An alien intelligence travels to Earth to study humanity, only for its spacecraft to be shot down by the United States Air Force. Assuming a human form based on a dead man (Jeff Bridges), the alien travels across America to reach a rescue site before the US government can capture it. It drags along Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) – the widow of the man whose appearance it has taken – first as a hostage, but ultimately as a friend.
Starman is a 1984 science fiction drama directed by John Carpenter. The film was in development for five years, and was almost cancelled entirely when Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1984) seemed to broadly tell the same story. When it was finally released in 1984 Starman faced an awful lot of comparisons to Spielberg’s film, and in all honesty even today the similarities between the two films are fairly obvious. The main difference is target audience. E.T. is ultimately a children’s film that still maintains appeal for an adult audience, whereas Starman works in the opposite direction. It is largely watchable for a younger audience – I enjoyed it the first time around at the age of about nine – but is ultimately a more adult-oriented work.
The film’s screenplay is credited to Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, but also contains extensive uncredited work by Dean Riesner. After its initial set-up it cleverly shifts the film quite firmly away from science fiction and towards being a more conventional road movie. Intentionally or otherwise, “Starman” takes Jenny hostage, forcing her to drive it halfway across the USA to reach the Barringer Crater in Arizona within three days. Her terror gradually slips, forms a sort of grudging camaraderie, and ultimately transitions into romance. Is it believable that someone can fall in love with their alien hostage-taker within three days? Probably not, but John Carpenter’s restrained direction and Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges’ performances go a hell of way to fooling you that it is.
Bridges in particular gives a remarkable performance, never losing sight of how his character is essentially a glowing orb inside a human suit. He moves awkwardly, looking at everything around him with a combination of bird-like jerks and tics. His speech patterns are awkward, as if he cannot work out the right emphasis to put on any given word or syllable. It is an approach that could be rather silly, and certainly it is often deliberately humorous, but Bridges keeps it restrained just enough to really sell the idea of an alien intelligence in disguise. Karen Allen delivers an extremely sympathetic performance as Jenny, not only kidnapped from her home but forced to drive alongside a creature who looks exactly like the husband who died a year earlier. It is down to Allen to sell the romantic elements of the film to the audience, and she does an excellent job without sacrificing her character’s smarts or dignity.
Charles Martin Smith stands out among the supporting cast, playing a SETI (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) specialist working for the US military. He occupies very much the same story territory as Peter Coyote’s Keys in E.T. Structurally speaking he is an antagonist, but his character is enormously sympathetic with his heart completely in the right place. Smith’s story arc runs largely in parallel with Allen and Bridges’, and Carpenter wisely devotes a lot more time to the romance than to the generally formulaic hunt by the military to track Starman down.
The film marks a sharp contrast to most of John Carpenter’s other directorial works. He did not co-write Starman‘s screenplay, nor compose its score – two things he more often than not does contribute to his own films. While it is a genre work Starman lacks the violence, tension or driving energy of his more famous works. It allows him to slow his techniques down, spend more time on character and dialogue, and present something authentically heart-warming and kind. He seems to revel in the change of pace and tone, and directs the film very, very well. To a large extent it is a shame he never managed to explore this kind of genre territory further; wedged as it is between Christine (1983) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986) Starman does tend to stand apart from the rest of his film works. Carpenter does a particularly strong job with the film’s climax, which is beautifully lit, ends at the perfect point, and features what I consider one of the best final shots in the history of cinema.
Despite under-performing on its initial release Starman managed to develop an audience from the 1980s home video explosion. These days it does seem partially forgotten, which is a shame. This is a wonderful small-scale blend of road movie and science fiction film with strong performances and a director showing off a versatility the industry has never really afforded him.