BFI John Carpenter Season – Starman (1984)
The celestial saviors seem to be descending into our atmosphere thick and fast at the moment, and judging by the increasing venality and corrosive incompetence of our political ‘leaders’ their arrival is not a moment too soon. Two years after his exhausting failure of The Thing oozed from the screen Carpenter needed a hit, and with the popularity of certain non-belligerent aliens in the cultural firmament following a certain Spielberg behemoth he had a stockade of studio scripts to pick from. Karen Allen, still a hot property after her appearance as the spirited Marion in Raiders Of The Lost Ark stars as Jenny Hayden, a young, working class Wisconsin dame whom is mourning the recent loss of her husband, genial handyman Scott Hayden (Jeff Bridges). A miracle arrives in the form of a downed extraterrestrial entity whose craft is disabled by the suspicious USAF, the creature replicating from hair follicles the DNA and physical appearance of the deceased Scott, a simulacrum for the intelligence to explore and experience our environment. The cherubic civilization from which the so-called Starman hearkens has stumbled across the Voyager probe whose co-ordinates led them to our meek and wet planet. Contained within the craft was its multi-lingual United Nation peaceful greeting which doesn’t exactly mirror the interstellar interloper’s experiences of our cruel and primitive species, as he and Jenny embark on a desperate road-trip rendezvous at a vast Arizona asteroid blasted crater, before his avatar succumbs to the poisonous plumes of our atmosphere. So far, so traditional when it comes to the cycle of misunderstood aliens, their morals and scientific discoveries centuries beyond ours showing us the error of our ways, which can be traced back to the classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. Starman however also comes equipped with a romantic sub-plot which is quite the change of pace for Carpenter, whom is more likely to extract beating hearts from their exoskeletons with a maniac wielded kitchen knife, rather than with a tear-jerking SF-Rom-Road-Movie-Com.
Is there something in the water for the Menagerie after Midnight Special, Arrival and now this retrospective screening? It’s pure coincidence of course, and its a nice thought to think that there is intelligence out there more refined, less violent and intolerant than ours, if they don’t succumb to the plausible sounding Fermi paradox if the trajectory of our upright shaved apes journey is anything to go by. If I was going to be a little unkind I’d reduce Starman to E.T. with adults, it ambling trajectory mapped to the open, almost existential possibilities of the road-movie, tracing an episodic structure which provides the framework for Jenny to overcome her initial disorientation and warm to the savior in her midst. There is some padding with this design and a few issues with pacing toward the final splutterings of the film, Charles Martin Smith’s good-guy scientist whom is sympathetically on the trail of the visitor feels a trifle undeveloped (not dissimilar to Adam Driver in Midnight Special), while the wicked NSA Director George Fox (Richard Jaeckel) is channeled directly from 1980’s, mustache-swirling, WASP villain central casting. Nevertheless for the most part it works as a modest chase movie and there is a modicum of chemistry between Allen and Bridges, with the alien’s half dozen magical silver ball bearings the instruments of his divinity and narrative deployment markers, performing miracles on earth such as resurrecting felled animals and walking not on water, but through flame. If you so choose there are further biblical allusions which serve the semiotic theologies, the consummation of Jenny and Scott’s relationship in a modest hay carpeted railway car with no crib for a bed suggests a certain festive myth, not to mention the holy one’s seed performing an immaculate conception on Jenny’s infertile frame……
As usual Bridges is great, a masquerade in human form, aping birdlike figure movements and seeming fully uncomfortable and, well, perpetually itchy in his newly acquired body. Remarkably he received an Academy Award nomination which is as rare as a SETI communique for a SF film, apart from Bullock in Gravity I can’t recall another genre SF film which has been blessed with such a performance driven accolade. Whatever happened to Karen Allen? A good question as after this with the exception of Scrooged her screen presence diminished, before returning to the A list with the ill-received third Raiders sequel in 2008. It seems she tired of the industry and went into the theater while pursuing other interests, having rejected the machinations of the Hollywood culture, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was only offered the wives or girlfriends roles given her age and demeanor, which quite rightly didn’t satisfy her ambitions or expectations. This being JC we naturally have to talk about the soundtrack, right? Well, this was the second film in a row that Carpenter abandoned scoring duties. With The Thing he relinquished the critical task to Ennio Morricone, possibly as the studio wanted a ‘big-name’ to herald the quality and prestige of their assimilating horror. I’m not sure a similar contract provision wasn’t enforced here, as although Jack Nitzsche’s score remains memorable like the now legendary Morricone piece it does sound like an initial draft was filtered through Carpenters emulator equipment, giving a more synth based pulse to proceedings. In any case it still works well and provides a choir chanted commentary on the narrative, particularly in the celestial, tear stained finale. Less successful are some of the bizarre plot contortions toward the end of the film, where contrivances seem to conspire to get our heroes in position for the final climax – I’m not sure why a young Arizonan native would suddenly become a petrol bomb hurling diversion for a woman he just met in some remote dust blasted diner, grabbing the authorities attention while they slip away down some poorly guarded storm drain, no matter how cute she is. Now, in terms of style let’s set some context, so here is a concise primer on Carpenters specific visual permutations;
It’s interesting, I was watching the new Blu-Ray of Christine last week and that stabilizing style and coverage leapt from the screen in certain sequences, the use of the widescreen framing coupled with the character gliding viewpoint really buries you into a scene and thus the film as a whole once the metronome plot gets ticking, although his more expressive flourishes do seem reigned from, say the dramatic eruptions in Halloween or The Thing. If he seems to have been reigned in, then this is a self-conscious decision rather a studio mandated dilution, a couple of SFX flourishes aside JC knows to step aside and let the blossoming relationship between Jenny and Scott to take center-stage, as empathy rather than any political or metaphysical theme is the primary drive of the picture.
Screenwriters Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon went on to pen the beloved Stand By Me two years later which is a testament to their ability to harp on the heartstrings, even if some of the plot contortions stretch character credulity. SFX wise the film holds relatively firm, there’s some fairly obvious travelling mattes and fragile optical work in some of the sequences, but the opening Voyager assimilation is convincing in its celestial purity, and its also a bit of an oddity in utilizing the unholy triumvirate of Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Dick Smith on design and execution duties during the reasonably convincing birth sequence. In terms of the most amusing trivia my research has revealed that there was an ill-fated TV spin-off which aired for a mere season in 1986, featuring the never to be taken seriously Robert Hays in the title role, somehow I don’t think I’ll bother tracking that DVD down. Naturally the film is being considered for a remake with Shawn Levy in the directors chair according to announcements made back in April of this year, I don’t think I’ll be re-calibrating my google sensors to trace every excited development of that pre-production pathway. Is Starman a classic? No, and at best is second tier Carpenter, but for us acolytes it is a genuine thrill to finally catch these oft-seen projects on the big screen, in full anamorphic 2:35 scope which can be a revelation after decades of poor quality pan-and-scan VHS and DVD transfers. I’ll never forgot the first time I saw the film and was devastated by its absolute killer ending, with a haunting mix of score and simple, appropriate close-ups which I’d champion as one of Carpenter’s most skillful and considered climax’s – stop the world, I wanna get off;