GREAT FILMS: Starman (1984)

Starman (USA, 1984)
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel

The vast majority of film directors are specialists. They are extremely adept at telling one kind of story, or are good at handling one aspect of production in particular. When they attempt to work outside of this specialty, they tend to come a cropper. Steven Spielberg, for instance, is brilliant at making light-hearted, family friendly popcorn blockbusters with a sentimental edge. When he attempts something more serious, the result is often technically sound but found wanting emotionally.
Of course, being so singular in your sensibility is nothing to be ashamed of, and the vast majority of directors have good or even great careers within a specific genre. But it takes an especially talented director to be able to step outside their comfort zone successfully - and for a while at least, John Carpenter was one such director. Having made his name in sci-fi, thrillers and horror movies, Carpenter turned to romance with Starman, which remains a terrific piece of work and perhaps his last truly great film.
Fans of 1970s and 1980s sci-fi will very quickly pick up on the lineage of Starman. It would be very easy to dismiss the film as E.T.-lite, since the two screenplays were written around the same time and the films have clear narrative similarities. Both stories involve an alien being stranded on Earth, who has to get home with the help of the people who find him, and these people in turn have to hide him from the authorities. But while it is more sentimental than many of Carpenter's works, it is more offbeat and quirky than Spielberg's films, and the drama is much more adult. E. T. is a film about divorce and a child trying to recapture the affection of his father; Starman is about dealing with grief and (as cheesy as it sounds) the power of love.
Alongside the links with E.T., Starman owes a certain debt to a number of other films. The benevolent and inquiring nature of the aliens obviously hints towards Close Encounters, with the series of disturbing events across America being resolved by a moving demonstration of the aliens' real nature and power. The romance is equal parts It Happened One Night and Bonnie and Clyde, consisting of two very different people (sort of) finding each other on the run from the law. There is even a vague connection with The Man Who Fell to Earth, with Jeff Bridges sharing David Bowie's twin obsessions of getting home and obtaining vast amounts of information about us.
In spite of this, Starman begins to carve out its own identity very early on, remaining first and foremost a Carpenter film in amongst all the familiarity. It starts on a suspenseful note, with the shot of the alien spacecraft being almost a mirror image of the opening shot of The Thing. These scenes reflect Carpenter's horror heritage, with the dramatic explosion and eerie blue light putting us on edge - complimented, in horror fashion, by Karen Allen being in her underwear when Jeff Bridges arrives.
Having briefly spooked us, the film then shifts into an offbeat comedic road movie with Karen Allen having to teach the Starman about Earth's customs. The Starman is intelligent but also curious in a childlike manner, and so a great deal of concepts we take for granted are shown to be incredibly hard to explain and are then played for innocent laughs. In its final act the film shifts again into a romance which gradually swells to a passionate and genuinely tearful climax.
The central idea of Starman is a neat twist on alien invasion stories in science fiction. While H. G. Wells and his descendants depicted aliens as aggressive invaders, this film rests on the premise that we invited them here: the Starman finds the gold disc on Voyager 2 and accepts our greeting. The film goes against the grain by making us really think about our reactions to aliens landing. How would we react to an alien who is powerful but by all accounts benevolent? Should we welcome him with open arms, or oppose him on the basis of what we don't know? The film plays this concept through to the fullest, always asking questions and challenging our gut reactions.
While E.T. focusses on the humans trying to understand the alien, Starman successfully conveys the mind-set of an alien who is trying to learn from us. Carpenter said in interviews that Bridges had the most difficult part: he had to play a being that was highly intelligent and curious, but also ill at ease within his human body to the point where he seemed stupid. Bridges remarked that his performance required him to do the opposite of everything he was taught about being natural - and unlike David Bowie, he doesn't look all that alien to begin with.
But whether by Carpenter's direction or Bridges' performance, we do end up really bonding with the Starman. We might start viewing him like some kind of special needs child, but eventually we realise his capacity for love and understanding. We like him even though we know we cannot fully understand him, and this a sign of good writing. Bridges is ably supported by Karen Allen, whose performance here is up there with her work in Raiders of the Lost Ark. She's completely natural and believable in every scene, which makes it all the more perplexing that her career never reached the heights of many of her contemporaries.
Starman's strength with characterisation also extends to its supporting cast. One thing that characterises Carpenter's best work is the intelligence of the smaller cast members: there is no cannon fodder in The Thing, or They Life, or this film. Even when the film draws on familiar tropes, it takes care not to pander directly to cliché. The military have their agenda, but Fox is not entirely a gung-ho, Major Kong-type character, nor is Charles Martin Smith so geeky that he's unlikeable. They all feel like real people making rational decision on their own merits, not the merits of the plot.
At its heart, Starman is about a woman coming to terms with the loss of her husband. It is appropriate that we start in horror territory, since so many horror stories are about dealing with grief and the boundaries between this world and the next. Jenny's encounter with the Starman allows her to address all the unresolved feelings she carries around, including her guilt or regret about not being able to have children. The ending is superb, with the Starman effectively giving her what she wanted: to see him again, if only to say goodbye.
Jenny's infertility is an example of her isolation from other aspects of humanity. The conversation in the back of the truck expresses her feelings of inadequacy and despair, as though she has fallen short of her purpose but through no fault of her own. She is the only significant and assertive female, surrounded by aggressive, hard-hearted men who take what they want, hurt those who oppose them and give her little sympathy. From this perspective the ending has another meaning: the Starman shows how she has enriched his life as well as vice versa. It is both a brilliant vindication of the central character and a great example of how to do a tragic romance properly.
From a certain angle, Starman could also be interpreted as a Christian allegory. When Jenny and the Starman consummate their love, he remarks that their baby will be a "teacher", who is both human and alien (read 'God'). In this reading the Starman is God, the baby is Jesus and Jenny is the Virgin Mary; her infertility both paraphrases the virgin birth and refers to Mary's cousin Elizabeth, who gave birth to John the Baptist. The film allows us to interpret the story as we so wish and to add whatever significance we want to the central relationship. We could equally regard it in the mould of 2001 or Prometheus, exploring the direct influence of aliens over mankind.
Starman is a genuinely brilliant sci-fi romance, which takes a potentially silly premise and produces from it an uplifting, offbeat and ultimately tear-jerking drama. Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen excel in the central performances, and while the film is occasionally slow it makes up for this by its substance, emotional depth and a brilliant score from Jack Nitzsche. It is one of the best films of 1984 and one of the high points of Carpenter's chequered career.