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STARMAN (1984)
#1
At Bart's behest, I watched John Carpenter's STARMAN for the first time. For context, I was 16 when the film was released but the movie as advertised just didn't have much appeal to me then, despite being a budding Carpenter fan (I'd seen Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York and loved them all. Christine not so much.)

The movie was....aiiiight? First, we'll talk about the good. Karen Allen was, to used nooj's word, luminous here, and something of a revelation for me. My primary exposure to her is from Raiders and Animal House; the softer, more deeply feeling woman onscreen in Starman was unexpected and moving. Her opening scene was masterfully done if on-the-nose; we get all the information we need about her from the wordless sequence as she watches home movies and is paralyzed by grief. And throughout the film, she's real, relatable, and believable (for the most part; keep reading). ANd when I say softer, I don't mean weak or weak-willed. Jenny's not as harsh or brash as Marion Ravenwood - but she's not a weak woman at all. The final shot of the movie, centered on Jenny's face as the Starman's craft leaves, is breathtaking.

Charles Martin Smith was also strong in an odd role. The movie veered between having him essentially acting alone and being part of the big government kraken but he consistently communicated intelligence, thoughtfulness, and humanity. The role was pretty thin as written and Smith's far from your usual leading or supporting leading man, but he had presence and confidence in the role.

The film moves with an economy that's both admirable and frustrating. It doesn't do a lot of handholding and expects us to make assumptions about what happens offscreen/between scenes. On one hand, I like that, and to some degree felt old fashioned in a good way. OTOH, it also felt weirdly rushed and haphazard. We never see the Feds track the entity to Jenny's house; we don't know how they did (other than it being part of the search area since it was nearby), we don't see them doing any kind of investigative work but they manage to, in very short order, hypothesize that an alien being has cloned/assumed the form of the late Mr Hayden.  If the film were more focused on Jenny and the Starman, then this handwaving would be fine, but the movie keeps going back to Smith's POV. So it ends up feeling weirdly rushed and piecemeal, as well as the movie showing us Smith in the midst of a large government operation to find the Starman but also working almost solo.

Jeff Bridges was....fine? After watching the movie - yes, AFTER - I did some reading and was shocked to read he'd earned an Oscar nomination for the role. He was Acting with a capital A for sure but it never felt transcendent or revelatory or all that special. A lot of the time he came across less alien and more mentally challenged. There was some fun with it, the fish out of water bits, but it also (for me at least) kept the character at quite a distance. 

Which brings me to one of my main critiques of the film: I never bought the "love" story. In fact, I often felt like we were watching three different films, none of them quite syncing up with the others. First, outside of one act - an extraordinary act for sure, and easily the most amazing and moving sequence in the film - of bringing a dead deer to life, I never felt any real chemistry or emotion. The Starman was so childlike and emotionally unavailable throughout the entire film that I just couldn't get on the movie's side about Jenny not just falling for him but having sex with him. It felt like someone at the studio watched E.T. and said "You know what would be really awesome? If E.T. looked human and attractive and banged an actual person." Yes, he looks like Jenny's husband but he's not and we even get her explicitly realizing and saying it. He remains birdlike and overly enunciating and limited vocabulary the entire film, never really approaching humanity (except by suddenly being good at sex). 

Adding to the issue of not buying it on an emotional level, I think the film is - ahem - problematic on that front in a number of ways. This entity:
  • Breaks into Jenny's house
  • Violates her privacy
  • Assumes, without permission or consideration, the form of her dead husband
  • Physically restrains her while he's naked
  • Forces her at gunpoint to flee the authorities
  • Puts her life in danger multiple times
  • Impregnates her without permission
  • Leaves her to raise an alien hybrid baby on her own


After viewing the movie, I read that Carpenter had been inspired by movies in which couples traveling fell in love via obstacles and time together. I get that that's what he was going for, but (for me, at least) the Starman remains removed enough and strange enough that I never believed Jenny was getting enough from him to fall in love with him.

However, even if I let go of the romance issue (as that's a really subjective reaction and harder to quantify), I will say the film's structure, pace, and editing make it remarkably free of tension and drama. For a film that depends entirely on the idea of Jenny and the Starman having a timetable and being chased by the full authority of the federal government, I never once feared for either of them or felt any kind of tension or anxiety about them reaching the intended destination on time. Almost every source of tension provided is resolved immediately and with no sense of real harm. Even Jenny getting shot was curiously devoid of impact (sorry not sorry). I had no sense of urgency or danger. Despite being helmed by a filmmaker who normally excels at ratcheting up tension and fear, the film has none despite desperately needing some.

After viewing it, I tried figuring out what the film was saying or trying to say. Is it a meditation on grief? On hope? On the value of forced long distance road trips to build intimacy? Maybe I'm too dumb to figure it out (a very real and distinct possibility) but I couldn't land on a clear, logical theme or arc. Jenny gets over her grief---sort of? I mean, we meet her and she's still mourning her actual husband....so here's a replica, except that one's going to be taken away, too - but here, have a spacebaby and feel better?

Finally, two time-period observations/critiques:

The music was terrible. Almost as ill-fitting as the score for Ladyhawke. This movie was going for IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, not proto-X-Files, and it would've greatly benefited from a more traditional orchestral score. 

The amount/use of special effects was superb. The story and movie certainly didn't need more. But there were a lot of scenes I couldn't help think "CGI would've been SO MUCH BETTER," which is not something I normally think. An example: when Starman exits the burning tanker, carrying Jenny. Think how much better that would've looked with clean, high res compositing of the elements rather than analog. I don't mean creating a digital model of Bridges and Allen; I mean shooting them on green screen and compositing them into the shot of the actual burning wreckage, similar to what Fury Road did with separately filmed but real elements for the chase scenes.

I didn't hate the film; Allen and Smith were too good for me to do that, and the film itself is too genial to really engender anything as strong as hate. It was a mostly pleasant way to spend two hours. I can't see revisiting it, though.
"Nooj's true feelings on any given subject are unknown and unknowable. He is the butterfly flapping its wings in Peking. He is chaos and destruction and you shall never see his true form." - Merriweather

My Steam ID: yizashigreyspear
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#2
*takes a deep breath*

I appreciate you giving it so much consideration.
"I'd rather have hope...than nothing at all."
-Illyana Rasputin, X-Men: Omega #1

"But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive."
-Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Twitter: @BartLBishop
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#3
I genuinely feel bad I didn't love it. I wanted to!

And I'm sorry I'm not giving it the thematic treatment you'd like. Not my forte. :/
"Nooj's true feelings on any given subject are unknown and unknowable. He is the butterfly flapping its wings in Peking. He is chaos and destruction and you shall never see his true form." - Merriweather

My Steam ID: yizashigreyspear
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#4
go very very fast
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#5
Still love it myself. It's dated, but in the best possible way. Had fun watching it on old-timey LaserDisc, recently. And the DVD commentary track with Jeff Bridges and John Carpenter is naturally a great one.
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#6
I'd love to hear that commentary. The ones with Carpenter and Russell are a hoot.
"Nooj's true feelings on any given subject are unknown and unknowable. He is the butterfly flapping its wings in Peking. He is chaos and destruction and you shall never see his true form." - Merriweather

My Steam ID: yizashigreyspear
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#7
BOOM...



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#8
Listening to it now, I'd forgotten it was recorded back in 2000 or so. At 55.40, Jeff talks actors "using JURASSIC PARK type technology" and having themselves digitally inserted into movies. Nice little moment, considering not too long later he'd do that very thing with TRON LEGACY. Fun track.
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