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What initially begins as sci-fi transforms into a surprisingly sweet, offbeat drama, courtesy of John Carpenter's careful direction.
What initially begins as sci-fi transforms into a surprisingly sweet, offbeat drama, courtesy of John Carpenter's careful direction.
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All Critics (26)
| Top Critics (5)
| Fresh (21)
| Rotten (5)
| DVD (4)
There is little that is original in Starman, but at least it has chosen good models.
It isn't pleasant to watch a talented filmmaker like John Carpenter willfully distort his personality to fit a commercial (read Spielbergian) profile, and only the opening suspense-horror sequences have the weight of real involvement.
The best special effects are in the first five minutes. Thereafter, it's all rather predictable.
Starman contains the potential to be a very silly movie, but the two actors have so much sympathy for their characters that the movie, advertised as space fiction, turns into one of 1984's more touching love stories.
In Mr. Bridges' hands [his role] becomes the occasion for a sweetly affecting characterization -- a fine showcase for the actor's blend of grace, precision and seemingly offhanded charm.
[A] surprisingly tender, funny movie from John Carpenter, a man otherwise known for his intense horror/genre flicks. It may be the best sci-fi/romance hybrid ever made.
We see a sweet side to the director that never appeared anywhere else: an emotional palate that he rarely indulged in, but which he handles with surprising grace and subtlety.
Jeff Bridges as appealing alien; best for teens.
Bridges' portrayal of Starman can be as hard to take as the lapses in logic.
An enjoyable film filled with the kind of sensitivity, love, and humor seldom seen on today's screens.
Early Jeff Bridges starrer is fun sci-fi.
Carpenter is a master of framing for widescreen, and Starman is certainly a forum for him to show off his prowess behind the lens.
This is one of John Carpenter's lesser known films, possibly because it's more of a love story than a monster mash. Jeff Bridges plays an alien, who becomes a reincarnated version of Karen Allen's dead husband as a way to manipulate her to help him after he crash lands on Earth. The rest of the film concerns the alien's voyage to a meeting place with his people, with Allen's assistance, with the US government on his trail. The film is very unoriginal in its message: man is harming itself with violence, aliens are peaceful, and the military is violent and wants to hunt down the alien. Besides the impossibly intense action, this film is special for its portrayal of the relationship between Allen and the alien. It's basically heartbreaking, because Allen is a widow who has to see her dead husband and knows immediately that it's not him, but also wants that second chance with him. In that sphere it makes more sense for the alien to be peaceful as he gives her a beautiful gift for her troubles. Very light but not always devoid of action, this may be Carpenter's sweetest film yet.
John Carpenter's sci-fi looking effort is actually a road trip romance (ala Capra's It Happened One Night) about a guy from somewhere in space getting a close hand look at backroads America. Jeff Bridges does well as the newborn earthling/alien larnin' about our downhome, simple but good ways o' livin', but the film actually belongs to Karen Allen who carries the emotional weight of the piece and acts as our stand-in on a trip from Madison, Wisconsin to Winslow, Arizona.
As a point of interest Kevin Spacey would play a similar type alien being, birdlike movements et al, with Jeff Bridges playing the psychologist trying to get at him years later in 2001's K-Pax. Both are guilty pleasures of mine since their initial releases.
What may be John Carpenter's tamest movie of his early works is a rather calm, humorous and touching tale of an alien crash landing on earth and making its way to the pick up spot. On the way it does not only take on a dead man's shape but also his widow on a road trip through half the US. Of course, the evil military slash government is on their heels. That may sound somewhat generic today, but back then it was one of the first films like that. So while some parts feel a bit dated, the great chemistry between Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen still makes this a very enjoyable ride with much more funny scenes than action packed ones. The message of mankind being pretty messed up when compared to peaceful alien species may be a bit simplistic too, but doesn't fail to mention the good of the single individual and the beauties of life on earth. Likable and very entertaining.
The vast majority of film directors are specialists. They are extremely adept at telling one kind of story, or are good at handling one aspect of production in particular. When they attempt to work outside of this specialty, they tend to come a cropper. Steven Spielberg, for instance, is brilliant at making light-hearted, family friendly popcorn blockbusters with a sentimental edge. When he attempts something more serious, the result is often technically sound but found wanting emotionally.
Of course, being so singular in your sensibility is nothing to be ashamed of, and the vast majority of directors have good or even great careers within a specific genre. But it takes an especially talented director to be able to step outside their comfort zone successfully - and for a while at least, John Carpenter was one such director. Having made his name in sci-fi, thrillers and horror movies, Carpenter turned to romance with Starman, which remains a terrific piece of work and perhaps his last truly great film.
Fans of 1970s and 1980s sci-fi will very quickly pick up on the lineage of Starman. It would be very easy to dismiss the film as E.T.-lite, since the two screenplays were written around the same time and the films have clear narrative similarities. Both stories involve an alien being stranded on Earth, who has to get home with the help of the people who find him, and these people in turn have to hide him from the authorities. But while it is more sentimental than many of Carpenter's works, it is more offbeat and quirky than Spielberg's films, and the drama is much more adult. E. T. is a film about divorce and a child trying to recapture the affection of his father; Starman is about dealing with grief and (as cheesy as it sounds) the power of love.
Alongside the links with E.T., Starman owes a certain debt to a number of other films. The benevolent and inquiring nature of the aliens obviously hints towards Close Encounters, with the series of disturbing events across America being resolved by a moving demonstration of the aliens' real nature and power. The romance is equal parts It Happened One Night and Bonnie and Clyde, consisting of two very different people (sort of) finding each other on the run from the law. There is even a vague connection with The Man Who Fell to Earth, with Jeff Bridges sharing David Bowie's twin obsessions of getting home and obtaining vast amounts of information about us.
In spite of this, Starman begins to carve out its own identity very early on, remaining first and foremost a Carpenter film in amongst all the familiarity. It starts on a suspenseful note, with the shot of the alien spacecraft being almost a mirror image of the opening shot of The Thing. These scenes reflect Carpenter's horror heritage, with the dramatic explosion and eerie blue light putting us on edge - complimented, in horror fashion, by Karen Allen being in her underwear when Jeff Bridges arrives.
Having briefly spooked us, the film then shifts into an offbeat comedic road movie with Karen Allen having to teach the Starman about Earth's customs. The Starman is intelligent but also curious in a childlike manner, and so a great deal of concepts we take for granted are shown to be incredibly hard to explain and are then played for innocent laughs. In its final act the film shifts again into a romance which gradually swells to a passionate and genuinely tearful climax.
The central idea of Starman is a neat twist on alien invasion stories in science fiction. While H. G. Wells and his descendants depicted aliens as aggressive invaders, this film rests on the premise that we invited them here: the Starman finds the gold disc on Voyager 2 and accepts our greeting. The film goes against the grain by making us really think about our reactions to aliens landing. How would we react to an alien who is powerful but by all accounts benevolent? Should we welcome him with open arms, or oppose him on the basis of what we don't know? The film plays this concept through to the fullest, always asking questions and challenging our gut reactions.
While E.T. focusses on the humans trying to understand the alien, Starman successfully conveys the mind-set of an alien who is trying to learn from us. Carpenter said in interviews that Bridges had the most difficult part: he had to play a being that was highly intelligent and curious, but also ill at ease within his human body to the point where he seemed stupid. Bridges remarked that his performance required him to do the opposite of everything he was taught about being natural - and unlike David Bowie, he doesn't look all that alien to begin with.
But whether by Carpenter's direction or Bridges' performance, we do end up really bonding with the Starman. We might start viewing him like some kind of special needs child, but eventually we realise his capacity for love and understanding. We like him even though we know we cannot fully understand him, and this a sign of good writing. Bridges is ably supported by Karen Allen, whose performance here is up there with her work in Raiders of the Lost Ark. She's completely natural and believable in every scene, which makes it all the more perplexing that her career never reached the heights of many of her contemporaries.
Starman's strength with characterisation also extends to its supporting cast. One thing that characterises Carpenter's best work is the intelligence of the smaller cast members: there is no cannon fodder in The Thing, or They Life, or this film. Even when the film draws on familiar tropes, it takes care not to pander directly to cliché. The military have their agenda, but Fox is not entirely a gung-ho, Major Kong-type character, nor is Charles Martin Smith so geeky that he's unlikeable. They all feel like real people making rational decision on their own merits, not the merits of the plot.
At its heart, Starman is about a woman coming to terms with the loss of her husband. It is appropriate that we start in horror territory, since so many horror stories are about dealing with grief and the boundaries between this world and the next. Jenny's encounter with the Starman allows her to address all the unresolved feelings she carries around, including her guilt or regret about not being able to have children. The ending is superb, with the Starman effectively giving her what she wanted: to see him again, if only to say goodbye.
Jenny's infertility is an example of her isolation from other aspects of humanity. The conversation in the back of the truck expresses her feelings of inadequacy and despair, as though she has fallen short of her purpose but through no fault of her own. She is the only significant and assertive female, surrounded by aggressive, hard-hearted men who take what they want, hurt those who oppose them and give her little sympathy. From this perspective the ending has another meaning: the Starman shows how she has enriched his life as well as vice versa. It is both a brilliant vindication of the central character and a great example of how to do a tragic romance properly.
From a certain angle, Starman could also be interpreted as a Christian allegory. When Jenny and the Starman consummate their love, he remarks that their baby will be a "teacher", who is both human and alien (read 'God'). In this reading the Starman is God, the baby is Jesus and Jenny is the Virgin Mary; her infertility both paraphrases the virgin birth and refers to Mary's cousin Elizabeth, who gave birth to John the Baptist. The film allows us to interpret the story as we so wish and to add whatever significance we want to the central relationship. We could equally regard it in the mould of 2001 or Prometheus, exploring the direct influence of aliens over mankind.
Starman is a genuinely brilliant sci-fi romance, which takes a potentially silly premise and produces from it an uplifting, offbeat and ultimately tear-jerking drama. Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen excel in the central performances, and while the film is occasionally slow it makes up for this by its substance, emotional depth and a brilliant score from Jack Nitzsche. It is one of the best films of 1984 and one of the high points of Carpenter's chequered career.
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