Starman (1984) Directed by John Carpenter

After declaring in our best of 2014 post how much I wanted to revisit Starman, it popped up on Netflix a few days later. Starman probably (and rightly) should be considered a bedfellow of The Man Who Fell To Earth and even a gentler predecessor of a movie I've yet to see, Under The Skin. Of course, Starman is funnier and warmer than those other pictures and essentially falls very much into the classic road movie genre. But before we delve into Starman's charms, a special mention for John Carpenter. We have barely featured Carpenter on these pages, but he remains essential and has delivered a fine filmography over many decades. The words underrated were made for this director, especially when you consider he has bought us Dark Star, Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween, Elvis (a great made for TV bio pic starring Carpenter regular Kurt Russell), Escape From New York, The Thing and Starman.  The1970's to mid 1980's were probably Carpenter's golden period, but a director so often characterised as representing the 'horror' genre has also dealt us scifi, romance and some comedy in good measure. Starman though, is his lost masterpiece.

Bridges & Allen in Starman
The plot is in some ways inconsequential. Jeff Bridges plays Starman/Scott, an alien whose spaceship crashes on earth (in Wisconsin to be precise) and he assumes the identity of widow Jenny Hayden's (Karen Allen) dead husband. The alien needs to get to Arizona for a rendezvous in three days and reluctantly Hayden drives him there. It is on the road that the film opens up and the chemistry and rapport between Bridges and Allen brings us something special. Both actors give close to best performances. Bridges we know of as a great actor, but Allen shows us that she has been underused, she's excellent here. A sub-plot of the government trying to catch the Starman for experimental research purposes brings tension to the film. The fact that if Starman doesn't reach his destiny in time (and get home) he will die only increases the essence of light fading. Starman is a calm alien who loves living things and has small glowing spheres that give him special powers.We learn with him as he tackles language and some unsavoury aspects of human behaviour. Inevitably a bond develops between Hayden and the alien that leads to a full blown romance.

The use of blues & reds add depth and atmosphere to Starman
There is of course the whiff of cheese, but Carpenter gets his actors to play it straight faced even when humor mixes strongly into the equation. The soundtrack by sometime Neil Young collaborator Jack Nitzsche adds oodles of atmosphere, which Carpenter enhances with some stunning visuals and simple use of lighting. The 'special effects' of Starman are dated in the extreme, but it never intrudes on the feelings that involve the viewer. There is something refreshing about this pre-CGI picture, it's an innocence that a good script, great performances and real chemistry between the co-stars can compensate for many shortcomings. Starman exhibits some of the feel of the previous decades New Hollywood realism amongst its sci-fi trappings, which only enhances the films quality. I hadn't watched Starman for a few decades. It remains a quirky original in an often portentous genre – the sci-fi movie. Starman offers so much more and this wonderful film deserves a better reputation.

Starman was one of those movies that I could have totally done without watching, but yet got into as I went along. I liked the way the 1980s special effects had dated and looked like theatre sets. I loved the staged feel – the use of color and light – especially because it was combined with the idea of extraterrestrial higher intelligent beings. I am a sucker for that stuff, when it doesn't scare me to stupidity. I was reminded of Hal Hartley movies, and thought of Twin Peaks. Sometimes I just had to laugh, because at times the film fissured into the ridiculous.

Unrealistic but somehow amazing...
Jeff Bridges sleepwalked through his role as the alien lover – because it was a strangely unchallenging role to play. Or then he just didn't take the challenge... I cannot help but think of him as the Dude in The Big Lebowski. Or the piano playing hottie in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). In Starman he was obviously still looking for himself as an actor. He looked much younger of course, but his acting was kind of like a subtle version of Leonardo DiCaprio in Gilbert Grape. Some people might be offended by the alien that seemed more like an autistic person the way Bridges played it.

Stylish as hell – Bridges and Allen in Starman
I had never heard of the actress Karen Allen before seeing Starman. Her performance was woody too, but in the course of the movie I began to read her distance as an aesthetic choice rather than just bad acting. All in all the film presents the 1980s as an era that has aged well – suddenly the 80s look appears really stylish, old-fashioned and even logical. What is happening? I thought the 80s was supposed to be a hopeless faux pas...
I don't need to see this film ever again, but if I was 20-years-old today, I'd probably show this to my crush to test his/her coolness. It's kind of like a long music video with great synth sounds all the way.


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