Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Starman (1984)

Starman turns 30 this year. 

For its first ten minutes or so, Starman feels like a John Carpenter movie. It starts with an invitation. The U.S. sends a phonographic recording out to space that contains an offer for any extra terrestrial life force to come pay America a visit. Then there is some nice parallel editing, as the screen cuts between a martian scout vessel coming to earth and a classic suburban American house in which Karen Allen drinks wine and cries as she watches a clips of her recently deceased husband Scott through a projector. “Don’t do this to yourself, Jenny, go to sleep,” she says, as we continue to see the ship flying towards earth. It’s obvious where it’s headed, though the fact that it arrives near Jenny’s house is actually a result of a crash landing that destroys the ship.

We get a subjective POV shot of the alien, which seems to be just a bunch of blue light, as it moves through Jenny’s house, finds a scrapbook that contains a lock of Scott’s hair, and uses this to create a clone. Enter Jeff Bridges as an alien. But before we get to see Bridges, there’s a great Carpenter moment in which the alien first morphs into a weird looking baby (with classic 80s special effects) and then rapidly progresses through the different life stages, all while Jenny watches in horror.

It’s a promising opening if one is expecting a John Carpenter movie a la The Thing or The Fog. But what we get after that is a road adventure love story that feels less like John Carpenter being himself than Carpenter channeling Steven Spielberg. The alien initially kidnaps Jenny as they trek across America towards Arizona (where the Starman’s people will send another ship), but as the journey progresses, she goes from fear, to understanding, to emotional attachment. All the while, they’re being pursued by the U.S army, who in their hostility are contradicting the country’s original cordial invitation. A scientist who is investigating the crash is one of the few people who seems to recognize this. “Screw morality,” he says at one point. “What the hell ever happened to good manners—we invited him here!”

Starman is clearly designed to be the type of well-rounded movie that’s accessible for a wide audience. There are the expected random bits of humor, mainly obvious jokes concerning the alien’s ignorance of human standards (for example, he doesn’t differentiate between the ladies’ room and the mens’ room, or understand that we usually eat dessert after the meal), exciting chase scenes, and of course the budding romance between Jenny and the alien. It’s a sweet, predictable love story, but also a believable one. The alien is hardly replacement for Scott, but since he looks just like him, one can’t help but understand Jenny’s growing infatuation for him. Once she realizes that the alien isn’t hostile, she allows herself to be completely taken by the fact that a form of her beloved has returned. Who wouldn’t?

For his performance, Bridges was nominated for an Oscar, and while he employs a steady flow of complex facial expressions since his language skills are limited, when he does happen to speak it’s a little grating. One can only take so much of Bridges in robotic voice mode, especially since the actor’s real voice is such a rich and pleasant one. Luckily, Allen is terrific and wonderfully committed, portraying a complicated, grief stricken woman thrown into a terrifying situation and never once acting as though she’s above the material. It’s the rare Hollywood blockbuster in which a woman gets the majority of the dialogue and screen time. Allen’s work here makes you wonder why it doesn’t happen more often.

Beneath the love story, breezy pace, and overall sense of fun lies Starman’s ulterior agenda, namely to critique the modern government/military system in America as paranoid and overly aggressive (it’s never clear though whether it’s suggesting we’re still in a fairly primitive state, or if this attitude is a result of the social/political disillusionment of the 1970s), while ultimately giving mankind itself a big pat on the back. “You are at your very best when things are worst,” Bridges declares at the end, and those words come out of his mouth like big blinking lights screaming thesis statement.

Though it doesn’t have Carpenter’s stamp (or screenwriter credit), Starman is still a fantastic formal exercise. When there is movement Carpenter uses a dolly or steadicam, and when the action stops he employs basic two shots and shot-reverse—shot angles. There’s no unnecessary flourishes or visual bric-a-brac. His wonderfully practical and simple compositions keep the film looking sleek and professional, which is what genre movies ultimately need. Jim Mickle has taken that cue and applied it to some fantastic modern genre films, while Jeff Nichols is using his already Carpenter-esque visual style in a movie actually inspired by Starman. His first big studio movie, It’s called Midnight Special, and opens next year. But, as said ultimately Starman has more in common with Spielberg than Carpenter. Hell, it even closes with a Spielbergian face (see Kevin Lee’svideo essay). 

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