What happened to John Carpenter?
For a while there, from the mid 70s to the mid 80s, he was a force to be reckoned with. He produced two out-and-out genre classics, Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982). Halloween made a ton of money, whereas The Thing, as good as it was, was a flop. He also made several other memorable and well-loved films in this fertile period, including the highly-atmospheric ghost story The Fog (1980), the diverting sci-fi action flick Escape From New York (1981), the Stephen King killer car adaptation Christine (1983), and the ahead-of-its-time martial arts/fantasy goof Big Trouble in Little China (1986).
Then it seems as if Carpenter’s mojo just slowly disappeared. Did he just get tired and burn out? Get fed up with battling the B.S. from the studio suits? Had he simply run out of ideas? Whatever actually went down, there is a clear demarcation point between when Carpenter was making interesting movies and when he began to phone it in.
Oh, there were still a few moments here and there. They Live has some good satire, Prince of Darkness has a strong central idea, Vampires has a ferociously entertaining performance by James Woods. But clearly, the magic of making movies had gone out of Carpenter.
That’s OK. He has nothing to be ashamed of (well, except for Ghosts of Mars…) The man produced, directed and even scored several movies that will stand the test of time, and with Halloween, arguably set the standard for an entire subgenre, the slasher film, for generations to come.
Executive produced by actor Michael Douglas, Starman (1984) came toward the end of Carpenter’s creative peak, and is something of an oddity stacked up against his other works. It’s a warm, gentle and low-key little film, with minimal violence and a subtle message. It actually plays more like a lost Spielberg film, from the period when he also was at his creative peak. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of Carpenter in Starman, really, but he does a bang-up job directing this riff on the "Aliens Are Among Us" theme.
Carpenter himself has admitted that he did Starman because it was tonally opposite to The Thing and he needed to rekindle his box office cred to keep working in Hollywood. Ironically enough, Columbia Pictures chose this script over E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial, forcing Spielberg to move his project over to Universal. Of course, Speilberg had the last laugh. Starman didn't stand a chance at the box office compared to the behemoth hit that E.T. became, and kind of got lost in the shuffle. Both films work on the emotions, but this is one time where -- for me at least -- Carpenter's less-syrupy, more adult film comes out on top.
Starman is a very different picture from The Thing, but while it could never compete with the grim, claustrophobic, paranoiac heights of The Thing -- perhaps the best sci-fi/horror film ever made…yes, I’m talking to you, Alien -- it’s quite a good movie in its own right.
The movie opens in deep space, as an alien ship intercepts the Voyager 2 probe and responds to its invitation to visit Earth by sending down a scout ship. In tried-and-true sci-fi movie fashion, the U.S. military shoot it down and the spaceship crashes near a remote lake in Wisconsin. The alien scout, its true form a bright blue ball of energy, makes its way to a nearby cabin, and observes inside a despairing young woman, Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), watching home movies of her recently-deceased husband and drinking herself to sleep. The alien enters Jenny’s home and uses the DNA in a lock of her dead husband's hair to clone an exact duplicate of his body. Jenny awakens from the noise to find the naked Starman staring back at her with her husband’s face.
Once she gets over her initial shock, Jenny reacts with fear and anger. The Starman assures her he means her no harm. He essentially kidnaps Jenny, wanting her help to drive him to the Barringer Crater in Arizona, where he must rendezvous with his people within 3 days. She tries to escape many times, but eventually becomes fascinated by her alien “captor,” especially when she realizes that he is slowly dying in his assumed form. Planning to leave him at a roadhouse diner, she witnesses him tenderly resurrect a dead deer strapped to a hunter’s truck. Moved by the Starman's pacifistic and innocent nature, Jenny decides to help him evade capture by the sinister government man Mr. Fox (Richard Jaeckel), who has instigated a massive manhunt for the alien, live autopsy room at the ready. Reluctantly aiding the authorities is SETI researcher Mark Shermin (Charles Martin Smith), who is torn between scientific curiosity and horror at Mr. Fox's intentions.
The unusual love story that ensues seems trite on paper but becomes touching on screen, thanks to the unsensational, realistic tone and the strong performances by the leads. Jeff Bridges was Oscar-nominated for his role in this film, and it’s easy to see why. He expertly conveys the awkwardness and otherworldliness of the alien inside a human body. His performance is all off-kilter speech and jerky movements, which results in several fun and funny moments, but it never veers into parody; he creates a sympathetic and completely believable character in the Starman.
As good as Bridges is, the whole movie hinges on Karen Allen, and she really comes through with a warm, spirited, and very human performance. She runs the emotional gamut in this film and there’s not a false note to be seen. Allen is so good here (and in the monster hit Raiders of the Lost Ark), that it’s somewhat of a puzzle why she didn’t go on to greater stardom. She’s less brassy and tough in Starman than Raiders, but still maintains a strong, feisty character underlying her delicate, girl-next-door beauty. We buy the sweet, burgeoning romance between these literally star-crossed lovers mainly because Allen convinces us. That takes real skill.
A sign of how this is more of a studio work-for-hire product than the typical Carpenter film is that he doesn’t provide the soundtrack this time around. Jack Nitzshe was the composer and he does a good job remaining faithful to Carpenter’s simple, melodic compositional style while providing a memorable, haunting score, including the beautiful, ethereal main theme (which you can listen to here).
Starman is a involving tale with a nice, old-school sense of wonder and is a reminder of what a surprising heyday the early 80s were for sci-fi and fantasy filmmaking.
Blu-Ray Note: Starman is a very good-looking movie, and appears much crisper on Blu-Ray than Carpenter's earlier films, such as Halloween, The Thing and Escape From New York. I have the Japanese disc (identically to the U.S. release), which is extras-free, but the transfer is terrific.
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