A film review by Craig J. Koban September 27, 2009



25th Anniversary Retrospective Review

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 diseased husband. 

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 abilities 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 home. 

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 the 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 1980's. 

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.

  H O M E