Forgotten Gem: Starman (****1/2) is better than Dutch Apple Pie

starman-poster1

John Carpenter’s Starman – 1984

Director John Carpenter
Screenplay by Bruce A. Evans & Raynold Gideon
Starring Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Phalen, Dirk Blocker, M.C. Gainey

In my mind’s eye, Starman is a big hit that was seen by everyone in the 1980’s. When Jeff Bridges was nominated for an Oscar as the titular character, I had no idea this would be the only Oscar nomination a John Carpenter film would ever receive. In many ways John Carpenter was at the top of the directing class in 1984. He’d had a slew of critically acclaimed and popular (if not always profitable) films from 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 to 1983’s Christine. The list includes two of the greatest films ever made, Halloween and his remake of The Thing. Starman kept his artistic hot streak going strong enough to have been a mild surprise to the world when his Big Trouble In Little China landed with a thud on the American cinematic scene. Although he enjoyed moderate success after that point, John Carpenter would never be great again.

Thankfully, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special has brought this wonderful movie back into the minds of critics, and hopefully by proxy, viewers. The premise is a simple one. Earth invites people from other worlds to come visit via Voyager II. A well-traveled species from another planet gets the message and decides to send someone to take us up on the offer. Once their traveler gets here, we shoot them down. The representative escapes the burning wreckage in a translucent form, heads to the nearest house in Chequamegon Bay, Wisconsin and after examining the house’s lone inhabitant (Allen) takes the genetic form of her dead husband (Bridges). The transition is awkward, as he literally grows from a baby into an adult overnight. Allen, as Jenny Hayden in a miserable drunken stupor over the loss of her husband wakes up, sees the process, faints, then wakes again after the process has completed. Taken aback by the sequence of events, she tries to escape her house.

The alien, intelligent and a quick learner but still largely ignorant, makes a request that she drive him to Arizona so he can rendezvous with his people and get back home. She reads this awkward request as a kidnapping, and she does as he is told. From here it becomes a road movie as the two learn about one another and stumble through one pitfall after another on their way through the mid-west United States towards their destination.

The learning process is sometimes incredibly intuitive and at other times somewhat puzzlingly dense. Jenny figures out in short order that this clone of her husband is actually a visitor from space, but then she spends much of the first act alternating explaining human behavior to the starman and believing he is actually holding her captive at gunpoint.

Even so, the actors and director manage to work some incredibly poignant moments consistently throughout the story. Bridges performance is an incredibly smart one. He’s new to his body, old to the universe. We really feel it when he experiences hunger and then the delight of something like Dutch Apple Pie for the first time. It’s also neat seeing his reaction to seeing a hunting prize on the hood of a car, even if no hunter would actually transport their kill with the internal organs in tact. His work here is subtle and very pointed. It’s remarkable what one can do when the special effect they offer is just acting.

Allen, for her part, shows the charisma and beautiful smile that makes one think Earth has it’s best foot forward to match all of those bad representatives intent on securing the alien for study. It’s one of his typical “understanding guy” performances that seem to have disappeared since he retired from movie acting.

Charles Martin Smith is another fine representative as a SETI scientist who is curious but not threatened by the idea of visitors. His presence in the group of pursuers give a good balance to those not interested in asking questions. To be fair, though, other than shooting down the ship at the beginning and firing warning shots in the last act, humans are pretty well restrained.

Karen Allen won me over for her performance in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I still was under her spell at the time this came out.  She did the kind films that I would not see until Scrooged in 1989, when she fell off of my radar. I was happy to see her marry Indiana Jones in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, even if the movie kind of stunk. She has a vulnerability here that puts her a tick behind Marion Ravenwood, but she is adorable just the same. Seeing her in the conclusion of the film makes me realize how much I wish she’d have been a bigger star. She had a great energy.

If you haven’t seen this film, it’s worth pursuing. There are a few moments when one realizes that effects in the early ’80’s were more practical. Some of the stuff they try, like when they emerge from a big explosion is downright goofy. For each moment like that, though, we see some cooler moments that just flow by. It’s a great film made during a time when movies were less reliant on effects.

If you are a Jeff Bridges fan, then you want to see this. His career is almost impossible to narrow down to one performance or type of character. This is unlike anything else he’s done and it is good that he was recognized.

Carpenter could have used a bit more love throughout his heyday. Many of his films, including this one, have increased their standing on Rotten Tomatoes as time has passed. Dont’ let this fall by the wayside. Find a way to let it take you in.  This is a great film that should get a proper sequel, but for now, I will enjoy Midnight Special.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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