Starman Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Starman Review

    This bare-bones US release of Starman is region-free.

    “You're not from around here ... are you?”

    In 1982, John Carpenter unleashed one of the greatest SF movies about alien visitation to our planet with The Thing, but he got stung by the cruel timing of having that far nicer little critter, ET: The Extraterrestrial, come along and steal all the limelight. Audiences wanted cute not grungy and Big John was driven back to lick his critical and box office wounds. Seemingly still smarting over this woeful head-to-head, in 1985 he took a chance on Columbia Tristar's altogether comfier alien odyssey, Starman, and made the most atypical movie of his entire cannon. I'm tempted to say that Tobe Hooper's enjoyably sprawling mess, Lifeforce (space vampires bring chaos and a nude Matilda May, to London) one-upped him in a viciously ironic reversal of fortunes but, in truth, Starman was much more highly regarded and was a sizeable mainstream success. Audiences, it appeared, still favoured the hope of cosmic love over wanton carnage.

    With Carpenter working from a screenplay written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon (that had actually been sitting around waiting for the green-light since before Spielberg's phenomenal ET made its stubby-bodied debut) the opportunity seemed to arise for him to stretch his wings into broader themes, quite literally, as the film becomes a lengthy cross-country melding of intergalactic souls when the recently widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) goes on the run with a crash-landed spaceman played with quirky charm by Jeff Bridges. Having responded to the film's tantalising prologue in which we see 1977's illustrious universal calling card, the Voyager Space Probe, scuttling off into the void, our Starman has elected to come visit our small blue world, little realising that our welcome mat was booby-trapped. Shot down by twitchy Air Force fighters, the alien entity, unseen except as an ethereal blue light, takes refuge in Jenny's house before cloning itself the body of her dead husband, Scott, from a lock of his hair found in an album. In the guise of this host body, he then has three days to make it to a rendezvous site located in the ancient crater of a meteor impact out in the Arizona desert. Regarding his environment as hostile, his mission, whatever it may formerly have been, changes and the Starman, along with an understandably mesmerised Jenny, makes off on an epic journey that will take in all those majestic vistas that Carpenter loved so much from his cherished John Ford Westerns. But the trip will be one of both discovery and danger. The US Government, as paranoid as ever (a Carpenter staple), is in hot pursuit. The locals can be a strange and aggressive bunch. And watching Earth TV (or, ahem, terrestrial TV) can get you into all sorts of trouble ... especially once your human body begins to realise just how attractive your companion is.

    All of this can be loosely translated as loveable alien goof-ball learns how it feels to walk in human shoes, gets smitten with an Earth girl and causes more helicopters to take flight than ever saw action in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan put together.

    And, perhaps against all the odds, and certainly defying the expectations of John Carpenter's fan-base, the film works surprisingly well. Part adventure, part romance, Starman is a sci-fi fable that brushes over the big questions and concepts in favour of the time-honoured statute that love conquers all. But it has enough little asides, cosmetic flourishes and affecting moments to make it two hours well spent.

    Starman is John Carpenter's Big Outdoor Movie. Never before, or since, has he kept us on the move and beyond the reach of a set or a claustrophobic location for almost an entire film. Like a science-fiction road-trip movie lashed onto the saddle of a Western, he drives things ever onwards across a landscape as epic and as vast as the concept that he is attempting to narrate. If the notion of star-crossed lovers is not mind-boggling enough, he wants you to feel the ache of the journey, both physically and spiritually. By various cars, by rail and by foot, he defies his former imagery by keeping us adrift on endless highways, scorching rock-strewn desert basins, the action, whenever it occurs, always external. Every step of the way, the bond between the two grows stronger, yet Carpenter, as ever, ensures that a sense of ticking clock urgency keeps chipping away at whatever happiness they find. The black humour and character wit that he often employs is largely held in check this time out, the situation calling for slapstick and “stranger-in-a-strange-land” shtick over more considered observational jibes. But what amazes most of all is the potent symbolism and allegory that the director saturates his film with. If Halloween was his rant against collapsing societal values and Escape From New York was his accusatory warning against uncaring authoritarianism, then Starman is very definitely his born-again epiphany.

    The religious parallels are clear enough - we have a benign visitor from the heavens coming down amongst mankind, having only three days to live among us, spreading nothing but good will and even assuming the power of resurrecting the dead, whilst those around him fear and resent him. A far more potent symbol of hope is left with Jenny and this, again, is heavily derived from Catholicism - literally a miracle in Jenny's case. Carpenter's films are nearly always about a threat from the outside, some external force as witnessed in The Thing, The Fog, Village Of The Damned, Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween, which all feature something or someone arriving into the familiar and the trusted and changing things irrevocably. With Starman, Carpenter quite possibly makes his most profound statement about such intervention and, surprisingly enough for the man who created those nightmare scenarios I just mentioned, it is one that is unmistakably divine.

    Jack Nitzsche's angelic synthesiser celebrates every little poignancy, ensuring that every twang of the heartstrings reverberates to his sparkling, crystalline chords. That Carpenter didn't score the movie was another sign that, when working with big studios, he either didn't have the freedom to do so, or just didn't feel that he did. With Morricone scoring The Thing, but in exactly the same style as Carpenter, himself, would have done, Nitzsche performs a similar duty, evoking the electronic pulses and hypnotic, but steadily thematic ambiences that he must have believed the cult filmmaker would have elected to create. Funnily enough, when Carpenter made his SF comedy, Memoirs Of An Invisible Man a few years later, it fell to Shirley (Batman: The Animated Show) Walker to break this mould of electronic emulation with a score of full-blooded orchestral colour. However, Starman's eclectic wall of glistening emotional sound fast became a favourite both with Carpenter-fans and with newcomers alike, the original album finding its way into the collections of many people who wouldn't normally have entertained the notion of listening to a film soundtrack away from the film, itself.

    Some people claim that Bridges' performance is Oscar-worthy but, even though he actually received a nomination for the role, I can only partially agree. Bridges is a terrific, and often barn-storming, scene-stealing actor. His early appearance in the great Clint Eastwood crime caper, Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, certainly marked him out as someone who could breeze leisurely through a film and then break your heart at the end - which is roughly what he does here. And, of course, he has made a vast number of characters come indelibly to life since then - the reluctant, but loyal confidante, Boon, in Cutter's Way, opposite John Heard doing an awesome Snake Plissken impersonation, Obadiah Stane, Tony Stark's shaven-headed nemesis in Iron Man and, of course, the Dude from the Coen Brother's seminal The Big Lebowski - but his portrayal of an alien who gets more than he bargained for when he accepts the invitation from the Voyager space probe to come visit Earth is, in the main, more a bundle of comedy gurns, ridiculous physical twitches and robotic emotional game-play than it is profound culture and species clash. Yet, what Bridges manages to accomplish after an hour and a half of stumbling, bystander-baiting antics at gas stations and in diners and motels, is something pretty darn remarkable. Somewhere along the way - and I'm never quite sure just where the pivotal turning point is - he connects with us on a level that is way beyond the nice, but comic physical stuff. With Carpenter actually going almost totally against the grain and revelling in some honest-to-goodness sentimentality and heart-filled yearning, Bridges suddenly brings a lump to your throat and you forget, just totally forget, the pratfalls, the imbecilic mimicry and the innate silliness that has gone before and simply fall for his wiser-than-us, fish-out-of-water. And you have to admit that such a turnaround, as covert as Bridges and Carpenter make it seem, is very impressive.

    But it is Karen Allen who is the truly spellbinding star in all this. If you think of Starman as being the SF cousin to Rainman, Bridges does all the overt tricks to establish his character, as does Dustin Hoffman as the autistic Raymond Babbitt, but, like the vastly underrated Tom Cruise, as the younger brother, Charlie Babbitt, it is Allen who carries the weight of revelation and, indeed, transformation. Both go on a voyage of self discovery made all the more relevant and impactful by their bond with one another, but I believe that it is Allen's plight that resonates more emphatically. Never more adorable than as this young widow - no, not even the Lost Ark's Marion Ravenwood is as cute or as sexy as Jenny Hayden - Carpenter even allows us a good ten minutes of her prancing around her lakeside place in just her panties and a shirt. Thanks, John. Whilst her relationship with the Starman goes through all the obvious permutations - shock, fear, distrust, awe, respect and, inevitably, love - she manages to slip free of the annoyances of all those gag-inducing assembly-line clichés simply by virtue of her totally believable grief. Empty and haunted by the loss of her check-shirt-loving husband, there is an undeniable starry-eyed wonder that she brings to the character. You can see the stunned combination of regret and hope on her face every time she looks at the alien, and you can sense the emotional torture that she must be going through seeing the love of her life apparently risen from the grave yet, to her understanding, soulless. I don't know, perhaps it is because Karen Allen, as she looks here, is an absolute deadringer for my wife, as she looks now, that I find it so easy to fall for her. But, even so, Allen, who really hasn't made a name for herself in anything other than this and her two Indy outings, is the most memorable character in the piece, simply because she is us. It is easy to say that we associate with the alien because he is lost and lonely and confused, as we have all felt at some time or another, but Jenny is human, and her dilemma that much more transparent and pertinent. She is broken and fallible and grief-stricken ... and then there here comes this last-ditch dream of happiness that is handed to her, literally from out of the blue. Mills and Boon (remember them, anyone?) eat your hearts out because this is romantic fiction that is both intimate and cosmic in scale. Carpenter cheekily makes a love story for people that hate love stories ... and, darn it all once again, he gets away with it, too. But I've still got to say that the sex scene is simply hysterical - and not in a good way.

    I made reference to this a little earlier, but I don't think that I've seen a film with more helicopters in it than this. We already know that Big John loves them from Snake Plissken's couplet of Escapes and The Thing, but the sheer amount of rotor-based hardware whup-whupping across the skies in this simply beggars belief. Plus, for those army types out there, we have squads of Special Forces personnel pounding across the desert highways doing vehicle checks and surrounding craters with those ridiculous chef-style berets on their heads. Only we know how to wear them properly. Without a doubt, this is the grandest, most exposed and, somehow, freshest film that he has made. No audacious New York mock-ups. No labyrinthine Antarctica research base. No disused LA cop-shop. And no fogbound lighthouse. Starman is open, huge and cleverly, considering the subject matter, very tangibly real. It must have been an absolute joy to finally get to film in the celebrated Monument Valley, the setting of so many of the favourite films that he grew up with, though this must have been tempered by the fact that he has still been unable to make that full-on Western that he so longs to helm.

    It is also great to see the cast-iron supporting actor of a gazillion B-movies, Richard Jaeckel, who pops up here as the nefarious (read ubiquitous) head of a secretive government agency charged with investigating UFO's and, perhaps more pertinently, shooting the pesky things down in the name of National Security. Usually a solid character who adds the necessary grit and realism to a situation - check out his stalwart turns in William Girdler's Grizzly and Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid - he is, sadly, given very little to work with here. Looking ill-at-ease in a suit and coming over all bureaucratic and morally bankrupt, he is merely the standardised G-Man villain. Most of the supporting chores go to the diminutive - he actually makes Jaeckel look tall - Charles Martin Smith as the SETI investigator assigned with catching the visitor. Obviously sympathetic towards the Starman's plight, Smith's cigar-chewing Mark Shermin spends most of the movie being ferried across the States on a military chopper and raking over the evidence wherever his quarry has just been seen. This, too, is a rather thankless role, though Smith does make his boffin-with-a-heart quite endearing even if his career trajectory and virtual lone-star mission are hardly that credible. A delicate and somewhat reproachful conversation between him and the alien is underplayed with some degree of bewitching style, the bigger picture nicely hinted but never overly elaborated upon due the frustratingly urgent predicament that they find themselves in .. and it is always good to see the underling stand up to an egotistical and cruel-minded boss. Plus, Carpenter-fans always know that they are in reliable hands when seasoned Big John-regular, Buck Flower (owner of one of the greatest hick-voices in Hollywood), also crops up as a cook who gives the Starman a lift. “Ahhh make maps ...”

    Effects-wise, Starman is a mixed bag. We get a wonderfully neat baby-into-full-grown-man metamorphosis as the alien takes the dead husband's DNA and rebirths within his body - Carpenter, after The Thing, once again trying to keep things in-camera. The visuals for the Voyager Probe and the descending alien ship are very good too, but I have to say that I think he ripped off the look and the idea of this stylish final act arrival from the little-seen 1983 SF drama, Wavelength, directed by Mike Gray and starring Robert Carradine - both feature huge, orb-like craft that lower majestically into militarily surrounded deserts and, like massive mirrors, reflect back the landscape that is beneath them. However, Carpenter's craft has a glorious moment when it resembles a spectral eye gliding downwards, and the resulting bathing of our two leads in otherworldly light, as clichéd as it may be, has a really calming and beautific appeal. The effects for the mystical, life-giving marbles that the Starman carries are simple, but effective. But the early shot of him using one to attune himself to the new world looks like exactly what it is - merely Jeff Bridges being held upside down so that he looks kind of freaky and the footage then being matted on to the background. A shot of our two leads walking unscathed through an inferno is wonderfully evocative - almost Biblical, in fact - but it can't help but look a little bit dated now.

    Carpenter should be applauded, though, for keeping things subtle and in-character. In this way, the film feels more surreal than flashy, more emotional than FX-ridden.

    DOP Donald M. Morgan had worked with Carpenter on both Elvis: The Movie (1979) and Christine (1983) and the desire to emulate the great Dean Cundey's supreme panaglide zooms and tracking shots is occasionally evident here. He did some great sublime movements on Christine - in fact, his automobile footage is terrific - but his work here is a little more obvious and somewhat out of place. The scene when the friends of a disgruntled deer hunter that Starman has just innocently floored come hurtling up towards him plays exactly like somebody trying to do a “Cundey”. But, elsewhere, he uses his skills to capture the breadth of the landscape and to perfect some exquisite, doe-eyed close-ups - again reinforcing Carpenter's theme of the intimate amidst the immense. The film does have a unique visual style that is wholly Carpenter's, however. Despite the extended look of the wide horizons, the ebb and flow of the visuals have Mr. Halloween's lush and expressive eye stamped all the way across them.

    Tender, lingering and sweetly haunting, Starman is easy to mock, but extremely hard not to fall for. It spawned an ill-fated and short-lived TV series spin-off, with Airplane's Robert Hayes passing on the interstellar wisdom, but the film remains curiously fresh and appealing almost a quarter of a decade on. Can two people meet and go through a wild adventure in just three days of emotional chaos, and genuinely find a love that lasts a lifetime? Of course they can. Even Sarah Connor found love in such a short time with dimension-displaced warrior, Kyle Reese, didn't she?

    The film then is a starry, blue-eyed wonder ... made all the more remarkable because it was directed by the old space-hippy, himself, John Carpenter.

    The Rundown

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