(SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.
Comparisons have been drawn to E.T. – the love between a human and an alien, with concomitant messianic overtones – but really, what it is is the antithesis of Carpenter’s then-all-too-recent flop The Thing. That movie’s apparent heartlessness pushes Carpenter to the opposite extreme in the hope of a box-office hit and sustained viability in terms of future projects (it did moderately, doubtless helped by home rentals, and spawned a short-lived TV version in 1986 – with Airplane!’s Robert Hays as the male lead). Karen Allen’s grieving widow Jenny Hayden is visited by an alien who assumes the form of husband Scott (a ringer for Jeff Bridges), in an opening sequence that takes in ILM starscapes and Rob Bottin physical transformations, having already cued us in to the fantastical nature of all things NASA as home footage of a Scott and Jenny duet instructs us to “Dream, dream, dream”.
Starman is essentially a road movie, as Jenny – initially a hostage – slowly kindles affection and even love for the entity that’s the spit of her husband. She’s consequently left with a baby Jesus – a miracle, naturellement, as she is infertile – by the starman who earlier raised the dead (first a deer, then Jenny herself). The road movie approach is possibly the laziest narrative structure there is (just ask Odysseus), but it’s also one of the most effective, if done well; Carpenter’s picture – credited to Raynold Gideon and Bruce A Evans, disparately of such movies Stand by Me, Made in Heaven, Mr Brooks and er… Kuffs, but attested by Carpenter as receiving it is wallop from veteran Dean Reisner of Dirty Harry, Play Misty for Me and Charley Varrick – largely hits notes both poignant and amusing.
It skirts any deep dive with the fish out of water aspect, albeit there are some gags about gas and starman staring at a guy in urinal, and a crowd pleaser jackpot at Vegas slots. As a result, Carpenter keeps the relationship with Jenny firmly in focus. In this respect, however, Starman rather succeeds in pushing into the bleedin’ rote occasionally, as Jenny has to explain your human ways in a Star Trek 101 fashion.
The need for food is fine (“This body has a terrible emptiness”), but exchanges drift into the facile at times. The conversation about killing for food – “Do deer eat people? …I think you are a very primitive species”, before Jenny tucks in with a “For a primitive species, we have our points” is a bit much. But this trajectory is, at least, supported by some lovely moments, as Jeff revitalises the deer and gets into a fight that Jenny breaks up (terrified of guns, until she needs to save someone with one – take that, NRA). But then again, learned starman’s “Can anyone have babies?” induces near retching on the lines of “What is this human emotion you call love?” (yes, that’s in there too).
Jeff manages to deliver “I like to watch you sleep” without seeming creepy, but that doesn’t make the admission any less banal, as poetic declarations go. And then there’s the parting admission “We are very civilised, but we have lost something”. Hurrah for humans, since “We are interested in your species. It is not like any other”.
Starman has been responding to the Voyager II broadcast, the same one that inspired Fox Mulder in The X-Files’ Little Green Men (Star Trek: The Motion Picture revolves around the fictional Voyager VI, which isn’t to say I and II are actually real or anything). On the government side, Charles Martin Smith is eminently likeable SETI scientist Mark Shermin, basically the latest facsimile of Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s Bob Balaban or E.T.’s Peter Reigert but still able to make the part sufficiently his own (Richard Jaeckal fares less well as the requisite military dunderhead).
The movie is, of course, perpetuating the notion that the military wants to be/is in contact with aliens (and who knows, perhaps they truly believe they are). Shermin is winningly dismissive of the military mindset (that an alien should respond to Voyager II in terms of the military’s response to that response: “So naturally, they decided to fire some missiles at it”). He’s very astute too in working out exactly what has gone on, being that the alien has cloned Scott from a strand of hair (cloning not being in this government’s capacity, and starman’s tech being 100,000 years ahead of us).
Carpenter isn’t working with Dean Cundey here. Rather, as with Christine, he’s reteaming with Elvis DP Donald M Morgan and there’s a conspicuously clean Panavision visual palate throughout; never as evocative as his work with Cundey, but Morgan was nevertheless a far superior collaborator to later go-to DP Gary Kibbe (perhaps the low-budget late-80s wilderness was outside Morgan’s asking price. Whatever the nuances of the decision, it was a loss to Carpenter’s art). Michael Douglas is one of the credited producers (did he considered starring?) The Jack Nietzsche score is ludicrously romantic, entirely irresistible every time it charges up and tells you exactly how to feel. Generally, Carpenter underplays the effects, which is to the material’s benefit. When Jeff has his hair frizzed at the beginning he looks not unlike his dad sniffing glue in Airplane! The director’s also a little too swift in the edited “emerging from the flames” when Jeff saves Karen.
The two leads are great. I’ve always found Allen irresistible, so while I have no hesitation in admitting her part is on the wide-eyed & drippy side, it still gets my vote. Jeff didn’t get the Academy’s vote, but he did get nominated, and it’s a convincingly distanced turn, even if it’s true that it fails to elicit any core-level romantic back and forth.
That’s certainly the way Pauline Kael saw it. She didn’t think Bridges had enough to do, while Carpenter “seems afraid of losing hold on poignancy; he’s a one-note director”. She also objected to what she saw as “no friction between them, no tartness or impudence” while “the persecution of these two flower children by the macho hunters and the government is ritualistic pop hype”, mocking the traces of paranoia movies still washing up in the 80s (also alive in The Thing). Yes, this is one where she was a right old sourpuss, although she was positively effusive in comparison to Time Out’s Richard Rayner (“a rather lame sci-fi love story”).
In contrast, Tim Pullleine in The Film Yearbook Volume 4 (who gets off to a bad start by referring to Escape from New York as “extraneous” and The Thing “malodorous”, while raving about the merely adequate Christine) observes – in a rather overwritten way – that the movie “abandons the high-tech sorcery and flying saucery and turns toward its audience the human face of sci-fi”. It ranked as one of the volume’s Films of the Year.
Both Pulliene and Kael noted Carpenter’s Frank Capra touchstone (It Happened One Night), but the latter was less enamoured by the movie’s “melancholy gooeyness”. Such gooeyness is a fair call, but as ever with the romance or romantic comedy, either it affects you or it doesn’t. I don’t think Starman is entirely successful, but it’s melancholy gooeyness largely works for me.