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.
Starman is on Film4 at 6:45pm today.