Starman (1984)

27 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

John Carpenter’s “Starman” is an effective mix of science fiction and romance. It uses a science fiction gimmick to set up the two central characters (a man and a woman) and carefully develop a trusting relationship that turns into love. The twist in this romance, however, is that the man is an alien from outer space. The movie opens as the satellite Voyager 2, first launched in 1977, is floating through space. It contains a message of peace and inviting anyone or anything out there to come to the planet Earth. It turns out that something out there has found it and accepts the invitation. What exactly it is, I’m not quite sure. Yes, it’s an alien and we see it as a ball of light (or is a star?), but that’s all we know about it. Actually, that may be all we’d need to know.

Anyway, instead of a welcome greeting to Earth, the U.S. Government shoots down the spaceship, and the alien crashes somewhere in Wisconsin. There, it finds the home of a widow named Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) and through a strand of her dead husband’s hair acquires the DNA of the husband and transforms into him. Jenny sees the alien in the form of her dead husband, knows that it isn’t really him, and is very frightened. However, Starman (who is never really called that in this movie) needs her to give him a ride to his ship, being kept and studied halfway across the country. If he doesn’t get there and leave the planet within the next couple of days, he will die. Jenny is afraid of Starman and thinks she’s being held against her will to drive him there. She tries a few times to get help, but then realizes that Starman means no harm. Starman doesn’t intend to frighten her, but doesn’t understand that taking the shape of her dead husband won’t calm her down—“I look like Scott so you not be…little bit jumpy,” he tries to explain after learning a few words in English.

Starman has a lot to learn, but is very smart and understands quickly. While on the trip, he takes in everything he notices. He learns to speak and eventually speaks English somewhat well enough, though not entirely. The way he moves is awkward, as he constantly is learning to control this new human body—whenever he looks around, he twitches quickly in every direction, like a bird. Along the way, Jenny learns to trust Starman and does her best to help him get back to his home planet. She explains more things about human life to him, like mortality and love. “What is love,” Starman asks. It’s at this point when “Starman” starts to become less of a science-fiction movie and more of a drama. Starman begins to feel genuine feelings toward Jenny and can’t explain it, and Jenny is able to explain what love is because the feeling does become mutual.

Jeff Bridges portrays Starman and it’s a great performance. He’s entirely convincing as an alien curious about everything he sees and uses body language and facial expressions to show what he’s thinking, as well as a partially-mumbled speech impediment. Bridges is winning in this role, and Karen Allen makes for an effective foil.

But because Bridges and Allen are so winning on screen, it makes the countless scenes of the Government hunting down the alien seem a lot less interesting. They want to experiment on it, to kill it if necessary, and the only one of the group (played by Charles Martin Smith) to realize that they’re going against the very message they sent out through Voyager. He’s the only one out of these villainous characters to appear as human, so to speak. But they don’t ruin the movie entirely.

“Starman” could have been executed as a silly sci-fi flick, but John Carpenter is smarter than that and creates an interesting feel for the characters and convincing dramatic moments for them. There are also some good laughs, such as when Starman uses his abilities to win the slot machines in Las Vegas so that he and Jenny will have money. “Starman” is more than it could’ve been.

NOTE: Don’t be put off by the title “Starman”—he’s never referred to by name.

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