doesn’t quite gel, and in reality our gal would get the situation much sooner than she does.

There are one or two other clunky aspects also (those idiotic hick cops for example), but on the whole, the narrative journey is pretty believable and the gradual change from awkward hostility to our pair consummating their new found love is joyous.

The deer resurrection still brings me to tears as it’s so beautifully subtle, as does the whole “I gave you a baby” scene later on. It’s wonderful and I’m welling up slightly just typing this. (‘Sniff!’ Oh dear, what a softie.)

A word about the music. The soundtrack for me is a complete one track wonder. The best part of Jack Nitzche’s mostly electronic score is the wonderful main theme that’s most prominently heard at the end of the movie. It’s an uplifting and glorious fanfare, triumphant and full of wonder and magic, and yet at the same time melancholic; perfectly encapsulating the bittersweet sense of achievement, love and loss the characters endure. It’s marvellous and is one of those themes that can bring tears to the eyes when caught up in the moment.

The rest of the score for me is a bit vanilla and so subtle that it passes by unobtrusively.

The use of synthesisers for what seems like most (if not all) of the score is firmly rooted in those early post ‘Chariots of Fire’ years, and it really shows. Personally, I would have liked a full orchestral blast of that main theme, as I feel that synth scores in general lack depth and magnificence, and if you write a piece in a deep and magnificent way, then it should be job one to maximise this musically with effective instrumentation. Just an opinion of course. Naturally the synth score also dates the movie in a way that a symphonic treatment wouldn’t but that can be interpreted as both a positive and negative.

So what’s the final scores on the doors then with Starman?

Well, among Sci-Fi fans, the movie is highly regarded and well loved by many. I think in some ways it’s one of those slightly forgotten pennies that really could have used another few million doubloons on the old budget to polish its rougher edges and pep up some of those not quite special enough SFX. Plot contrivances aside it’s a bloody great little film, with a very big and noble heart that still manages to delight and bring a tear to the eye in places.

Is it E.T. for grownups? Well in some ways, but of course E.T. itself was E.T. for grownups. Starman is still wonderful and I loved revisiting it fully (not just the last ten minutes!!).

Where it stands in the greater Sci-Fi pantheon is hard to say, as it seems to enjoy a more modest status whichever way you look at it. It certainly does have the ‘cult’ support out there too and it’s a fact that most people I’ve talked to while preparing and writing this retrospective hold the movie in very high regard (as I do), and remember it extremely fondly.

Perhaps we are recognising its well defined core Sci-Fi values, human truisms and classic high concept earnestness in the best tradition of the genre. Perhaps the best Sci-Fi is always that which examines the human condition from a safe distance, who knows.

I love it, and love that it was John Carpenter who crafted it so well.

Favourite line:

“You are at your very best when things are worst”

Ain’t that the truth.

Ben Pegley