At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Starman “84”

MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Sci-Fi Romance/Stars: Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Phalen, Tony Edwards, John Walter Davis, Ted White, Dirk Blocker, M. C. Gainey, George Buck Flower, Ralph Cosham, Lu Leonard, Mickey Jones, David Wells/Runtime: 115 minutes

I think it is safe to say that when one ponders on the iconic film helmer John Carpenter, I can safely bet that the 1984 slice of cinematic pie that is Starman is by no means the first movie you might think of. This is because the simplistic yet quite lovely narrative of an alien deciding to pay mankind a visit isn’t exactly the typical movie you might expect from Carpenter. A fact that can be backed up incidentally by the fact that all the rest of Carpenter’s movies from the late 70s and 80s include such movies like Escape from New York, The Fog, The Thing, and of course Halloween. Yet even when you factor in Carpenter cinematic adventures such as Vampires from 1998 and In the Mouth of Madness from 1995, it’s clear that Starman most assuredly is not your typical John Carpenter movie. In many respects this is because Starman is a slice of cinematic pie that chooses to adopt an emotional and pathos-heavy tone to everything from its ominous beginning to an ending that will make you cry. More than that though, it’s the fact that thanks to first rate work from Carpenter at the helm and winning performances from both Karen Allen and especially Jeff Bridges, Starman is an immersive and moving look at what life is all about, the incredible force that is love, and how crucial it is to both accept and comprehend things you might not be able to at first, but that when you do will change your life forever.

The plot is as follows: Coming equipped with a friendly welcoming message from the planet Earth, NASA decided to send out a probe known as Voyager II into the immense cosmos in the long gone year known as 1977. To that end, we see that 7 years after it was sent out, an extraterrestrial species has crossed paths with the probe, figured out what it was saying, and sent us a friend request in the form of one of their species paying us a friendly visit. Things go slightly awry however when the being’s vessel crash lands in the countryside of Wisconsin and its occupant making its way to a home owned by a woman by the name of Jenny Hayden. A woman who incidentally has as of late been mourning the untimely demise of her beloved husband Scott. To that end, we see that our new extraterrestrial friend decides to utilize both a photo and some of Scott’s hair and transform itself into an uncanny clone of Scott much to Jenny’s shock and horror. Yet although this entity looks like Scott, it has difficulty with the most simplistic human being motor and verbal skills to say nothing of having a limited amount of knowledge on the particulars of humanity due to only knowing about us what we put on the gold disc inside the Voyager probe. We soon see that our alien friend is wanting Jenny to take him to a town in Arizona so he can meet up with his return ship home in a few days. Seeing that she might not have a choice in the matter, Jenny agrees to take him and from there the two set off on a road trip in Jenny’s Mustang which will see Jenny not only start to fall for our alien arrival, but also teach him (?) about the more intricate aspects of humanity. At the same time, we also see that a scientist from SETI by the name of Mark Sherman is contacted by the government due to the crash and as a result finds himself going after our heroine and our alien visitor. Thus the question now becomes will our alien hero get to the rendezvous point in time or will the government that invited him capture him first? That dear reader I will leave you to discover for yourself….

Now right off the bat I guess I should note that the core of this slice of cinematic pie’s narrative is one that can be found in the road trip subgenre of movie magic even though it is utilized in this slice of cinematic pie in a manner that is not like any other movie I have seen either before or after especially with the degree of skill and talent that this one has at its disposal. A feat that is primarily possible due to the fact that this slice of cinematic pie is a quest of discovery. Not of the places visited or the individuals whose paths cross with our main characters, but instead of just what exactly being a human being is all about. It is with that in mind that this slice of cinematic pie chooses to challenge those who view it by asking them questions like how do you view what life is all about to say nothing of your part in it, does the death of a person really mean that they are gone forever, and one of the most crucial questions of all, what truly does it mean to love another? To that end, we see that this slice of cinematic pie succeeds on the level that it does due to the tennis match at play between a pair of distinct perspectives. One is a literal alien who has no idea about how life or any of its intricacies operate to say nothing of a complete lack of comprehension about some of the more intricate ideas that are a key element to mankind’s day to day life on this planet. The other is a grief-stricken and cynical human being with a lifetime of highs and lows, but who is still looking for even a hint as to why being human is worth it just so she can get through one more day without the one thing that made life truly worth living in her book.

It is with that in mind that I can safely say that this slice of cinematic pie is one that is very well done on both a narrative and constructive perspective respectively. This starts with the fact that although, as stated previously, this is not exactly the kind of movie that made Carpenter a household name, he still manages to do an astounding job at the helm of this film. Indeed this slice of cinematic pie is heartfelt, sweet, and emotional from beginning to end, a vibe that is showcased not just through Carpenter’s work, but also in the score done for the film by Jack Nitzsche. With that in mind however, there are little nods placed throughout the movie which operate as odes to the kinds of movies Carpenter is known for making with particular regard to the riveting and ominous beginning that offers us an air of mystery and suspense as our extraterrestrial guest makes it way to a house and transforms into a human being. Yet even in those moments there is still a subtle undercurrent of heartwarming and comedic that is running throughout the duration of the film courtesy of not just Carpenter’s work on this, but the work done by lead performers Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges with the latter giving us a performance that is truly out of this world (pun intended). It is with that in mind that I should note that Bridge’s performance is truly amazing. Indeed his first moments in the film consisting of copying all the different voices that were on the Voyager disc and trying to comprehend just how the human body is supposed to operate makes for a truly riveting viewing experience. More remarkable than that though is the fact that there is not a single time where his performance ever comes across as a human playing an alien who is masquerading as a human. Heck even as the movie goes along and Bridges’ alien character comes to comprehend the more subtle aspects of humanity both on a physical and emotional level, he is still as riveting as he is at the beginning thus making one heck of a performance. Yet just as important to the narrative and its potential to succeed is the character acting as Starman’s guide/love interest and in that respect Karen Allen is fantastic. Indeed not only does she give us a performance that is on the same level skill-wise to Bridges, but she also makes it one that goes on quite the internal journey and does so in a way that feels organic in the best ways possible.

All in all I think it should be said that the most similar slice of cinematic pie in John Carpenter’s filmography to Starman would have to be his remake of The Thing from 1982 and yet that movie in many respects is the exact opposite of what this one offers audiences with the only commonality on display being the fact that both movies deal with a visit to Earth from a member of an alien species. Indeed the compare/contrast of this dynamic duo of rivetingly distinct movies, one which incorporates a bleak and nihilistic attitude and the other giving off a vibe that is equal parts moving, optimistic, and genuinely heartfelt, and from the same helmer astonishingly might just make for an intriguing analysis to say nothing of an engaging double feature. Taken on its own merits however, Starman manages to triumph quite beautifully at operating as an integrity-laced, emotional, and quite potent slice of cinematic pie that makes you really think about the most basic yet quite complicated aspects of what it means to be human including what life is all about and how genuinely powerful love can be. Suffice it to say that through not only a fantastically penned script, but also top-notch work on both sides of the camera, the slice of cinematic pie that is Starman is one that is sure to move audiences whenever they choose to watch it be it their 1st viewing or their 50th. On a scale of 1-5 I give Starman “84” a solid 3.5 out of 5.