1984-a-thon Movie Review For “Forgotten Films“
From Vic of “Vic’s Movie Den”
What’s it About?
An alien takes the form of a young widow’s husband and asks her to drive him from Wisconsin to Arizona. The government tries to stop them.
Directed by John Carpenter
8 out of 10
Director John Carpenter (The Thing, Dark Star, Christine) has been, by default, labeled as a “Horror Film” director. Obviously, because of his predilection for making multiple films in that particular genre. A few of them being very highly regarded, like “Halloween,” “The Thing” and even the under-rated “In the Mouth of Madness” which starred “Jurassic Park’s” Sam Neill.
Carpenter’s adaptation of “Christine,” released in 1983, was a moderate success for him (and Columbia) even as he proclaimed afterwards, that it was a “paycheck” gig and he needed a job after the disastrous box office performance that hampered his earlier effort, “The Thing.” Meanwhile, back at Columbia Pictures, the script for “Starman” stood languishing for several years. At Michael Douglas’ request the story was purchased but was bumped around, at times involving big names like Ed Zwick, John Badham and Adrian Lyne. Eventually the project was narrowed down to directors Peter Hyams (2010) and Carpenter.
What sold Columbia (and was a perfect decision) was Carpenter’s approach to the story, relying greatly on the “Road Trip” aspects of the story allowing the characters of Starman and Jenny Hayden to flourish and develop. Jeff Bridges (King Kong) was cast as Scott Hayden (Starman) and Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark) as Jenny. And of course, the directing duties went, smartly, to Carpenter. Carpenter’s film is a unique sci fi tale of honest proportions and it has a clear and emotional message that is very reminiscent of older films where the two leads establish a rapport under singular circumstances.
Columbia decided to minimize the similarities to Spielberg’s “ET” and keep the overtly political themes under control in order to comply with Carpenter’s vision. The result being a significant entry in Carpenter’s, Bridges and Allen’s careers. “Starman” is an intelligent sci fi story which benefits from the tight and respectable writing of Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon. Along with JC, Composer Jack Nitzsche and Director of Photography Donald Morgan (who also shot “Christine” for Carpenter), create a beautifully rendered universe that is rural, down home, real and endearing. Nitzsche’s score will have you hooked from that first electronic note.
After receiving the multi-lingual messages left on the “Golden Disc” aboard “Voyager 2” (launched in 1977), an alien race sends an emissary to earth in the form of a glowing “energy ball,” to make contact. But, (borrowing from films like “The Day The Earth Stood Still”) as a response to the visitor’s approach, the Air Force reacts with hostility and shoots down the craft. It ends up landing violently in Wisconsin, where widow, Jenny Hayden is drowning her sorrows while watching home movies of her late husband, Scott (Jeff Bridges).
Eventually, as it tries to find a way to survive, the alien re-shapes itself using DNA from a strand of Scott’s hair, lifted from Jenny’s photo album. As he evolves into an adult, in a very awesome practical FX sequence, Jenny looks on in disbelief. After the initial shock wears off, Jenny realizes that her dead husband, Scott, has been re-animated as “Starman,” who, in response to the hostile nature of the Government (aside from SETI scientist, Mark Shermin, played by Charles Martin Smith), tells his people to pick him up at Arizona’s Berringer Crater in 3 days (yeah, the movie is packed with religious allegory). Starman coerces Jenny into helping him get there in time to meet his rescue party and avoid detection from NSA Chief George Fox (Richard Jaeckel) during his stay.
What ensues is a heart warming sci fi romance that may surprise and enlighten many of today’s audiences used to big, over the top, CGI and loud and overdone action sequences. “Starman” ain’t that type of movie, folks. It is a bit of a timeless fare that still holds up very well by today’s standards. Propelled by the amazing performances of it’s leads, the film is a lesson in simplicity and raw emotional honesty. The complexities are kept to a minimum and Carpenter’s direction flows nicely and still exploits that great cinematic eye for composition and detail that is a brilliant staple in all of his films.
Despite the convention of the Government being the “bad guy” (Fox has little to no motivation for chasing down Starman, here) and the “by the book” turn by C. Martin Smith as the one caring person who is trying to look out for Jenny and Scott, the movie is an impressive collection of touching and poignant rural vignettes.
Carpenter’s film explores themes of companionship and harmony. Jenny shows Starman how to fit in, in an already somewhat, xenophobic society that is full of the fear of the unknown and of those who “aren’t from around here.” Bridges plays incredibly well opposite of Allen as he learns to walk, talk and even comically drive (“yellow light means go faster”). Bridges’ unique take and interpretation of what an alien in a “human suit” would act, look and feel like is incredibly profound. Carpenter and Bridges took this very seriously and had multiple discussions on how to establish the look and feel of Starman / Scott. It turned out to be an amazing performance that earned Bridges an Oscar Nomination for Best Actor in 1984 and the only Actor nod for a Carpenter film.
Using his various steely looking “energy marbles,” Starman also displays his powers when provoked and his ability to heal and repair when faced with loss. In a stunning moment, Starman learns in a Truck Stop, about the consequences of hunting animals and when he does not understand, he is faced with more questionable behavior from the locals. But whether or not you agree with the various approaches to these dilemmas, Carpenter never shies away from letting his leads really act. They really bring their A game in this movie and it genuinely shows.
“Starman,” which I actually saw in the theaters back in 1984, is a quirky film about a quirky alien. It is very moving at times and often silly fun as well. The balances are well kept in place by Carpenter’s deft direction and the extremely sweet exploration of the characters by Bridges and Allen. Even by it’s conclusion, after the wonderful ‘road trip” mid-section, the audience is left very satisfied that this “alien meets a widow” story has gone full circle. Carpenter’s vision and focus sheds any pretense he may have had as a schlocky horror movie director.
Carpenter and company flex their artistic muscles in this great sci fi film from 1984. It is often over-looked or even forgotten but once someone discovers it, it definitely becomes a movie that resonates on a few levels. I wanted to keep the spoilers at a minimum for those who would like to re-visit it or watch it for the first time. Highly recommended!
My sincere thanks to Todd from “Forgotten Films,” for the gracious invitation to review “Starman” for his 1984-a-thon. I had a blast and I hope you enjoyed it!
Vic’s Note: John Carpenter’s “Starman” is available on Netflix Streaming and on Amazon for Prime Members.