Starman (1984)

2016 #14
John Carpenter | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

In this sci-fi romance, an alien intercepts the invitation included on the Voyager 2 space probe and tries to visit Earth, but is shot down. Taking the form of Karen Allen’s recently deceased husband, Jeff Bridges, he forces her to drive him to Arizona, where his people will rescue him in three days — if they can escape the attention of the government agents chasing them, anyway.

Starman can most pithily be summarised as “John Carpenter does Steven Spielberg”. Almost literally, in that it’s like a cross between E.T. and Always: Bridges’ comical alien learns Earth customs while trying to get home, and Allen’s widow deals with her bereavement while her husband is still ‘there’ (sort of). Of course, Always was actually made five years later, but Columbia Pictures in fact turned down the project that would develop into E.T. in favour of this movie. That’d be E.T., the highest-grossing film of all time for 11 years. Oops.

Although it may not have been the same box office hit or developed into the same cultural touchstone, Starman is certainly not a bad movie. Bridges negotiates a fine line between alien and mannered as the titular visitor who speaks faltering English and struggles with our ways, and I’d argue he always comes down on the right side of said line. Oscar voters certainly agreed, rewarding his performance with a Best Actor nomination (he lost to F. Murray Abraham for Amadeus). Allen is an engaging presence also, and between work like this and Raiders of the Lost Ark it’s a wonder she wasn’t a bigger star.

The film is an oddity on director John Carpenter’s CV, which came about due to The Thing being a box office disaster — Carpenter needed to make a very different kind of movie so he could keep getting work in Hollywood. Nonetheless, Carpenter’s horror roots are on display: there are stalking POV shots as the alien arrives at Allen’s house, and then it grows a human body, a sequence in which the ugliest (prosthetic) baby you’ve ever seen stretches and creaks as it grows into an adult in mere minutes. It’s pretty freaky. Indeed, as per the BBFC, Starman “contains mild language, sex, violence and sci-fi horror”, but is rated PG. Ah, the good old days!

Though it may not quite be a genre classic, the recently-announced remake from Shawn Levy, director of Night at the Museum, Date Night, and Real Steel (not to mention the lambasted Pink Panther reboot) seems ill-advised. While I liked the two of his movies I’ve seen well enough, Levy is a long way from being a John Carpenter, and I don’t envy whoever gets the lead role — copy Bridges and you’ll likely be a pale imitation; do something different and you’ve got to measure up to a very effective take on alienness.

On the bright side, maybe it will shine more attention on this half-forgotten original. I only watched it because I was on a bit of a Carpenter kick and it was available on Netflix, but I’m glad I stumbled across it.

4 out of 5

Starman is on Film4 at 6:45pm today.

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4 thoughts on “Starman (1984)

  1. Back at the time, I had love/hate thing with this movie (mostly veering towards the hate). I think it wasn’t so much to do with the film, but rather that it was Carpenter making it. It seemed a betrayal of everything Carpenter was as a director, his b-movie, subversive sensibilities. Frankly, it felt like he was selling out.

    And he was. But only because it was the only way to try save his career after The Thing bombed. He had to sucker up to the mainstream, just like Ridley Scott was doing too after Blade Runner and Legend failed. And Starman isn’t a bad film, it just isn’t a ‘proper’ Carpenter film. But it has heart, and a lovely score and a great pair of lead actors.

    The idea of a remake is horrible. I hate Hollywood sometimes. Carpenter can’t seem to get a directing gig these days and yet so many of his movies are getting remade.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it’s definitely not A John Carpenter Film, those bits I noted aside.

      I sort of assumed Carpenter chose to stop directing, considering you’d think there’d be a bigger fanbase now than ever, what with so much that used to be considered trashy now being celebrated. Equally, the movies he did make in the ’90s and ’00s don’t exactly have the best reputation, so…

      Like

      • Yeah I’m pretty sure Carpenter has retired from directing but it does seem such a shame. Some guys just seem to get busier as they get older -Ridley Scott, Terrence Malick for instance. If Carpenter could get the right projects he could still make great movies, and he has such an eye for widescreen composition and such a subversive sensibility. We need guys like him making films. I’m writing a review of The Purge, which I watched the other night, which was a great idea with sub-standard execution, and it would have been bloody brilliant with Carpenter at the helm.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: What Are Your Comfort Movies? | Journeys in Darkness and Light

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