Starman (1984), Dir. John Carpenter
Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now:
Because I'm a fool who knew this was a John Carpenter film and knew it starred Jeff Bridges but somehow failed to connect the two and realize this was a Carpenter joint featuring Jeff friggin' Bridges. Foolish I am. Foolish.
Starman is pretty much E.T. for grown-ups. Replace little Elliot with Karen Allen and the E.T. puppet with The Dude. Keep the main drive of the story on their burgeoning relationship but replace telepathic drunkeness and late-night bike flights with fumbling alien sex. Keep the villainous government agents on their tail, but make them considerably more sinister and violent (no amount of CGI tweaking can turn all of the guns in Starman into walkie talkies).
Cracks about those similarities aside, Starman is a breezy and fun sci-fi romantic-adventure-chase-movie. You can still see Carpenter's horror-centric mind at work, especially since the titular alien being is inhabiting a corpse, but this is an extreme departure from the rest of his filmography. Carpenter feels very much at home for the firsts half of the film, where Starman abducts Karen Allen and drags her on a cross country road trip to locate a crashed spaceship with the FBI in pursuit. He seems less comfortable with the love story that crops up in the second half, where the key relationship just melts into absolute schmatlz, culminating in the ending the melodramatic ending, which feels like someone put the third acts of E.T. and The Day the Earth Stood Still into a blender.
However, this is a worthwhile fill, particularly if you're trying to ease a loved one into the science fiction realm and don't want to scare them off with anything too complex or intelligent. This is a simple movie with a simple purpose: to entertain and to be forgotten.
Netflix failed me. Sure, I planned to review the film that got the most votes last week, but when you rely on your movies being delivered the old-timey way in gas-powered motortrucks, delays happen. So I consulted my top secret "Where Everyone Has Gone Before" master list and voila, here we are.
Starman. So I'm here to talk about John Carpenter's Starman. What can I say about this one? Allow me to quote myself:
"Starman is pretty much E.T. for grown-ups."
I meant this somewhat derisively in the "Pre-Viewing" section. After actually watching the film, it feels like a compliment. Sure, E.T. is a significantly better movie in just about every way (nothing in Starman feels quite as emotionally real as the exploration of childhood psyche on display in E.T.), but Starman just plain works. It works in spite of the myriad of things that simply don't work. If you ever needed proof that casting perfect actors will make up for more-than-a-few serious script problems, seek this one out.
Let's begin with that perfect casting, shall we? Jeff Bridges plays an alien visitor who uses the DNA of a dead man to create a human body for himself. Karen Allen is the dead man's widow who finds herself driving something that looks like the love of her life but acts like alien Rain Man across the country to a UFO rendezvous. Charles Martin Smith is the sympathetic scientist tracking them down. There's also a bunch of hostile army types with guns and roadblocks and helicopters and autopsy tables with leather straps and so forth.
Bridges and Allen make this film work. Without them, I have no idea how it would have played. My guess is that all of the sweet, funny and romantic moments would be creepy, unsettling and bizarre. The core story at work here, the one that we really care about, is not the Government-Pursues-Alien-Across-The-Southwest plot, but rather the growing relationship between the two leads. Sure, Starman has plenty of alien action and even an explosion or two for the kiddies, but this is a romance. A very sweet, very believable romance that has absolutely no right to work as well as it does.
I was surprised to learn that Bridges received an Oscar nomination for his work here, not because it isn't good, but because it's too good, too unique and too off-the-wall to be the kind of performance you'd expect to see at the Academy Awards. He's Klaatu by way of Forrest Gump, a glowing alien sphere in a human shell, with a rudimentary knowledge of the English language and human culture he learned from the Voyager probe. This is a fascinating performance. Bridges moves like he's not used to moving and speaks like he's never had to use words before. I'm 99.6% sure that the stilted speech patterns of the aliens in Galaxy Quest are a parody of Bridges in Starman. The fact that this cold, odd, initially off-putting creature grows into a likable character who Karen Allen can believably fall in love with is a credit to Bridges' innate ability to own every role he takes on.
Allen may not be as showy, but her role simply requires her to be sympathetic and adorable, two things Allen can do in her sleep. She balances out the weirdness and we're on her side the moment we meet her. When she learns to trust Starman, the audience learns to trust him. When she falls in love with him, the audience falls in love with him.
This is where I have to stop saying nice things for a few paragraphs.
Starman is a road movie and like most road movies, it's formulaic, episodic and has little narrative momentum. There are detours at diners and stops at hotels. They even end up in a hilariously quaint 1980s Las Vegas. Road movies have a nasty habit of working in fits and starts and having individual scenes that work better than the whole. Starman is no exception. If the chemistry between Bridges and Allen wasn't so strong, the movie would feel like a slog. That perfect casting for the win, eh?
I also take issue with the one-dimensional military villains hunting our heroes. With the exception of Charles Martin Smith (who really isn't a "bad guy," really), I kept expecting everyone to grow mustaches just so they could twirl them while laughing maniacally. The military baddies exist to give the movie a much-needed sense of danger and to create obstacles, but every time the movie cut to them, I wished I was back with Bridges and Allen.
Starman is a treat for Carpenter fans, not just because it's one of the great genre filmmakers stretching his creative muscles, but because his personal aesthetic remains intact despite not being in service of masked murderers, bloodthirsty aliens or big troubles in Little Chinas. I've always liked Carpenter, but I don't think I've ever fully appreciated his style until now, having seen it removed from his usual sandbox. The man certainly loves his POV shots and his wide angles and for good reason: he has a knack for simple but gorgeous camera composition. I take issue with this being a road movie, but I don't take issue with how Carpenter shoots the American Southwest. Stunning.
How brave would it have been to make Starman a pure romance? How brave would it have been to remove the military threat and make this a movie about two people, one human, one not, connecting and falling in love despite being from completely different worlds? The individual scenes with Bridges and Allen are so good, so touching and yes, so beautiful, that I grew tired of close calls with helicopters and and explosive roadblock runnings. Late in the film, there's a conversation on a train car that, on paper, probably sounded like overcooked melodrama at its worst. However, the scene is performed with such honesty, such sincerity, that I found myself moved to tears. You know what really turned on the waterworks for me? When Starman reaches his final conclusion about the human race:
"Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst."
There is an amazing, subtle movie hidden in here. It just has to take solace in living inside a Hollywood adventure.
It's also a PG-rated adventure that kids of around 12 and up would probably dig. Considering that this is a movie with a message of peace and mutual understanding (without ever getting heavy handed about it), it may have the potential to help make children better human beings. Plan a family movie night, people.
(Voting last week, through comments, email and Twitter, was split down the middle between two films, so I'm removing the voting option until I take care of those two entries. Fret not! You, dear reader, will be in control of this column once again in the near future!)