This feature contains minor spoilers for Starman. If you haven’t seen the film, please read on with caution.
John Carpenter hasn’t made too many conventional date movies. Films like Halloween, Escape From New York, and his thematic Apocalypse trilogy don’t typically get couples in the mood for love. Nevertheless, he made a doozy of a romance in the form of 1984’s Starman, which stars an Oscar-nominated Jeff Bridges and an equally great Karen Allen as an unlikely couple who take a road trip across America.
Starting with the 1977 launch of the Voyager 2 space probe, which carries a golden record full of samples of Earth culture and greetings in 57 different languages, the film is about an alien who answers mankind’s invitation to extra-terrestrial life. After crashing its ship in Wisconsin, the “Starman” arrives at a nearby home and clones itself a body.
Unbeknownst to the visitor, the DNA belongs to the late Scott Hayden (Bridges) and the home belongs to his heartbroken widow, Jenny (Allen). Frightened and flabbergasted to see the love of her life again, Jenny reluctantly embarks on a drive across country to “Scott”’s rendezvous in Winslow, Arizona.
Columbia Pictures bought the script for Starman five years before Carpenter got anywhere near it, but the finished film is still very much his. The project came at a time in his career when he and his long-time producer Larry Franco were eager to take a break from their usual filmmaking diet of grue-y horror and exploitation and make something a bit different.
As a result, the film is not only an outlier in his body of work but also an inarguable product of his direction, especially given how the film languished in development hell before he got his hands on it.
“E.T. for adults”
The original script, written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, was one of two alien-centric projects that Columbia was mulling over at the time. The other was Steven Spielberg’s Night Skies, which was pitched as a more kid-friendly affair than Close Encounters Of The Third Kind had been.
However, Columbia was looking for something for a more mature audience and felt that Night Skies was more like Disney’s cup of tea. Then Michael Douglas became attached to Starman as a producer and the studio’s mind was made up.
Unfortunately, the script was no closer to being produced when Night Skies arrived on the big screen as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and became the highest-grossing movie of all time up to that point. Worried that their film would look like a pale imitation, the studio ruled that the movie had to be rewritten to be less like E.T., while also keeping the story more or less the same.
This task was handed from one writer to the next over the following year, including Edward Zwick and Diane Thomas, who were both uncredited on the finished script. Dirty Harry screenwriter Dean Riesner worked on no fewer than seven drafts of the script but somehow still didn’t get a credit on the finished film.
But at that point, the project also had trouble finding a director. John Badham was attached until he saw E.T., at which point he went off to make 1983’s WarGames instead. After Badham, Tony Scott and Peter Hyams both came and went, before Carpenter came along.
Just like this project, the director had been somewhat burned by E.T. becoming the smash-hit of summer 1982. Released while everyone was still buzzing off the family-friendly blockbuster, The Thing was slated by critics on release for its extreme sci-fi violence and nihilistic themes. And yet, this was the person who would take a potential E.T. knock-off and turned it into a modern spin on a more classical Hollywood genre.
While development had partly stalled due to creative differences over the sci-fi elements of the script, Carpenter envisioned the film as a screwball romantic comedy in the vein of It Happened One Night. In a canny reversal of gender roles, Bridges is the naïve ingenue who knows nothing about the world (or our world, anyway) and Allen is the more cynical character who is pulled into a cross-country adventure with him.
A screwball couple
With this romantic angle in mind, the film really lives or dies on the chemistry of the leads. Fortunately, Bridges and Allen are both on spectacular form here, and although the former gets most of the praise (including a Best Actor nomination at the 58th Academy Awards), it remains a two-hander.
The alienness of the title character is a fine line for the film to tread. Looking like a Ken doll and acting like an especially impressionable child, Bridges has to balance cold, detached bafflement with a warming sincerity and comic timing, and he carries it off magnificently.
This is where the comedy largely comes in. The film largely takes on the genre’s structure rather than its rapid-fire gag rate, but Bridges is still funny as he affects learning how to act human. Even some of the low-hanging gags soar thanks to his delivery, from his unnatural body language to his growing emotional wisdom.
With that in mind, you have to believe that Jenny eventually falls for this essentially sweet alien, not just a thing that looks like Scott. Allen plays that just as well, and while Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Marion Ravenwood is arguably her best character, this just might be her best ever performance.
From the start, she’s more mortified than relieved to see another version of Scott. It’s a deeply weird pretext for romance, in which she starts out as a hostage and then basically mothers a replica of her dead husband, but then the course of true love never did run smooth, did it? There’s every chance it could come off as silly, but Allen keeps her on target.
Frankly, the film wouldn’t work as well as it does if you didn’t believe in her character’s development, including a relatively late revelation about her being unable to have children. Even in all her grief and confusion, Jenny does make her feel like a more rounded character thanks to Allen’s emotional performance.
By the same token, Starman is a film in which there are a limited number of magic balls that the protagonists can basically use to get out of trouble when they need. Objectively speaking, there’s some silliness here, but Carpenter finds the characters within the story and lets Bridges and Allen elevate the romance above the sci-fi.
Loving the alien
Bringing up the sci-fi element from the rear is Charles Martin Smith’s character, Mark Shermin. He’s a SETI agent who’s informed of the alien’s arrival while watching sports at home and then dragged into a government investigation that’s seemingly more scientific than diplomatic.
Chewing on an unlit cigar as he traipses around after Jenny and the alien, Shermin largely stands to deliver exposition from the human point of view and react to news of sightings (including the memorable report “He yelled ‘Greetings’ and melted his lug wrench”) while in pursuit.
But again, Smith’s performance gives a bit more life to his supporting character, and in the course of his interactions with NSA director Fox, (Richard Jaeckel) his loyalties are clearly divided.
“What the hell ever happened to good manners?” he asks in exasperation when he finds a secure room where Fox intends to restrain the alien for further study. “We invited him here!”
But in the main, the manner of the alien’s arrival isn’t really what the film is about. This was another issue that previous directors had differed upon, debating how the visitor would look before taking human form. The script describes the arrival in more detail, but Carpenter largely dispensed with this in favor of getting into the relationship faster.
You’d never have suspected this decision of the man who made The Thing, but the transformation sequence itself remains a mildly disturbing tell in a film that’s otherwise more sanguine. This sequence is credited to Dick Smith, Rick Baker, and Stan Winston, three of the greats in their fields of makeup and animatronic effects, but they also had to work within a comparatively tight VFX budget.
Visual effects supervisor Joe Alves went on record about the film’s disregard for special effects, telling the Chicago Tribune in 1985: “It’s very misleading. By calling it Starman, they`re going to disappoint a lot of people who are looking for a heavy science-fiction effects film.”
Bizarre as it is, the emphasis on that scene is more on how distressing it is to Jenny to find a half-formed baby morphing into Scott in her living room. In a way, it establishes from the outset that her experience of this story is just as disorienting as the alien’s experience of Earth.
A strange species
Just as the alien’s understanding of Earth is informed by the contents of the golden record, (prompting an awkward acapella rendition of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” at one point) so Starman is informed by other films. Aside from its screwball comedy influences and the desperate need to be less like Spielberg’s movie, there are other interesting parallels throughout the film.
For starters, the portrayal of a benevolent alien tourist encompasses influences from earlier sci-fi features ranging from The Day The Earth Stood Still to The Man Who Fell To Earth, including, yes, E.T.’s portrayal of government officials who want to capture and study the alien rather than make friends with it as the protagonist does. Other instances at the beginning and end of the film seem to be a result of parallel thinking rather than intentional homage.
There are coincidental likenesses like the alien clone fully manifesting as a naked Scott, just as two of the main characters in James Cameron’s The Terminator arrived on screens two months earlier. There’s no way the filmmakers could have known, but the similarity does spring to mind.
On another level, film magazine Cinefantastique charged the film’s visual effects artists with copying the ship design in the climactic scenes from a little-known film called Wavelength. Alves later acknowledged the similarity but insisted that he had come up with the concept of an enormous sphere reflecting the surface of the planet before he ever heard of the low-budget sci-fi flick.
And according to director John Sayles, Carpenter requested a private screening of Brother From Another Planet ahead of release because he was concerned that their two films were going to wind up doing similar things.
In a way, it’s ironic that it’s a film that seems heavily influenced by the genre films of 1984 because of its December release date when Bridges’ character also arrives with no frame of reference for human behavior. He sees the world through someone else’s eyes, literally and emotionally, as he copies what others do. He even falls for the same woman as Scott.
The lead character’s optimism, which feels very uncharacteristic of both Carpenter and the time in which it was made, is what makes Starman unique. In a scene where a more sympathetic Shermin finally catches up with the couple and has a sit-down conversation with them, the alien lays out his conclusions about humanity.
“Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you?” he says. “You are at your very best when things are worst.”
Even for the time, this feels like an old-fashioned view of the world. Heck, it’s a view which Carpenter has since said he doesn’t agree with, even though he wishes he did. But it’s not delivered in a soppy or sentimental way, and it’s perfectly suited to the tone of a film that’s more a romantic fable than a sci-fi thriller.
“Tell me again how we say goodbye”
One more way in which the film stands out in Carpenter’s 1980s filmography is that he didn’t compose the soundtrack. On producer Douglas’ recommendation, Jack Nitschze was drafted in to compose the film’s swoon-making score. Despite not being composed by him, the main theme still featured on Carpenter’s 2017 compilation album Anthologies.
“It’s a theme to a movie that I’m very proud of. My only romantic comedy, so why not,” the director told Consequence Of Sound at the time.
“They would let me do [the score for] a horror movie, but not a love story.”
That may be true for the score, but it’s just as well they let him direct it. Firmly embedded in Carpenter’s great run of geek favorites, Starman still has many of his usual genre trappings while also being completely different from his other work.
The fact that his very next film was Big Trouble In Little China only underlines what an anomaly this is for him, but it’s one that excels in being funny, tear-jerking, and thought-provoking by turns.
Columbia followed up Starman with a short-lived TV spin-off series without Carpenter or any of the original cast and are currently developing a remake of the film with Stranger Things producer Shawn Levy.
In 2016, Levy told Den of Geek UK that he intends to make it with younger leads this time, but for our money, Adam Driver is just about the only actor on the planet who could do justice to the lead role.
Whether or not the planned remake ever comes to fruition, the original will always be worth revisiting. Starman is a bittersweet, genre-bending date movie that really ought to be celebrated as one of the more lovable entries in the John Carpenter canon.