Synopsis: When his spacecraft is shot down over Wisconsin, Starman (Bridges) arrives at the remote cabin of a distraught young widow, Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), and clones the form of her dead husband. The alien convinces Jenny to drive him to Arizona, explaining that if he isn’t picked up by his mothership in three days, he’ll die. Hot on their trail are government agents, intent on capturing the alien, dead or alive. En route, Starman demonstrates the power of universal love, while Jenny rediscovers her human feelings for passion.
Wow. I remember when this film came out back in 1984; it was referenced in the schoolyard, although I suspect none of us had seen it. The early ’80s were, after all, consumed with science fiction films, being in the shadow of the Star Wars trilogy and of newly minted special effects techniques – so a film like ‘Starman’ got a few kids talking. What I didn’t know, being a child at the time, was the pedigree of those involved in bringing ‘Starman’ to the big screen; to me, it was simply something that didn’t stir my imagination and, consequently, it was quickly ignored.
I would continue to ignore ‘Starman’ for over two decades. Until now.
What changed my mind was mostly the fact that, recently, I had been watching the John Carpenter-related films that I had but hadn’t yet gotten to. In doing so, I explored his filmography and was reminded that he directed it. So I made a point of picking it up, for cheap. What I would also discover, upon seeing the opening credits, was that it was produced by none other than Michael Douglas – who was a successful producer in his early years. In reading the DVD booklet, I would also find out that Douglas had been trying to get this film made for over four years and that Carpenter wasn’t his first choice.
This explains one key element: the film’s budget.
A major issue with many of Carpenter’s films is the lack of production money. Due to a short supply of funds, Carpenter’s films frequently looked shoddy, featuring bad set pieces and not-so-special special effects. ‘Starman’ is notable in Carpenter’s career for having the right money for the type of film it was trying to be. While it looks dated now, it’s quite apparent that it must have held its own with the best of them at the time and it still looks good. That was a nice surprise, since it took this burden off the film and let us focus on the storytelling.
The budget might also explain why the motion picture score was not composed by Carpenter himself. I honestly can’t remember another film of his that he didn’t score, but Jack Nitzsche (who, coincidentally, has worked with producer Douglas before) created something that was relatively familiar – it played along the same lines as Carpenter’s scores usually do. Unlike some his compositions, however, Nitzsche’s was unobtrusive, yet effective – enough so that he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his efforts.
A larger budget also frequently means that you can get better actors. Whether it was due to the cash or not, the film’s core consisted of a very solid trio: Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen and Charles Martin Smith. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such a great cast in a Carpenter film. While Karen Allen is merely good, the fact that she is the weak link in that chain says it all: Smith has never been better, and Bridges would end up being nominated for an Academy Award for this performance!
Which brings me to his performance.
In this film, he plays an alien that comes to earth and impersonates the dead spouse of Karen Allen’s character. He has no knowledge of earth and earthlings other than for the transmissions that were sent to his planet via the Voyager probe. He also has no understanding of how the human body functions and responds so, consequently, he walks and talks “funny”.
I had mixed feelings about this. While I understood what was going on and appreciated Bridges consistent efforts to make the character “alien”, I wasn’t exactly convinced that it worked: he moved his head like a bird, walked as though he had a stick jammed up his butt, and expressed himself strangely as well (not just the sounds he made, but his articulations as well!). It was weird. Was it a good performance? Was it bad? Or was it just weird?
Aside from this, it was a nice road-trip movie (the ‘starman’ forces Allen’s character to drive him cross-country to a rendez-vous point so that he may return home). The situations that they find themselves in were generally realistic, the humour that “fish out of water” stories usually toss about was limited and subdued, and the action sequences moved the story along and weren’t over-the-top.
For the most part, it was very logical and well-constructed.
So has Carpenter’s lack of success since then been largely due to budgetary constraints? Clearly, he has shown some skill when given the opportunity – not just here, but with ‘The Thing’, ‘Christine’ and ‘Halloween’. I suspect that having someone write the material for him helps somewhat, but perhaps having the right tools contributed in a big way. Of course, based on this argument, there is no excuse for ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ or ‘Escape from L.A.’. None whatsoever.
Still, in the end, it turns out that ‘Starman’ is a pretty enjoyable movie (it was a nice surprise, considering my mixed feelings about Carpenter’s output so far). It won’t ever be my favourite film, that’s for sure, but I’d watch it again gladly.