(1983) Directed by John Carpenter; Written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon; Starring: Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel and Robert Phalen; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“You are a strange species, not like any other, and you would be surprised how many there are. Intelligent but savage. Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst.” – Starman (Jeff Bridges)
Although the name “John Carpenter” has become synonymous with horror, labeling the filmmaker as exclusively a “horror” director would be reductive and inaccurate. Arguably, science fiction has played just as much, if not a greater role in Carpenter’s filmography, starting with his first movie, Dark Star (1974). What few filmgoers and critics are inclined to acknowledge, however, is that Carpenter has a softer, romantic side. His gentler sensibilities are on full display with Starman,* a sci-fi-tinged romantic road movie. In an era known for effects-laden spectaculars, Carpenter purposely went in the opposite direction, commenting, “The effects weren’t going to rule the movie.” There’s spectacle, to be sure (courtesy of the good folks at ILM), but effects are used sparingly, to complement rather than overshadow the story.
* Fun Fact #1: Although he didn’t receive official screenwriting credit, Dean Riesner was responsible for the rewrite of Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon’s script. As a token of his appreciation, Carpenter mentioned Riesner in the “Thanks” portion of the credits, resulting in a fine from the Writers Guild.
In the opening scene, we see Voyager II drifting through interplanetary space, accompanied by the strains of “Satisfaction,” from the Rolling Stones. */** Only seven years out from Earth, the probe is detected by an alien intelligence. Cut to an unidentified craft, entering our planet’s atmosphere – an Air Force fighter*** intercepts the UFO, causing it to crash land in a remote, forested area. The spacecraft’s solitary occupant, a being made of energy, wanders into the living room of recent widow, Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen). It takes on human form, based on a lock of hair and a picture in a photo album.**** The alien’s choice proves to be a fortuitous one, as he bears an uncanny resemblance to Jenny’s dead husband, Scott. She points a gun at the intruder, but thankfully for the Starman, a moment of indecision stays her hand from blowing him away (which also would have made this a much shorter movie). Instead, she becomes his hostage of sorts, as they hit the road on a quest to reunite the alien visitor with his people. Complications ensue, as they’re relentlessly pursued by the feds, who want to study him.
* Fun Fact #2: According to the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory website, at the time of this movie, Voyager I and II were just past the orbit of Saturn. Both spacecraft were equipped with a golden record, which included greetings in multiple languages, and various sounds and images from Earth.
** Fun Fact #3: While the film would have us believe that “Satisfaction” was included on Voyager’s record, the actual disc features “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry.
*** Fun Fact #4: I’ve always found this part amusing – instead of using generic stock footage of an Air Force jet, the filmmakers employed footage of the prototype F-20 Tigershark. I can only surmise this was a not-so-subtle attempt by Northrop Corporation to pimp its fighter to the U.S. Air Force (and prospective overseas governments). Despite being a reportedly capable aircraft, no one purchased it, and the F-20 was relegated to a footnote in aviation history.
**** Fun Fact #5: Three legendary effects wizards handled Starman’s tricky transformation scene from baby to adult: Rick Baker (baby Starman), Stan Winston (intermediate, stretching form), and Dick Smith (final transformation).
Starman works so well, largely on account of Jeff Bridges’ childlike (but not childish) performance in the title role. As the audience, we watch through his eyes as he experiences everything for the first time. Even something as mundane as dessert takes on wondrous and perplexing properties. Bridges described his character as “…a person impersonating a human being,” which perfectly explains the Starman’s eccentric behavior. He’s the de facto poster child for anyone who considers themselves to be socially awkward or a little outside the norm. His combination of jerky movements and misunderstanding of the cues and complexities of human interactions, lead to some terrific comic moments (as when he learns the difference between gesturing with a thumb, versus a middle finger). During his travails on the road, he also learns about humanity’s propensity for love and violence, in less than equal measures.
So much has been said about Bridges’ endearingly idiosyncratic (and Oscar-nominated) performance that it’s easy to overlook Karen Allen’s nuanced portrayal of a woman absorbed with grief. While her role isn’t nearly as flashy as Bridges’, she’s much more than a foil for his fish-out-of-water antics. Throughout the film, Jenny undergoes a progression, from fear and surprise, to compassion. When she ultimately allows herself to let go of her husband, she can begin to accept the being that has assumed his appearance. The only false note in her character, as written, is the abrupt shift in their relationship from emotional to physical during the span of a few days. I concede that Jenny’s judgment is likely clouded by unresolved grief for her deceased husband, coupled with a terminal case of Stockholm Syndrome. Nevertheless, I can’t help but imagine how terribly uncomfortable it would be, bumping uglies in a drafty (and probably leaky) boxcar, filled with hay, but who am I to trample on two individuals ensconced in the throes of lust?
The third major player in this little drama is the film’s moral compass, Mark Shermin, played by Charles Martin Smith with cigar-chomping bravado. Just because he’s hired as consultant by the feds, he’s not about to play by their rules. Unlike many of his cohorts, he seems to be the only one capable of independent thought or compassion. He’s promptly rebuked when he bristles at the plan to capture Starman for experimentation (“We invited him here!”).* In one emasculating act, haughty government official George Fox (Richard Jaeckel) yanks the cigar from his mouth. It only makes Fox’s eventual comeuppance sweeter, in a later scene, when Shermin defiantly blows smoke in his face.
* Fun Fact #6: Carpenter, who was a pilot in his own right, enjoys a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo in the cockpit of one of the helicopters pursuing Jenny and Starman.
Starman reminds us that John Carpenter’s filmography isn’t always gloom and doom. Instead, we’re treated to a refreshingly hopeful story that still manages to carry his signature post-Vietnam cynicism about shadowy government entities and general disdain for authority figures. Change is possible, but it has to come from individuals. Starman also proves his versatility as a filmmaker, who can alternately horrify us and pull at our heartstrings.
Sources for this article: Commentary by John Carpenter and Jeff Bridges; “What are the Contents of the Golden Record?” JPL/NASA website