Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Starman

"We are very civilized, but we have lost something. You are all so much alive, so different. I will miss the cooks and the dancing and the singing and the eating" - Starman-
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I know. It comes as no surprise, predictable even, that The Sci-Fi Fanatic should go ahead and select Director John Carpenter's Starman [1984] for the official Radiator Heaven John Carpenter Week blogathon. My efforts to select a John Carpenter film were pained, a bit tortured even. Carpenter's filmography is so strong it was hard to select just one. But, as love stories go Starman may be perfect. In some ways, Starman is the anecdote, or the anti-Carpenter, a far more hopeful and pretty picture than we are normally accustomed to seeing from THE Man.
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Carpenter's The Thing [1982] is one of those films that shaped my childhood. Escape From New York [1981] was another of his classics. Finally, Big Trouble In Little China [1986] concludes a trilogy of some of Kurt Russell's finest work, all with auteur John Carpenter. These were films that resonate with me today. My love and affection for the Russell/Carpenter marriage began with their ABC film Elvis [1979]. Those Russell films aside Carpenter has delivered a long line of essential pictures. Assault On Precinct 13 [1976], Halloween [1978] and The Fog [1980] with Jamie Lee Curtis, Prince Of Darkness [1987], They Live [1988] and In The Mouth Of Madness [1995] with Sam Neill are generally high on any fan's film list. His work has been the inspiration of endless remakes and/or riffs of his work, likewise Howard Hawks and others have served as Carpenter's inspiration. For a wonderful appreciation of Carpenter's rich history be sure to check out Author John Kenneth Muir's The Films Of John Carpenter [2000]. It's a tough book to put down.
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I was torn on what to discuss here. There is, of course, Prince Of Darkness [1987]. This was a film I visited while in theatres and about ran me out of the cinema because it was so damned frightening. I wasn't sure I could articulate just how damn disturbing that film was to me. Perhaps someday I will, but when the character, played by Lisa Blount, was controlled by Satan my heart was breaking. When she ever reached into that mirror to take Satan's hand and bring the realization of evil to apocalyptic fruition I was paralyzed. Finally, pushed through the mirror to the underworld, with the mirror broken, we had the image of Blount sinking in some kind of evil, primordial fluid being pulled down by her master. What left such a mark on me with that film was that the Lisa Blount character appeared to awaken from her Satanic control. Her hand outstretched pleading for help back toward the mirror, the doorway to life gone, she appears frightened, alone and it is that moment of the film that left me scarred for years. The build to that singular moment when Blount's character was lost to unspeakable evil with no ability to return left me completely shaken. Ultimately, I decided not to write about Prince Of Darkness, but I share that traumatic moment with you just the same.
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In the middle of all of this incredibly well-executed darkness, tension and the unnervingly frightful thrills came a little film called Starman. This film was by all accounts a love story, filled with love and light and hope. Back in the day, the last thing I fully comprehended was that the film was actually directed by none other than John Carpenter. THE John Carpenter of "You've gotta be fucking kidding me" The Thing fame. Yes, the same John Carpenter where a grandma stood near a fog-filled door, while a young boy sat hiding in terror. Yes, John Carpenter who made street punks and gang members in New York freakishly creepier than creepy. Why on Earth would John Carpenter direct Starman? Was he on a drug-addled binger? It was such a change of dramatic pace and a radical departure, an about face from his previous work, Starman almost seems out of place. Despite a clearly brilliant, but young career, John Kenneth Muir suggests the director was appearing "pigeonholed." One suspects John Carpenter was looking to shake it up, and perform an unexpected genre-busting, auteur-defying act by offering fans a love story within the context of the Carpenter touch. Okay, so he did Elvis [1979], the film that kick started the Carpenter/ Russell love affair, but on the whole Starman just didn't feel like John Carpenter on film on its surface. Look a little deeper and the auteur's hand is definitely guiding this alien enterprise.
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Once again, from his thought provoking, well-researched, informative tome, The Films Of John Carpenter, Muir makes an interesting point. Carpenter's films are "consistent" and Muir references Actor Kurt Russell once making the same observation that Carpenter was one of the most recognizable and instantly identifiable of the auteur-styled directors. He points to a distinctive "personal ethos" behind his work, which makes Starman all the more curious. Carpenter made a play within the Hollywood game to change expectations up following the critical backlash lambasted upon The Thing and the quieter follow-up Christine [1983], based on the work of Stephen King, with something tangibly different from the horrors associated with his oeuvre. Ultimately, as a result of Starman's modest success, Carpenter was asked to continue his run in Hollywood outside of that trademark "ethos." Carpenter was offered other films like Fatal Attraction [1987] and H2O [1998]. But it becomes apparent with Big Trouble In Little China [1986] and Prince Of Darkness [1987] Carpenter was interested in returning to his own unique creations and the things which makes him tick. All of this leads me to believe Starman was essentially an aberration, albeit a beautiful one, under the steady direction of a special director.
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Another reason I selected Starman was to give it another visit. Until this writing I had only ever saw Starman one time. To be truthful, I was never particularly fond of it. It never grabbed me in the way John Carpenter films grabbed me or scared the shit out of me. It just never left a huge imprint. When it was released on Blu-Ray I had little desire to pick it up or give it another try that was until John Carpenter Week hit me like a bolt from the blue. In the end, Starman seemed like my chance to analyze it through wiser, more potentially perceptive eyes. I considered that perhaps I never fully appreciated the film's substance as a younger man. The year was 1984. High School was a struggle. Duran Duran reigned and I was attempting to find love [of a sort] myself. In the end, this was my opportunity to revisit the strange film called Starman.
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Another facet to the film was that it starred the always engaging actor Jeff Bridges. Jeff Bridges had to have been an interesting choice for Carpenter. The actor has a very natural, likable quality that is entirely comparable to Kurt Russell. I wonder if Russell was unavailable. Russell was getting busy with Goldie Hawn over on Swing Shift [1984]. Nevertheless, if I wasn't going to tackle a Kurt Russell/ John Carpenter collaboration, Jeff Bridges was the next best thing. He's had an endlessly fascinating career and I have admired his work in much the same way, both just years apart in age [Russell born East Coast, Bridges born West Coast]. Bridges easily ranks among my favorites and the opportunity to revisit one of his films I didn't fully appreciate seemed like a good idea. I thought that I must have missed something special in this picture back in the day.
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Bridges, like Russell has a long list of films I treasure. If I had to choose favorites between the two it might be close. Russell would have the edge, but Bridges is a seasoned remarkably natural actor with an equally mesmerizing charisma. This is why I was so surprised by my lack of affection for the film when I initially viewed it. The studied, mannered, deliberate almost method-like approach to his character in Starman with his ticks and mannerisms didn't quite appeal to me then. But that was then and this is now. I might feel differently.
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Kurt Russell's film resume is sick, but I believe Jeff Bridges comes close. For me, Fearless [1993] by Director Peter Weir and Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King [1991] rank among my personal favorites. Of course there are films like Ridley Scott's White Squall [1996] and Jagged Edge [1985] that are solid and endlessly entertaining. As he prepared for Starman, Bridges was hot property and came off minor film classics like Tron [1982] and Against All Odds [1984]. With Starman Jeff Bridges was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award and Golden Globe Award. He took home a Saturn Award for Best Actor. He lost the Academy Award that year to F. Murray Abraham for Amadeus. He lost in good company with Sam Waterston who was nominated for The Killing Fields. Some decried injustice. We're about to find out.
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Starman also features Actress Karen Allen in the sharing of top bill. The spitfire actress has never fully captured me even with Raiders Of The Lost Ark [1981], but again I was young and naive. There is indeed a certain likability factor to her talent. There is something raw and sexy about her. It will be interesting to see how I respond to her and the chemistry between her and Bridges. Starman cometh with spoilers.
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A transmission from Voyager 2 requesting life forms visit the planet Earth reach deep space. Voyager 2 sent those transmissions in 1977. Well, life has received that request and arrives on Earth in the form of a Starman looking like Jeff Bridges. On Earth, Jenny Hayden, played perfectly by Karen Allen [an actress I truly underappreciated once upon a time], looks achingly, longingly at earlier film footage of her with her now deceased husband, Scott Hayden, also played by Jeff Bridges. She misses him and is clearly in a lost and lonely place without his company.
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The alien ship is picked up on radar and jets are dispatched. The ship crashes in a fiery blaze near the home of Jenny Hayden. A bright, shapeless, blue light is drawn to her home. It is night and Jenny lays [with terrific, bare, naked legs mind you] restless. The mysterious arrival enters her home and absorbs information happening upon photos and a strand of hair from the late Scott Hayden. The creature assumes his physical appearance in a creepy little, An American Werewolf In London-like transformation. There is an intimacy to the proceedings that is both eerie and quintessential Carpenter. He brings his unique touch transforming even this picture from standard, sappy, sentimental Hollywood fare into something real and genuine on an emotional level. Jenny witnesses the alien child grow within seconds into her late husband. She is both disturbed, stunned and intrigued. As any human would react, Jenny immediately grabs her gun prepared to kill this bizarre intruder. Unfortunately how do you kill something with the face of the man you loved? She knows this thing is not her husband, but her mind is overruled by her heart and the desperation of wanting to see him again. Despite the fact it is entirely illogical, Jenny yearns to see her husband despite knowing it can't possibly be.
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Bridges spent many weeks observing small children to master their linguistics and/or movements to capture the actions for his newborn-type reality. His performance is never static throughout the film. His transformation, as he learns, becomes more fluid, but it is ever so subtle or restrained. It is a nuanced, delicate, gradual performance that he nails. The alien visitor has come to, well, just that- visit. Bridges creates an incredibly believable, alien creature that has taken up residence within the vessel of a human figure. His movements, facial ticks, twitches are like that of a squirrel or gecko to give the impression of something entirely alien. Bridges was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance for a reason, one of the best foreign, fish-out-of-water roles that I can recall. Passed out in the corner, overwhelmed by her discovery Jenny sits in a heap, while the alien absorbs her home videos. There are sequences that play out almost documentary-like as if a study in human behavior.
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Jenny awakens and rushes to her car intending to run. Starman picks up new objectives. Emergency Transmission. Observation Craft Destroyed. Environment Hostile. Completed Symbiotic Transformation. Rendezvous Third Day Landing Area One [Arizona].
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Jenny and Starman ride off in her classic, orange red 1977 Mustang Cobra [shhweet!] away from Ashland, Wisconsin. The radio reports of a meteor crash. Once again, Carpenter underlines the distrust of the government entity so prevalent in his work. You will never hear the truth. Elsewhere government officials probe the crash site, while the public gets an entirely different story.
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In a desperate effort to escape, Jenny drives her car toward an oncoming van to get their attention. A man with a tire iron gets out enraged. Jenny screams she is being kidnapped. The man with the tire iron tells Starman to let her go. Starman utilizes his awesome power to frighten the would-be savior away with a melting tire iron and an explosion. I can't help but note that this is once again a beautifully shot Carpenter picture.
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As Jenny Hayden and Starman communicate on their road trip, Starman finds Scott Hayden's old baseball cap in her glove compartment. Placing it on his head he looks to Jenny and says, "I look like Scott." She winces and looks away at a loss for what is transpiring. It would have the same affect on anyone. This is a lovely little scene and really captures the quality of the lead performances and the connection the two characters are making.

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Meanwhile, the government has relocated Starman's ship to a hangar for analysis. The agent, Mark Shermin [played by Charles Martin Smith], has also received information on the car and plate following their incident with the van. Inside the spaceship they find a gold disc with greetings in 54 different languages.
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Speaking of communications, the two stop at a gas station to fuel the Cobra. How about this for a classic little Carpenter moment.

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Jenny expresses her fear of being kidnapped by Starman to him. With the gun pointed at her head, he releases the cartridge from the gun and tells her "I mean you no harm Jenny Hayden."
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Starman informs Jenny he must be in Arizona in three days. His people will leave without him. If he is left behind he will die. It is here Jenny is given reason to care beyond the surface appearance of a creature resembling her late husband. It is here Starman becomes sympathetic.

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The two companions stop at a "food station."
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Starman happens upon a dead deer tied to the roof of a hunter's car. He is compassionate and finds the human race primitive but leaves the deer. Inside the diner, Starman gazes upon a picture of Jenny and her husband Scott. He asks her to "define love." Karen Allen gives such a tender, sensitive performance in Starman when you consider her spitfire role in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. You'll look at Raiders differently.

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Jenny exits to the bathroom planning once again to part company with Starman. She asks the waitress to give Starman her keys. She cares for him, but is interested in parting company. In some ways, she is interested in going home back to the comfort of mourning. Once again, the pain of loss and memory retains its hold in allowing us to move forward. Starman exits to the parking lot and from the diner window Jenny witnesses Starman bring the deer back to life. It is a moment of pure magic. It is abruptley ended when the hunter rushes out and punches Starman in the face reminding Starman of the unpredictability of this human race. Starman returns the favor. He is quickly jumped by three other men. Jenny Hayden saves Starman and has a change of heart as her fondness grows for this strange visitor. As Jenny peels off in her Cobra leaving the men in the dust, Starman flips them the bird and through the window mouths "Up yours." He's beginning to fit in just fine.
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Jenny shares more of her past as the two connect. The score, provided by Jack Nitzsche, is synthetic but fittingly beautiful in accompanying the film's tone even if it isn't as perfect as a John Carpenter composition. Held over at a hotel, Jenny begins to derobe forgetting for a moment that Starman is not her husband. While Jenny bathes Starman changes channels with his hand and settles on images of love from From Here To Eternity [1953]. Seeing its principals kiss, Starman goes to Jenny's bedside to kiss her. Interrupted by the arrival of police, Starman and Jenny head off in their Cobra. Seeing Starman holding the pistol, the officers shoot and kill Jenny Hayden. Using his marbles [metallic marbles], he encases himself in a kind of alien forcefield driving the Cobra into an oil tanker that explodes. From the flames he walks away unscathed holding Jenny in his arms in another beautiful cinematic image that reminsices of Beauty And The Beast.
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Stowing away in tractor trailer, Starman heals Jenny Hayden and kisses her in a lovely sequence. The Christ-like conceit of saving Jenny through resurrection when revealed is also well-handled by the knowledge he can restore life through the earlier deer sequence. It would have been largely convenient and a hard sell had the deer scene not been established.
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When Jenny awakens Starman is gone. At the diner Agent Shermin locates Jenny and phones her. She attempts to ease interest in Starman by insisting she was not kidnapped, but unfortunately the government doesn't care about her. Starman has hitched a ride west with the diner's night cook. While on his roadtrip an attempted smoke ends violently in coughing. As he speaks and mimics the red neck driver one realizes Starman's only contact to date has been Jenny Hayden.
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At a roadblock, Jenny gets a fellow to help create a diversion so she can save Starman who is about to be discovered. She hugs Starman as she escapes under a bridge and catches a lift with a passing pick-up truck. She is pleased to see him. She is beginning to worry for him. Starman is winning her over and reawakening Jenny Hayden. He is beginning to realize he is not good for her safety. I couldn't help but think about this film as a story about communication. It is the essence of relationships and this film recognizes the importance of it and why any real relationship takes time and patience and it walks through that process naturally.
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Now on a train, the two grow closer to their destination and in turn grow closer. All wet, the two change clothes and in the process and the heat of the moment kiss and get naked. For a moment Jenny is lost in the love of her former life and at the same time realizing she is okay with the fact this is not Scott Hayden even noting slight facial differences. She is letting go. Also, in a universal way, it emphasizes the human need for companionship, contact and love in any form and that it comes to us in different ways. Doors close and doors open.
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Jenny and Starman have connected intimately. He smiles pleased to watch Jenny sleep. Awakened, he tells her, "Strange, I think I am becoming a Planet Earth person." Jenny wishes for him to stay on Earth. He presents her with some joyous news. He has given her a baby, despite her overtures that she is unable to have children. She will have a baby boy. She grabs and holds him in love. It is the most normal, natural reaction to the news I could expect in a film. She asks which star in the heavens is his so that she may tell the child one day where her father is.
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Jenny and Starman have overshot their destination. They are in Las Vegas, Nevada, but they will get him home she assures. With no money, the two win a $500,000 bonanza on the slots thanks to Starman's handy little power. Elsewhere officials have deducted the trajectory of Starman's ship's descent to before the crash and know he is headed to Arizona. They intend to capture Starman and study him. It is considered a combat mission. Shermin attempts reason by reminding him the alien was invited here as a result of the transmissions sent from Voyager 2. Is this how we welcome visitors?
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In the final run, Starman expresses aspects of his utopian homeworld, but that it lacks life and vitality like that found on Earth. This is a sweet moment that also alludes to Starman's own fondness for Jenny Hayden.

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When Starman admits to missing all of these wonderful things on our planet including the human life, we are reminded of how special these things are. Personally, I love my life. I believe I get this unhealthy obsession for it from my grandmother. At 92, she said to me recently, "Gord, I know I'm old... but, I don't really want to die." You talk about choked up. That will do it to you. I understand why she feels this way. She is a joyful, happy 92 year old. It may be a rare thing, but behold, I see it in her beautiful, prettiest eyes of 92. And this is why I enjoy life- singing, eating, laughing, thunderstorms on a rainy day- all of it. It's all good and the film Starman reminds us of what's important just as Starman reminds Jenny Hayden. He unveils the joy of life from the shroud of darkness that hung over her like a cloud that fateful day he arrived. When Jenny Hayden tried to run away to go back to the sadness that eveloped her, Starman pulled her back, a stranger who rekindled her spirit and joy for life. It's a precious thing to be treasured and Starman is all about that right down to their final, simple moment eating cherry cobbler together. These are the things in life to enjoy. At a food station, Starman and Jenny are finally surrounded by law enforcement. It is here that Shermin seeks to do right by the alien visitor. Jenny asks him to let Starman go. He must go home. Starman is a calling card to humanity for the respect of all life. Shermin creates a story and tells the officers they had the wrong subjects. Jenny and Starman make it to the crater as the aliens arrive.
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Helicopters are inbound. Time is running out. If there appear to be similarities throughout the film to a certain other alien visitor it is not by accident, because both Starman and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial were being considered simultaneously by the same company for a time until Starman was ultimately shelved in favor of the former.
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As they run, Jenny and Starman are fired upon, but remain unharmed until the alien ship's arrival. Like E.T., Starman grows weaker and is dying and must return home. The minimal special effects of the arriving alien vessel are impressive and still look magnificent by today's standards. A beam of red light penetrates the air surrounding Jenny and Starman replenishing his strength. Once again, lighting is an important component in the film's climax suggesting a range of feeling and mood [See Science Fiction Images In Techni-COLOR]. The red and blue colors flood and surround Starman and Jenny suggesting a union of two worlds. The colors are warm and embracing. There is a glow of love about them and with the flutter of flakes falling about them there is something entirely pure about the moment suggested by the appearance of something akin to gentle snow.
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Muir offers some additional commentary in The Films Of John Carpenter. "Carpenter's lighting technique in this sequence captures their oneness beautifully and has thematic value. The two lovers stand together under a beam of rich, blue light, ..., the world has turned to a fiery red hue. This lighting, which pinpoints Jenny and Starman's togetherness, also points out what exists outside the blue serenity of human connection: a red light suggestive of hell." That's an interesting take and not out of the question. Jenny wants to return with him, but he tells her she would die there. This is the sweet, final goodbye.

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Well, E.T. never said goodbye to Gertie quite like that. I can't remember seeing a sweeter tale than Starman within the genre a more mature audience. Starman is sweet. The final shot of Jenny Hayden looking to the sky is lovely and I don't know if I've ever been more attracted to Karen Allen than I was after seeing this film. She's just beautiful. While it was terribly cruel in some ways that Jenny had to say goodbye to Scott Hayden twice, she was able to say goodbye properly to Starman. In this, there was closure for her and with their child hope for her future, which was not present when we first met Jenny. Starman is a startlingly simple film. It certainly doesn't grab you by the throat like most Carpenter films. It unravels slowly and effectively tells its little tale of love. This is an understated, everso gentle film that won't appeal to everyone, but given the right mood and a calm, open heart, Starman will find its place with you. And the funny thing is, if I had to name five favorite Carpenter films in order, Starman wouldn't make that list, but that speaks to just how damn good John Carpenter really is.
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Starman: B+
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Additional commentary: The film on the whole feels different than most Carpenter productions, because Carpenter wasn't involved in the music, the production or writing, which is normally a staple of any John Carpenter production. His hand is typically all over a film and in the case of Starman, he takes the Director's reins alone delegating to other Hollywood participants. One of the most significant things about the film for me personally was my essentially non-plussed attitude toward it upon my first viewing years back. It lacked all of the things I loved about Carpenter films. In some way, I think I refused to believe it was actually a Carpenter film when I first viewed it. This built-in expectation certainly didn't work in its favor. This couldn't be the same man who brought me Snake Plissken and Michael Myers. I just refused to believe it was him. I think I blocked that information out at a subconscious level preferring to believe Carpenter himself had been hijacked and abducted by an alien lifeform himself like the one from The Thing. This seemed more conceivable. Yes, I had my troubles with the film once upon a time. Now, I felt a little something different. I wasn't approaching respectability. I already had that for Carpenter. There is indeed a very un-Hollywood approach to Starman and it is quirky and weird as love stories go. But, the timeless quality of the films themes of love and intimacy shined through for me in a way now I never fully appreciated in my young, testosterone-laced heart. This was intended to be a different experience and one I can certainly accept now.
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On another front, Starman presents human cloning pre-dating its heated discussion by years. How would you react to see the return of a loved one in this way? On another level, Starman presents a story about coming to terms with loss and how we process these things.
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Starman was co-produced by Michael Douglas, a formidable presence in Hollywood. Several directors were considered before reaching a decision on Carpenter including Adrian Lyne and Tony Scott among them. John Kenneth Muir's meticulously researched and insightful The Films Of John Carpenter delves further into the issue of Starman's conflict with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as noted earlier. The studio was concerned and "shelved" Starman "fearing that the two projects were too similar in tone and story." Two scripts were being developed for years regarding alien visitation, Columbia let the other go to a rival company and settled on Starman. The other became Steven Spielberg's blockbuster, ironically embracing the same critic's hearts who ravaged John Carpenter's The Thing [1982]. In almost a doubly ironic move, the resulting box office of The Thing up against E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial forced Carpenter to re-evaluate his status working within Hollywood's game inevitably taking on Starman. Life is funny. Directing Starman was the result of that assessment according to Carpenter on the commentary track found on Big Trouble In Little China [1986]. In essence, Starman, like the visiting lifeform that was The Thing, is indeed the anti-Thing. Carpenter looked to make an entirely different impression. The film was one of the most notable science fiction film dramas of 1984 and was received well critically, if not embraced at the box office. The film, as referenced in John Kenneth Muir's The Films Of John Carpenter, was often considered the best science film of 1984. This was no faint praise with competition including Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, 2010: The Year We Make Contact with Roy Scheider as well as Dune by David Lynch in the running. Carpenter's quiet, little, alien love story, intimate on a character level unrelated to sexuality was like the little film that could against these much bigger pictures. Funny that Starman would be the only film for which John Carpenter would receive an Academy Award nomination, never winning, but then, what does the Academy really know?
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Years ago, I think Starman left me unaffected, but as we grow older and appreciate life the days these things change. Carpenter gave us a film about treasuring life. John Kenneth Muir points to the work as one of Carpenter's most "human." I believe, in all of Carpenter's work there is hope [however small the glimmer may seem] or at least the potential for hope, but Starman is indeed the most hopeful of all or as John Kenneth Muir states, "John Carpenter on an up day."
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Muir points to the two principals for the film's dramatic success. Starman really said something about Carpenter's ability to bring out the best dramatically from his performers. To some this may have seemed surprising, but to those intimately familiar with the details of Carpenter's work, it was always one of his strong points. Carpenter knows how to get into the head of a character.
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Rex Reed of The New York Post penned his surprise at Carpenter's talent calling his film "A likable, unheralded surprise." John Nangle of Films In Review called the film "stiff." A descriptor I believe he mistakenly pegged to Carpenter, but more appropriately should have been assigned to the intentional performance of Jeff Bridges. Nangle calls it a "voyage to nowhere." Nangle misses the point of Starman, which is clearly like a slice of life, just as the slice of dutch apple pie meant living to Starman. Nangle's criticism is wrong-headed and quite frankly Carpenter's steady, reserved hand is truly telling. Carpenter never paints a picture that is needlessly sentimental or emotional just for the sake of pulling on heartstrings. He never goes there. The reactions of its principals and their motives are natural, understandable and logical. The character emotions are never revealed to simply get an audience reaction. Carpenter presents these characters and earns our affection for them. Sure, Starman strolls along on its roadtrip. There isn't alot of noise, car chasing and other associated violence that often accompanies today's Hollywood fare. But Starman stays with you when its over. His visit means something. Given where Jenny began and where she ends her journey, Nangle has to be dead. How could you miss the revitalization of the human spirit? "Voyage to nowhere"!? Do your heart beat Nangle? Carl E. Rollyson, Jr. of Magill's Cinema Annual 1985 offers the best summation. "This is a quiet, modest motion picture." Precisely, or as Muir writes, "Starman sees mostly with wonder and awe" not unlike a child. Bridges brings that to the part of his alien stranger. As Muir points out in his book, the alien role is a terrific "dramatic tool." He beat me to the punch by mentioning Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home as an example that came to my mind. Other "alien" concepts of a similar vibe might include films like Crocodile Dundee, and even Rain Man. These "outsiders" help us see the world through new eyes appreciating life in new ways or helping us to reignite a passion for the simple things. In Starman's case he learns of Earth living, love, beauty and marriage.
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There is a great segment in Muir's writing whereby he compares the philosophical differences to existence between John Carpenter and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and makes for a wonderful comparison. He points to Starman as Carpenter's vision that most closely mirrors the kind of "optimism" found in Roddenberry's work without intentionally shooting for it. Muir takes his thinking further. Starman certainly isn't all wonder and lollipops as the darker side of humanity does rear its ugly head as framed by Carpenter by fear or government agents. Muir indicates Star Trek: The Next Generation [1987], upon its introduction years later, attempted to fuse concepts of Starman into its own equation. I'm not so sure, but Muir certainly argues the point and may be right utilizing Encounter At Far Point and the arrival of Q as the example. Muir believes the Data character is also a "reprise" of the Starman concept. It makes you wonder. Data's movements and sense of discovery do reminisce of Starman. Fascinating.
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Muir makes the point that many saw Starman as the "flip" of The Thing, but thankfully follows up the thought with the fact that it is not a particularly "illuminating" observation. I had to howl when I read that, because The Thing and Starman are so diametrically opposite that I knew my "anti-Thing" comment was easy. Better yet, Muir points to the interesting approaches both masterful directors Spielberg and Carpenter take to tell their tales. True. Muir analyzes the character of E.T. as a kind of "imaginary friend" for children. Starman, in many ways, is for a more mature audience. Muir looks at Starman as symbolic and representative of an almost angelic, "Christ"-like force to the spiralling Jenny Hayden. He is there to guide her as much as she guides him home. In many respects both characters deliver one another home. Nangle may not have enjoyed the voyage, but how could he miss it?
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Muir discusses the directorial approach by Carpenter to Starman, which is worth noting. There is indeed a physically intimate appeal to this film. One of the reasons the film resonates so long after seeing it and why we care so much is Carpenter takes that camera in up close and personal to his principals. Carpenter has a "pre-occupation with faces and eyes" and takes the camera and places the viewer inside of this relationship. It works.

The stunning face of Karen Allen.
Muir justifiably attempts to right a wrong regarding the craft of Karen Allen. Roles like Starman or Rain Man get all of the obvious attention for their quirky, methodical, dramatic displays, but Allen's performance is special. She is adorable and believable in her role as Jenny Hayden. She really never got her due for it either. She is the heart of the story in many ways and she was perfectly cast to bring that emotion to the screen through those close-ups of her eyes and face. Muir points to the final image of the film, one of my favorites, and says: "In just one shot, Allen is able to suggest great sadness and hope, all at the same time." Amen.
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Muir closes touching on many of the things I witnessed as I viewed Starman that Jenny Hayden was a prisoner of the past. It is all of this underlying drama that makes Starman very light science fiction, but a far more compelling human drama.

8 comments:

le0pard13 said...

A superlative review of this quite touching film by John Carpenter, SFF. What a contribution to J.D.'s Carpenter Week! It's wonderful you included segments of JKM's Films of John Carpenter here, as well. Both of you offer splendid insights into the film that I found fascinating.

BTW, your mention of that now iconic scene in Prince of Darkness struck a chord with me. It's the sequence that hit me most when I saw this. If you have region-free player, I have the R2 PoD disc with a Carpenter and Peter Jason comment track that was never released to audiences in the U.S.. I'd be happy to lend. If you listen to it, you'll find out it was an even more frightening sequence to film (especially for Blount).

I really enjoyed reading this, my friend. Thank you very much for this discerning and thorough examination.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks my friend.

I would love to hear that commentary track someday for Prince but at this time do NOT have the region free player. Thanks so much for the offer. Absolutely frightening stuff.

Red Cliff is enroute your way. Thank you for that. Solid filmmaking from Woo. I liked it, but did not love it.

Once again, thanks so much for kind thoughts regarding my Starman review. Cheers.

le0pard13 said...

You're welcome.

Solid effort on Woo's part. Let me know how you like Zhang Yimou's Hero.

Thanks, again.

J.D. said...

What a fantastic reading of Carpenter's film. I have to admit that it has been ages since I've watched this film but after reading your very thoughtful analysis, it's about time that I did.

I agree that this may be JC's most "human" film, where he gets away from the pessimissism of films like THE THING and goes for a more uplifting vibe but without being overtly sappy about it. He achieves this feeling honestly and on his own terms.

Thanks for going into some detail about Karen Allen's performance. I always liked her, even beyond RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK which is the film people always remember her for. She is also quite adept at comedy as she showed in her small but significant role in ANIMAL HOUSE. She is a fantastic mix of beauty and intelligence and is always interesting to watch. She even made the last INDY film tolerable by her presence alone!

Thanks for this great, in-depth post. A great addition to my JC Week. I'm honored to include it with the rest of the contributions I've received.

John Kenneth Muir said...

Sci-Fi Fanatic,

Please accept my apology for only now getting to read in full your insightful and thorough review of John Carpenter's Starman. This is a beautiful retrospective and analysis.

I appreciate the shout-out to my book here, as well, and hope I managed to do the film some justice there.

As usual, your adroit blend of images and words really captures the essence of what seems an unusual Carpenter cinematic outing. That view of Karen Allen (the film's valedictory shot...) still gets to me on an emotional level.

I do know, in context of Starman, that Carpenter has personally refuted the line about "when times are worst, humanity is at its best," not the least in the recent Nightmares in Red, White and Blue.

Which makes the film even more interesting. He's proving a point (and proving it dramatically and beautifully...) that he doesn't fully agree with.

Anyway, just a gorgeous, thoughtful post, and fantastic reading.

All my best,
John

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

JD- Thanks my friend. It's a pleasure to be in the company of such a strong writer. Glad to be part of it. Superb week.

Love Animal House- thanks for reminding me about her in that film. I did know that but forgot about it.

John- I was well aware you've been busy with the deadlines. I understand how time is tight for all of us. Not a problem.

But thank you all for your comments.

John- one more thing. Interesting point about that quote from the film Carpenter has since refuted. I specifically did not include that portion of the quote in my entry because it felt hokey. It didn't feel like Carpenter at all. Funny how I felt that way about the quote, but I didn't know that so thanks for the additional insight.

All the best guys.

Barry said...

The review is quite decent.

Personally I like movies that are made years before. The acting was much better. Conan the Barbarian, Excalibur and so forth

The British cult movie - Life Force

You won't see those kind of movies.

later

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Boy Barry- Amen! You make a great point. Much more time seemed to be spent on the component of character drama and acting back in the day.

This is indeed like a lost art.

Far more attention is paid to action and special effects. you are so right.

Look at John Carpenter's The Thing, The Fog and Starman. Those first two are frightening as all get out, but there's mood and acting aplenty.

Well said. Thank you.