Starman

February 1, 2012

In the opening scene of Starman, we see the Voyager probe, which was sent into outer space a few years ago. In a parody of the musical space ballets of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the vessel glides through the solar system—but instead of the strains of “The Blue Danube,” as in 2001, we hear the Rolling Stones singing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which, apparently, was included in the sampler of cultural artifacts as part of the message of invitation for alien civilizations.

Right then you know this is not going to be a stuffy movie.

The Voyager’s invitation will be accepted, by a highly advanced civilization, and this premise—a grown-up E.T.—is the story of Starman (which, by the way, is being touted as the science-fiction sleeper of the season, especially compared to the bigger-budgeted 2010 and Dune).

Starman had an air of notoriety even before the cameras started rolling. This is the project that Columbia Pictures decided to develop instead of E.T., which was then passed on to Universal. We all know how that one turned out, and Columbia had egg on its face for a while.

Starman makes Columbia look better. It’s not as good as E.T., but it’s got a similar innocence and hopeful view of man and alien. It’s also got unavoidably similar situations, such as the alien learning to eat, speak, and behave in the human world. Some of this stuff has been overworked lately (it’s going to turn up again in the upcoming Brother from Another Planet), but much of it is sure-fire in terms of engaging an audience.

Both films are love stories between the alien and his finder. The big difference between E.T. and Starman is that this story has an adult romance, not a child’s.

The Starman crash-lands in Wisconsin near the farm of a widow (Karen Allen, from Raiders of the Lost Ark). He scopes out her home and reforms himself to look like her late husband (so, he looks like Jeff Bridges).

He’s on Earth just to get a feel for the place and then return to his own world with information—and perhaps to help a little down here. But he went off course, and he has to get back to his pick-up point (in Arizona) in three days, or he’ll miss his ride and die.

So Allen is recruited as a reluctant chauffeur, and as a tutor—teaching the Starman, during their cross-country journey, about the joys of driving, language, truck stops, Dutch apple pie, and other intimate human functions.

A parallel story develops: the pursuit of the Starman by official forces. The government people, being government people, want to capture him and run all kinds of nasty tests. Not very good manners, considering that, as one expert puts it, “We invited him here!”

That UFO expert (a good role for Charles Martin Smith of Never Cry Wolf) tracks the Starman with the government officials (led by that mean guy, Richard Jaeckel). By the time everybody meets up in Arizona, he’s got more feeling for the Starman than for his official job.

This film should open up some doors for director John Carpenter, who has had a hard time breaking out of the horror genre (Halloween, Christine). He gets the humor very nicely and the performers are solid. I would quibble only that the film takes a long time getting into its groove, but it grows on you enough to make you forget that. When Starman reaches its rapturous ending, you’re with it all the way.

First published in the Herald, December 12, 1984

It may have opened some doors for Carpenter, but it turned out he wasn’t a guy to walk through them anyway. Nice movie, and it must be well-liked, but it sure doesn’t come up much in conversation; maybe there’s too much mushy stuff for it to hold a lot of nerdosphere cred? Jeff Bridges is terrific in it, and got a well-deserved Oscar nomination.


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