***½/**** Image A- Sound A-
starring Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel
screenplay by Bruce A. Evans & Raynold Gideon
directed by John Carpenter
by Bryant Frazer Strange as it may sound, back in the early-1980s this gentle yet seriously weird fantasy about a woman who drives a socially-challenged clone of her dead husband across the U.S. (so he can rendezvous with his spaceship) was actually considered a safe commercial bet for the embattled director John Carpenter. Carpenter was always an avowed fan of traditional Hollywood entertainments, and he claimed to be attracted to making Starman as a contemporary version of It Happened One Night, Frank Capra's prototypical screwball comedy about an antagonistic couple who learn to love one another on the road. It seemed like an unlikely gearshift for Carpenter, who had recently remade The Thing from Another World as a tense, supremely chilling, and truly horrific metaphor for paranoia. But for the man who had his ass handed to him when that masterpiece had the bad luck to open not only in a moviegoing environment that had turned hostile to horror, but also directly opposite the ripely sentimental box-office juggernaut E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Starman represented something else. It wasn't merely an opportunity for Carpenter to helm a fundamentally good-natured, optimistic science-fiction film--it was possibly a chance to rehabilitate his career.
The script, about a crash-landed alien visitor who takes the form of a dead man, first kidnapping his freaked-out widow and then befriending her on a long cross-country journey, had been kicking around under the aegis of producer Michael Douglas since the late-1970s, and it went through a series of directors before Carpenter got a chance to take over the project, toning down some of the overt SF elements and emphasizing the central romance. While it remains an incongruous detour in his career, what's remarkable is how good the movie really is. Setting aside the primitive, goofy-looking visual-effects work and excusing the script's repeated flirtations with cliché and mawkishness, Starman reveals Carpenter as the sensitive, assured director of actors he so rarely gets credit for being. Long scenes in Starman feature nothing more than conversation between Jeff Bridges, at the time still just an up-and-coming leading man, and Karen Allen, a hot property in the wake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Carpenter shoots their interactions without fuss (though they're jazzed up somewhat by Carpenter's trademark use of the Panavision frame), employing standard Hollywood templates (two-shot, shot/reverse shot) to give the actors space to simply be their characters.
Complicating matters is the fact that Bridges is playing a shape-changing alien who barely speaks English and is coming to terms with living inside a human body. It's an especially dangerous assignment because it involves balancing comedy against earnestness in a role that could plunge easily into fulsome soulfulness. There's no real template for this performance, and Bridges attacked the role by devising an awkward, childlike system of physical movement and a monotone, take-me-to-your-leader vocal delivery that verges on self-parody. He refers to Jenny Hayden, his driving companion, as "Jennyhayden," one word, and cheerfully adopts local slang phrases that he doesn't quite comprehend (like "up yours"), all the while working his mouth like someone who's enjoying figuring out how lips work. ("[The crew] felt they were in a bad 'Mork & Mindy'," Carpenter later recalled in an interview for Gilles Boulenger's 2003 book John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness.) It succeeds because Bridges manages to find a minute and deadpan poetry in the character's stiffness. He moves like a man with no muscle memory whatsoever who adopts tics and mannerisms that are instantly recognizable because of their universality. One of my favourite moments in this vein takes place when he's handling Jenny's wallet and she tries to grab it back. He jerks it out of her reach and does one of those sort of half-looks, head-cocked and turned a few degrees in her direction, brow slightly furrowed but otherwise expressionless as he waits for her to give up. It's hard to describe, but Bridges conveys that combination of patience and annoyance displayed by a person holding, say, a hot dog and waiting for a hungry dog or grabby child to settle down. For his trouble, Bridges received a left-field Oscar nomination. (As far as I can tell, it's the only AMPAS nod a Carpenter film has ever received. Good job, Academy.)
Allen has a less showy, more thankless role, and her performance has to be geared around delivering the movie's emotional payload. For the first half of the film, she keeps a more or less game face on as Jenny tries, repeatedly, to engineer her exit from the Starman's drama. Twice, Jenny seems to warm to him moments before attempting a getaway, once by leaving a note in a gas-station restroom and later by fleeing through a kitchen exit from a truck-stop diner. The first plan is foiled because the Starman is keeping too close an eye on her. The second goes awry when she realizes that he needs protection from the world around him and can't bear to leave him alone on the road, where he'll be injured or worse. And that's when she starts to fall in love. Allen makes it work by keeping an intelligence about the character. Initially, you can't tell what she's thinking by the way she's behaving--she keeps her cool even when she's in a state of near panic--and if she's clearly emotionally fragile, Carpenter is careful to never make her look foolish or overtly needy. It's only the film's most questionable narrative gambit, which has Starman playing Holy Spirit to Jenny's Virgin Mary, that seems to reduce her status, as though the screenwriters couldn't figure out any other way to give a widow's life meaning than to have her knocked-up with a Starchild that may end up saving the planet.
In the end, you could think of Starman as E.T. with sex: just as young Elliott's experience with E.T. is written as a function of the missing father in his life, so too does Jenny's time with Starman replace the missing husband in hers. If Starman were remade today, it would no doubt be target-marketed to death by a studio eager to reach the female demographic that embraces the kind of brain-dead romantic comedies counterprogrammed against brain-dead action movies. As filmed by Carpenter, it's a bracingly strange movie, from the creepy growing-up-Starbaby sequence (executed by a horror-movie-VFX dream team of Rick Baker, Dick Smith, and Stan Winston!) and a generous complement of American locations (ranging from the wooded countryside of Tennessee to the Arizona desert), to the soaring, eerie synclavier soundtrack composed by Jack Nitzsche (reminiscent of the Vangelis score for the then-recent "Cosmos" TV series) and cinematographer Donald M. Morgan's bold palette, condensed to its minimal, primary-colour components in the film's almost abstract closing shots. Maybe that generally weird aura held the film back--it wasn't a career-regenerating hit, although it did earn Carpenter a deal to shoot the generously-budgeted Big Trouble in Little China, whose box-office failure permanently ended his days of generous budgets as it set up the one-two B-movie punch that was the scary Prince of Darkness and the sardonic They Live.
By emphasizing this film's strangeness, I don't mean to suggest that it's particularly subversive, or that Carpenter is at all cynical in purveying a message of hope and well-being. In fact, despite the borderline mushiness of its cosmic message, Starman is finally about not trusting your government--as ethereal romances go, this one is well within Carpenter's anti-authoritarian comfort zone. As Jenny and her Starman kiss for the last time amid fog, coloured lights, and desert snow, Nitzsche's repeated ascending three-note figure sending him up, up, and away as Carpenter moves towards Jenny's face one last time, holding on her in close-up and fading slowly to black, the message is conflicted, but clear: People Suck. The universe is majestic. Life is full of moments of love and beauty that are comforting because they are sublime and painful because they are fleeting. And it's a good thing after all to be human.
|Click for hi-res BD captures
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Arriving on Blu-ray Disc, Starman has received a top-notch transfer. Maybe it's a nostalgia thing, but when I start up a movie on Blu-ray and see an old-school Columbia Pictures logo that's dancing with the sort of golf-ball-sized film grain I remember seeing on the big screen at the Cooper Theatre downtown, well, it makes me feel good inside. Starman's 2.40:1, 1080p presentation is dense with colour, rich with shadows, and layered with a grain that feels photochemical, not digital, in origin. At the same time, the image maintains fine detail, impressively representing the resolving power of a good anamorphic film negative. If I had to articulate a complaint, I'd express some concern over the degree of colour saturation in the red part of the spectrum, which lights up Bridges' red flannel shirt and trucker cap like bicycle reflectors in a few shots. (The effect was similar both on my big screen, a Sony Bravia XBR 4 LCD, and on the ancient HD-ready CRT I keep connected to my desktop computer. You can see it for yourself in a frame-grab accompanying this review.) My own armchair colour-timing aside, this is one handsome disc, and the intensity of the saturation makes for very striking expressionist effects in the film's final scenes. I don't recall the 35mm print I saw back in 1984 being quite so aggressively vibrant, but my memory could be faulty, and it's entirely possible that a good show print of Starman (or one of the 70mm blowups) would have looked like this.
The English and French Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtracks are especially robust for a film of this vintage, with the score and FX making unreserved use of the surround channels for an enveloping soundmix with occasional highly directional pans. You won't mistake the audio here for a more contemporary multichannel mix featuring a plethora of elements and plenty of low-frequency information (a single explosion, for instance, can sound a little thin as it rips through the front and rear channels), but surround-sound mavens shouldn't be disappointed. This lossless track may be based in part on the original six-track mix created for the 70mm engagements.
Where this release falls flat is in the extra features. What I mean is, there aren't any, not even the audio commentary with Carpenter and Bridges that attended a now-out-of-print Region 2 DVD. You'd think Sony might have wanted to dig that up to help justify the $28.95 list price of this BD, but no. Also missing is Sony's formerly ubiquitous Blu-ray Disc is High Definition! promo (good riddance); included are previews for The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, Hachiko: A Dog's Tale, "Damages" Season 1, The Sky Crawlers, Blood: The Last Vampire, Ghostbusters, The Da Vinci Code: Extended Cut, and Casino Royale. Originally published: August 10, 2009.