Sony's MPEG-4 encode of Carpenter's Starman looks stellar for a film of the early 80's. In fact, this is a considerable improvement over any version of the movie that I've seen before. Looking incredibly film-like and gloriously wide with all those amazing compositions courtesy of Donald Morgan, the 2.40:1 image is warm and detailed throughout. I've seen some reports that claim this transfer is only “average” and “good, considering”, but Starman's picture is actually much better than they would have you believe.
Grain is intact, although it may seem to slightly fluctuate from time to time - only slightly, mind. The print is exceptionally clean and smooth with only the most minimal of peripheral distortion due to the anamorphic lenses of the time, and certainly no damage to speak of. DNR, if it has been applied, is minimal. Bridges' slightly bland face is part and parcel of the softer filming of the era, not any digital scrubbing.
Depth and three-dimensionality aren't the greatest that I've seen on early Carpenter movies transferred to BD - The Thing and Halloween really taking the accolades here, folks - which is something of a surprise, considering the visual splendour of lakes, open highways, distant horizons and vast landscapes that is showcased by Carpenter's travelogue. But there is still little to complain about with an image that is reliable and bold and actively encourages you to let your eyes roam about the wide frame.
The film is quite vibrant, too. Well, certainly more so than the SD version. I will say that the reds are a little too pronounced, particularly that pesky check-shirt of Starman's, which really throbs out at times. Neon-signs and clothing can seem too strong. But the delightful red, purple, pink alien haze at the end has more stability and veneer to it than I have ever seen before on home video. Greens are verdant and blues have a range of hues that allow for some gorgeous ethereal shimmering, as well some decent midnight shades and some more realistic variations. Secondary colours generally look fine, too. The desert sheen, for instance, is strong and natural. The blazing fire of the exploding fuel truck is warm and thick, but lacks much in the way of gradation - merely a thick smudge of orange. But I didn't notice any evidence of smearing, bleed or banding. Skin tones are basically quite authentic, although the further away from the camera people get, the less texture they have and the softer they become. Detail, however, is very satisfying, on the whole. Karen Allen's freckles and eyes are much more apparent than previously seen. The amassed military hardware is more robust and cleanly delineated against skies and landscapes. Rocks, trees and oddments in diners, motels and offices have stronger substance and more clarity than previously. But this is still a movie from the early 80's and it does look soft compared to many other titles out there.
Overall, Starman makes a great debut on hi-def. A good 8 out of 10 here, folks.
Starman arrives on Earth with the lossless serenade of a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track to accompany him.
A John Carpenter movie thrives as much on its soundtrack as it does its visuals. From the metronomic pulse of Escape From New York and The Thing, to the deeply layered banks of surreal texture of Prince Of Darkness and Big Trouble In Little China, the director wants to engage you on a sonic level that only intensifies the drama on-screen. Starman is no exception. Whereas, Carpenter doesn't quite revel in the natural side of the things - locational ambience isn't high on his agenda - he loves to paint an aural landscape that is just as textured and emotionally affecting, if not more so considering his penchant for throbbing electronics. Thus, one of the key things that comes out of this audio transfer is the gleaming quality of Nitzsche's score that spreads across the front with power and depth.
Activity has certainly been enhanced. The copious helicopters swoop about the environment with more aggression and vigour than you will have heard before. Panning isn't quite as precise or as authentic as you might like, but the added dynamism is a welcome bonus. Car engines and gunshots during the police chase, as well as the rumbling of a freight train are a little more focussed and directional, as is the rainstorm that occurs later on. Sub activity, though greater than before, is still not all that vigorous, although there is some degree of bass reinforcement to the action. Dialogue doesn't suffer any drops or distortion that I came across, with its prioritisation well placed within the mix.
One thing that I noticed several times throughout the movie was the unnaturalness of the rear extension. One occasion an effect, or more acutely an element flung out from Nitsche's synthesiser, reverberates from a rear speaker with a distinctly unconvincing sense of wraparound dynamics. Shrill blasts on the synth and various pulsing “stingers” hum from the background - all intentionally, I'm sure, but, to me, they had a tendency to sound fake. The film utilises the rears well enough at other times, wisely not overplaying things that simply weren't there in the first place, but drops the ball with this handful of strangely amplified effects.
The film's previous SD release was bestowed a DD 5.1 mix that this simply tramples all over. Louder, clearer, more immersive and detailed than ever before, this certainly adds to the movie-watching experience.
The complete lack of tangible extras for Starman is a severe backward step for Sony who have, until now, been very accommodating with their vintage releases. For now, if you have a copy of it, that is, you will have to make do with the R2 edition of Carpenter's SF love story - this has a commentary with the director and star Jeff Bridges, a brief making-of featurette and, sadly, the incredibly embarrassing music video of both Bridges and Allen singing “All I Have To Do Is Dream”!
At least, we won't mourn that omission.
A remarkable SF-fable that sits cutely outside of Carpenter's main body of work for several key reasons, but remains very enjoyable, if a tad silly and overly sentimental. Big John does a tear-jerker! Who'd have thought it?
Jeff Bridges goes from quirky buffoon to heroic, Messianic messenger in one fell swoop and the film promises an entire final act that is guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye. Karen Allen has never been better and it is she who anchors the drama, keeping a lid on the daftness that Bridges' performance often threatens to spill out into. Visually, the film is quite subtle, with Carpenter eschewing whizz-bangs in favour of simply letting the awesome landscapes work their own magic. His religious overtones may smack slightly of the obvious, but they tend to do away with the all-too-easy “preachy” aspects that many other SF movies like to put across. In this way, he actually manages to have his cake and eat it, too, without overstepping things. But, as I've already said, his winning move is in combining the epic with the intimate. A great number of other filmmakers fail so badly in this type of thing, yet Carpenter, ever the low-budget champion, achieves in character and emotion what a dozen large-scale, lavish productions hopelessly squander - genuine heart.
On Blu-ray, Starman looks just fine. With no detrimental DNR, a wonderfully clean and detailed print, the film is surprisingly lively and warm. Dolby TrueHD brings a little more dynamism to the music score and attempts to provide a richer, more active environment all round. But the lack of extras, especially when they are already out on disc, is a terrible blunder. To omit a John Carpenter commentary track is a crime, as far as I am concerned. But this is still a release that fans should not hesitate in picking up.
Starman may remain a blip on the outskirts of the director's main trajectory, but it is still an immensely enjoyable and moving treat that offers proof that he can - or, at least, could - embrace more spiritual and emotional themes.
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