A film review by Craig J. Koban September 27, 2009
25th Anniversary Retrospective
1984, PG, 115 mins.
1984, PG, 115 mins.
Jeff Bridges: The Starman / Karen Allen: Jenny / Charles Martin Smith: Mark Shermin
Directed by John Carpenter / Written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon
|John Carpenter’s 1984 sci-fi
romance, STARMAN, represented a refreshing change of pace for the auteur,
who had previously carved out a distinct niche for himself as a horror,
exploitation, and sci-fi director. Looking
at his career resume up until the point when STARMAN came out, it is quite
easy to see why it was widely regarded a career revelation for Carpenter,
who looked like he was poised to finally break into the Hollywood
mainstream. Part of the proud
legacy of STARMAN is that the film is arguably Carpenter’s finest hour
while cavorting around in largely big budget filmmaking (it was his
third non-independent film with a sizeable funding after THE THING and
CHRISTINE); STARMAN is also Carpenter’s gentlest and most tender and
heartfelt work without coming off as venomously saccharine, which is
unexpected for a man renowned for making fright fests and seedy, low
rent B-grade auctioneers.
Carpenter’s film canon
certainly did not lend itself – back in 1984 – to place him in the
category of making a touching romantic melodrama, albeit with sci-fi
trappings. His debut film,
1974’s DARK STAR, was a black sci-fi comedy that he co-wrote with Dan
O’Bannon (who would go on to write ALIEN);
he then made one of the best exploitation films – and tributes to
the gritty film worlds of Howard Hawks – of the 1970’s in ASSAULT ON
PRECINCT 13 (which is often credited with launching Carpenter’s career);
then came his most massive commercial and critical success, 1978’s
HALLOWEEN, which all but started the slasher genre and further gave
Carpenter the street cred necessary to see other projects through to
fruition (the film cost $320,000, but made $65 million, still one of the
most profitable indie films ever); rounding off his pre-STARMAN resume
were efforts in horror and sci-fi, like 1980’s THE FOG, which was
followed by two of his biggest cult classics of the decade in 1981’s
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and 1982’s THE THING, the latter being a remake of the
classic Howard Hawks film.
STARMAN is certainly sci-fi on
many levels and has the outward appearance of a standard Carpenter
picture. Yet, what separates it widely and successfully from the rest
of his pack of films is that it never festers ostensibly within one genre.
One of the key achievements of STARMAN is how he almost
deconstructs audience expectations of him by offering us something
familiar that we associate him with (the sci-fi film) and then he
radically alters course and morphs the film into a romance and road
picture. As a result, by
abstaining from focusing on high tech and flashy visual intrigue and
special effects gimmicks (which, no doubt, dominates modern sci-fi
films), Carpenter opts to focus on the humanity of the film and with the
chemistry between the two main leads.
This astute focus makes STARMAN – both yesterday and surely today
– a more warmly inviting sci-fi tale that has the ability to traverse
across audience demographics: men certainly can appreciate the more
fantastical elements of the alien-themed story, whereas female audiences
can easily be swept away by the story’s compassion and sincerity with
its love story.
Self-described by Carpenter
himself as a space alien themed romantic comedy akin to IT HAPPENED ONE
NIGHT, STARMAN was originally developed at Columbia Pictures at the same
time as another script about an extra-terrestrial visitation to earth.
That other film was, of course, Stephen Spielberg’s massively
popular 1982 venture E.T. –
EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, and it is certainly easy
to see the stark similarities between that film and Carpenter's: Both films
involves aliens; both involve aliens coming to earth that are, in one form
or another, stranded; both films involve the aliens being befriended by a
human; both films involve the alien trying to acclimatize itself to its
foreign environment, oftentimes to humorous effect; and both films involve
the alien being chased by seedy, duplicitous, and crafty government agents that want
to forego any pleasantries with it.
Certainly, STARMAN is eerily similar to Spielberg’s critical
and audience lauded entertainment, but where it differs primarily is in its tone
and focus: E.T. is a story of platonic love and friendship between a boy
and the grotesque-looking alien, whereas STARMAN is about romantic love between a
depressed woman and the alien that has taken the form of her recently
Nevertheless, Columbia did not
wish to make two films that were astoundingly alike regarding aliens, so
they decided to let E.T. go to a rival studio (which can now be seen, in
hindsight, as the mother of all botched financial decisions) and went on
to fund and produce STARMAN. The
film was produced by Michael Douglas, who at the time was a flourishing
actor and had amassed a stellar producing repertoire (he has won an Oscar
for backing ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST).
While originally hoping to acquire directors as far ranging as Mark
Rydell, Adrian Lyne, John Badham, and Tony Scott, Douglas finally settled
on Carpenter, mostly because of his previous affinity with the sci-fi
genre and partially because he felt confident in the director’s
to infuse emotion and soul into the humanity of the story.
The premise of STARMAN is
quite nifty, indeed: It is based partially on the real-life launching of
the U.S. led Voyager 2 on August 20, 1977, which was primary designed to
gather data from Uranus and Neptune.
This unmanned space vehicle – totally steeped in fact – is used
to harness the film’s fictitious tale: it asks a terrific what-if
scenario. What if that deep
space probe – which was housing recordings of hello in 54 earth
languages, along with a message from the head of the United Nations urging
alien life to “please visit” – was discovered by an intelligent,
non-earthly life form?
Well, that’s precisely what
happens in the prologue of STARMAN, which chronicles an alien’s response
to the invitation from earth to visit the planet.
Of course, the military might of the Earth treats the UFO as a
hostile entity while curiously forgetting about the benevolent message and
invite from Voyager and they abruptly shoot the alien vessel down. The Starman in
question – which essentially has the form of a glowing orb of intense
light – crashes its ship down in rural Wisconsin, right near the home of
distressed and grieving widow named Jenny (Karen Allen, in one of her finest
performances), who has just recently lost her husband.
Initially, we see her
inconsolable as she watches jittery 8mm home movies of her and her
husband together and she eventually falls asleep.
However, unbeknownst to her, the alien has made its way from its
crashed ship and into her home and begins to prob it until it comes to a
scrapbook with pictures of her husband and, on one particular page, a lock
of his hair. The Starman
takes the hair, processes its DNA, and then uses that information to clone
itself into the exact duplicate of Jenny's husband, right before her
astonished eyes. On the
outside, the Starman look’s like her beloved dead husband, but
mentally and socially, he is still very much an alien.
Now, Jenny clearly knows that
this is most definitely not her real husband, but she nonetheless has
deeply conflicted feelings with seeing this perfect physical approximation
of her husband; he simply stirs up a groundswell of emotions within her.
The Starman has a human appearance, but it is a real greenhorn when
it comes to earthly customs and social norms.
At the beginning, it even has trouble controlling the most basic of
motor functions of the human body, like sitting up, walking, and even
talking. Oftentimes, the
alien looks like a man that lurches, stutters, and gyrates like a bird,
but this is all a part of the alien’s plan to get accustomed to things
on Earth, not to mention avoiding detection and unavoidably using Jenny
as a means to help him rendezvous with his mother ship in order to get
The Starman’s task is not an
easy one, seeing as he has to convince the completely befuddled Jenny to
take her orange Mustang and drive him from Wisconsin to Arizona (where his
mother ship will pick him up), all while the cops and the Feds are hot on
their trail. The government itself is partially led by a wide-eyed and
hopeful scientist (played in an earnest and sincere performance by Charles
Martin Smith) who cannot wait to finally be able to meet with an entity
not of this planet. The
government stooges he works for have other less inviting and devious plans
for the Starman. Regardless,
the alien and Jenny find their way on a series of misadventures across the
country – arguably the more conventional aspects of the film – meeting
all sorts of colorful characters, but the more the two spend together and
the more the alien displays more of Jenny's husbands quirks, the more she
begins falling in love with the image of her husband...all over again.
Again, it’s Carpenter’s
unique choices with the material that makes STARMAN rise above the
simplistic veneer of a disposable sci-fi film. Clearly,
STARMAN owes a debt to E.T. in terms of its premise, but it could be easy
to argue that STARMAN is more mature, adult, and a bit less manipulative
than Spielberg’s child-centric narrative.
Also, Carpenter wholeheartedly shies away from making STARMAN an
effects-heavy production, which more or less allows him to focus themes
and characters. STARMAN has
some moments of abundant visual effects trickery, to be sure (some still
hold up, whereas others, like a Claymation cloning transformation of the
alien to Jenny’s husband, have horribly dated), but the film never
slavishly burdens itself on movie artifice.
There is a pleasing simplicity in the film’s overall approach:
the Starman itself is not some ghoulish creature ripe with all of the
obligatory goo and sinew that is the stuff of makeup artists’ wet
dreams; rather, it takes the form of light and later – while in human
form – it uses glowing orbs of light for whatever purposes it sees fit
(whether it be to escape a fiery explosion or, in one very tender moment,
to resuscitate a deer back to life).
Even the alien mother ship at the film’s conclusion is
brilliantly executed in its minimalism.
The point here that Carpenter is trying to make that this is an
emotionally charged film, not a technologically centered film.
STARMAN is also one of those
very rare sci-fi films that is anchored primarily by its performances.
Jeff Bridges – although kind of cringe-worthy and idiosyncratic at first
– achieves a minor performance miracle in the film for how he lets
his peculiar and totally offbeat mannerisms develop into a believably and
oddly endearing creation. We
sit through much of STARMAN seeing Bridges struggled with the human
language, desperately trying to make sense of things as commonplace and
simple as driving a car and eating, and in a lesser actor's hands the
performance could have transformed into over-the-top farce.
Yet, Bridges' performance is a delicate balancing act of being
creepily eclectic and outlandish while being heartfelt and genuine.
Rounding out Bridges is the beautiful and natural Karen Allen, who
perhaps has the trickery task of believably playing off of Bridge’s
abnormal creation while allowing for us to credibly buy into her falling
in love with him. The film is
indisputably assisted by the pair’s charm and effortless chemistry,
which only further aids the film’s heart-warming sentimental and,
ultimately, it’s teary-eyed finale.
The film’s ending – which
also strongly echoes E.T. – is thoroughly suspenseful and touching, which
shows Jenny having to send off the alien she has fallen for – and is now
carrying it’s child – back into the cosmos.
Some have commented on how engaging and uplifting the film’s
conclusion is, but I think that it – much like the rest of the film –
is open to compelling speculation. The
conclusion, upon recently watching it again on a very decent Blu-Ray
version, comes off as more hauntingly ambiguous and sad then ever (the
Starman has escaped unharmed, and it hopes its child will be born and be a
positive beckon to the world, but there is an undeniable sense that government agents will certainly not let Jenny go away complacently and
have an alien/human hybrid child). The
whole baby angle also has some clear-cut Christ-like analogies, with the
all-powerful and omnipotent alien the leaves its son on earth as a vessel
to perhaps coax mankind out of their crueler instincts.
What is to become of the Starman’s unborn child, regardless of
interpretation, is one of the film’s intriguing questions that it
thankfully never answers.
Religious angles aside,
STARMAN can also be seen – especially now – as a parable about the
pros and cons of human cloning. The
Starman becomes the duplicate of the husband, but to what extent is he actually
husband? Does he have his soul? Moreover,
what or whom does Jenny really love? The alien, the memory of her husband that the alien
represents, or the fact that he just looks like her husband?
Like the finest of speculative sci-fi (which has always been my
preference for the genre) STARMAN embraces its extraordinary and
otherworldly storyline and infuses it with parables regarding the fragile human condition.
STARMAN went on to become a
modest commercial and major critical success when released in 1984;
It became Carpenter’s highest grossing theatrical film
after HALLOWEEN. It also
garnered Jeff Bridges with much-deserved Best Actor Oscar and
Golden Globe nominations. STARMAN
has also been cemented as one of Carpenter’s most agreeably heartfelt
and accessible films, and rightfully so.
The writers of the film, Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, would
later go on to collaborate on the screenplay for Rob Reiner’s STAND BY
ME, still regarded as one of the finest coming of age dramas of the
I guess the film’s most
distressing legacy would be, ironically enough, the subsequent career of
Carpenter himself, who should have flourished in the wake of STARMAN, but
instead floundered and struggled to reclaim any popular mainstream
acceptability for the rest of his career.
He followed the success of STARMAN with critical and box office
flops like BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA in 1986 (which eventually has
become a cult hit with the advent of home video) and his later attempts at
forging ahead with would-be mass marketed hits led to categorical misfires
(like 1992’s MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, 1995’s VILLAGE OF THE
DAMNED, 1996’S ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, and, more recently, 1998’s
VAMPIRES and 2001's GHOST OF MARS). Regrettably,
the more respectable legacy that Carpenter intrepidly forged for himself
has been left to fester in a series of pathetic and wrong-headed re-makes
of his landmark films, like not one, but two remakes of his revolutionary
HALLOWEEN by Rob Zombie.
As much as Carpenter’s vision as an innovative and resourceful independent filmmaker that legitimately changed movies has all but eroded over the least decade or so, STARMAN – 25 years after its initial release – still remains a film with a strong vision. It represented his finest (and lamentably last) attempt at slipping through the cracks of low budget indie fare and into the more lucrative waters of Hollywood productions. That, and the film remains truer than ever to its creative aims at being a character and thematic-centric romance first and an ostentatious bit of fantasy eye candy second. What’s superlative about STARMAN is that it represented an honest, authentic and triumphant attempt by a filmmaker to jubilantly change tonal and stylistic gears and go against the creative grain of his past films. The terms John Carpenter and love story certainly seem incongruous, but in STARMAN he showed that he could be as adept as any at effectively tugging at out heartstrings…all while maintaining a subtle essence of the sci-fi films that put him on the map. That's a tough dichotomy for any director to pull off.