Film Review - Starman (1984)
'Starman' was a movie made in the early 1980s at a time when the image of benevolent aliens was very much in vogue. 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' and 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial' had already been released to become box office hits, when this movie came out. 'Starman' is very different in scale to these films - it is not a Spielbergian blockbuster; but a gently romantic road movie in which a visitor from the stars assumes human form and takes lonely Jenny Hayden on a trip across America to a rendevouz with a space ship in the Arizona desert.
Directed by John Carpenter, who was much better known at the time for dark fantasies such as 'Halloween', 'The Fog', 'The Thing' and 'Christine', this movie would nonetheless become critically and commercially successful and is today one of the most attractive of all sci-fi films with beautiful effects and a few heart tugging moments.
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The Two Star-Crossed Leads
What's The Story?
The story of 'Starman' begins with the launch of the Voyager probes to the outer solar system - a real life event which took place in 1977. Knowing that after encountering and exploring the outer planets, the probes would continue their way endlessly through space, scientists placed on board a collection of signals of life on Earth, including messages of greetings in many languages, in the hope that the Voyager may one day encounter an alien civilisation - perhaps a forlorn billion to one hope, but why not take the chance? The premise of this film is that the message is indeed picked up by another intelligent species, and an emissary is sent across space to investigate our planet and to make contact with its human population.
Things do not go as planned. Far from being welcomed to Earth's air space, the emissary's spacecraft is targeted by U.S military jets and shot down on the orders of a fearful U.S defence agency. It crashes in the middle of the night, in a remote area of Wisconsin. And in the form of an amorphous, floating entity, the pilot makes his way to the nearest sign of habitation, an isolated cottage in the countryside, the home of Jenny Hayden. Jenny is essentially a very lonely person. She is a widow, and that evening she has been watching some old movie footage of her beloved husband Scott fooling about and having fun. But now she has gone to bed and is sleeping as the emissary arrives at her home and enters. In the house, he examines old photos and film of Scott. He also finds a lock of his hair, and with the DNA from the hair and the images of Scott, the entity transforms himself into a baby who rapidly grows into an exact human clone - the Starman. Jenny has now woken and this transformation occurs before her uncomprehending, terrified eyes. But she's not awake for long; when the Starman sees her and spouts greetings taken from the Voyager probes, she collapses in a brief faint. The Starman now communicates with his mother ship using one of the strange 'energy marbles' he has in his possession, and a rendevous is arranged to rescue him. The rendevous will be at the Barringer Crater in Arizona in three days time. All he needs to do now is to get there, and - alone in a hostile world - the only way he can do that is by using Jenny Hayden's Earth knowledge and her Mustang Cobra coupé.
And so this odd couple embark on a journey across country. Initially, the Starman is wary and uncomfortable in an alien world, whilst Jenny is a frightened kidnap victim, trapped, as she sees it, in a nightmare with an entity who looks exactly like her dead husband. She drives because she is in fear for her life. But as they drive and they talk, and the Starman's command of English gradually improves, so she begins to realise that she really has nothing to fear. He has no intention of hurting her. Indeed, Jenny comes to realise that the Starman is in far greater danger than she is.
Meanwhile the National Security Agency are well aware of the alien's presence. The capsule in which he arrived has been retrieved, and two men are hot foot on his trail. Nominally they are two men who are working together, but their inclinations are quite different. Mark Shermin is a scientist, unaware of the alien's mission, but excited by the presence of a visitor from another world. He believes the Starman should be treated as a guest on Planet Earth. George Fox is different. His natural predisposition is to guard 'America's interests' and he views the alien with extreme mistrust.
The Starman and Jenny continue on their strange road trip, and a recognition of the Starman's innocence of human ways and vulnerability leads Jenny to develop a protective fondness for him. She feels she has to help him. Has to - and also wants to. And then the power of the Starman - revealed in the resurrection of a dead deer and the healing of Jenny herself following a terrible accident - makes the bond even stronger. She sees in this alien a goodness uncommon in humans. She falls in love.
But even with Jenny's help and his other-worldly abilities, the Starman's desperate bid to reach safety remains in jeopardy, with the Government agents, the police and the military in hot pursuit. The Mustang is lost and a host of other means of transport are employed as the couple continue towards their goal. And all the time, the alien's own health is failing. Prolonged exposure to the Earth's atmosphere is not conducive to his continued life. If they cannot reach the Arizona crater in time, he will die ...
The final outcome of the Starman's road journey with Jenny Hayden is revealed in some places in this article. These will be preceeded by a 'plot spoiler' headline. The closing photo captions also reveal something of the film's ending.
Main Cast and Characters
Charles Martin Smith
Facts of the Film
DIRECTOR : John Carpenter
- Bruce A. Evans
- Dean Riesner
- Raynold Gideon
YEAR OF RELEASE : 1984
RUNNING TIME : 115 minutes
GENRE : Sci-Fi / Romance
GUIDANCE : None Required
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS :
- Jeff Bridges (Best Picture)
Principal Characters, Actors and Performances
This is a film with very few major characters. Indeed almost all of the attention from beginning to end is focused on the two leads - Jenny Hayden and her alien companion, the Starman. Only two other roles are of any significance and these are the two leading pursuers of the couple, Mark Shermin and George Fox. No other character in this movie is on screen for more than a few minutes.
Jeff Bridges won one of his six acting nominations at the Academy Awards Cermony for his quirky portrayal of the Starman. Initially the Starman does not understand human mannerisms, and his English is limited by the words inscribed on the Voyager probes. But gradually the Starman's human skills and vocabulary improve as he learns from Jenny Hayden, and Jeff Bridges handles these developments well.
Karen Allen is very appealing as the lonely and lovelorn Jenny Hayden. One yearns for her to find new love with this Starman, or at least with someone who cares about her.
Charles Martin Smith and Richard Jaeckel play Mark Shermin and George Fox respectively, and they represent the two sides of officialdom. Shermin is the scientist who wants to meet the alien. Fox is the agent who can only see a threat to security.
The script of 'Starman' was being developed at Columbia Pictures at the same time as another movie called 'Night Skies' which also featured a benign alien visitation. 'Night Skies' was really intended for a rather more juvenile audience, but because of the broad similarity in the two stories, Columbia chose to go ahead with just one. They chose 'Starman' and let the other script go to a rival studio, partly because they considered it too 'Disney-esque'. It was perhaps from their point of view, a wrong decision. Why? 'Night Skies' was a project of famed director Steven Spielberg, and it was soon to be renamed 'E.T - the Extra-terrestrial'. And when 'E.T' was released in 1982 to become the highest grossing film of all time, production of 'Starman' was put back for a couple of years to avoid the competition.
The producer of 'Starman' was the celebrated actor and director Michael Douglas. Several directors were employed by him, but then left the project for various reasons before Mr Douglas settled on John Carpenter.
Several actors were also proposed for the role of the Starman, before Jeff Bridges took it. At one time Kevin Bacon was considered. Less credibly perhaps, Tom Cruise was also under consideration.
How to look like a human being and yet other-worldly at the same time? Jeff Bridges tackles this by lurching about in a mildly robotic fashion, and speaking with language difficulties. To get the novel jerky head movements of an alien in a human body, Jeff Bridges chose to model his actions on the head movements of birds.
The crater which acts as the rendevous venue at the end of the film is, of course, an absolutely genuine feature of the Arizona desert. Known officially as the Barringer Crater, it was formed when a great meteor struck the Earth about 50,000 years ago. The crater is about 1,200 m (3,900 ft) in diameter, and 170 m (570 ft) deep.
The most memorable scenes in this film involve special effects - but the special effects in 'Starman' are not the typical sci-fi fare of alien creatures and sophisticated spacecraft; rather they have more of the fantasy appeal of fairy tales and stories of magic.
In the early part of the film the alien 'entity' slowly transforms into a human being - an exact clone of Jenny's dead husband. And she is there to watch it happen, in a state of incomprehension and fear. There are mystical elements as the Starman harnesses the power of his little 'magic marbles' to create this transformation, and the image of his new human form standing outside Jenny's home, his arms outstretched, has a God-like symbolism.
The symbolism is continued in later fantasy sequences. In one touching scene the Starman has been moved by the sight of a deer shot dead and tied to the front of a car. Disturbed by what he has seen he later returns to the car and using another of his power marbles, he brings the deer back to life. Again, the action is watched by Jenny, and it marks the culmination of her own transformation from kidnap victim to concerned and increasingly affectionate companion.
The resurrection theme is continued later when it is Jenny's own turn to be revived by the Starman. He emerges from a horrible car crash and explosion brought about by the pursuit of the authorities, and he is carrying a seemingly dead Jenny, whilst surrounded by a halo of light. It's quiet reminiscent of the moment in another film of 1984, when skeletal cyborg the 'Terminator' emerges from a burning truck. But in 'The Terminator' the sequence is full of menace. In 'Starman' it's just beautiful.
The climactic scene is almost mesmerising as the Starman departs in a haze of golden snowflakes and Jenny remains to bear his child. She gazes skywards as he disappears into the heavens. The music which plays over this scene is also fittingly beautiful and really very uplifting. It's a scene clearly designed to stir the emotions and tug at the heartstrings as this visitor from the skies leaves the Earth, and also leaves behind the girl whose heart he has touched.
Although this film is primarily about the developing affection between the Starman and the Earth woman, there is a side story, which is the paranoia of officialdom and the conflict which develops between scientist Mark Shermin who appreciates the alien's presence is a goodwill response to a message of welcome, and George Fox, who can only see a potential threat to national security. Most of the best dialogue comes from these two.
In one exchange, George Fox is deeply cynical about the Starman's words of greeting in response to the Voyager probes' own messages of welcome:
'Greetings' It’s what the cannibal said to the missionary just before they ate him’.
Mark Shermin replies:
‘Yeah well the question in this case is, who is the missionary, and who are the cannibals?’
Mark also points out the hypocrisy in the aggressive hunting down of the alien:
‘Whatever happened to ‘Good Morning’? We invited him here remember?'
And Jenny Hayden makes a simple point about all that is wrong with the official approach when she pleads with Mark Shermin towards the end of the movie:
‘He doesn’t want to hurt anybody. Really, can’t you just leave him alone?’
Any criticisms of 'Starman' tend to be mild.Those who are negative about it pick different elements of the film to attack. Jeff Bridges's performance is not admired by some, while others feel that the story is derivative, and predictable. But critical reception on the movie's release generally was very favourable.
Perhaps some who had expected a traditional John Carpenter movie, or a 'Star Wars' / 'Close Encounters' / 'E.T' blockbuster, may have been a little disappointed. But accept 'Starman' for what it really is - a gentle romance with a sci-fi setting (a fantasy chick flick if you will) - and there really is nothing much to criticise. It's a very charming film with some beautiful sequences.
What's So Good About It?
'Starman' works on several levels - as a fantasy sci-fi movie, as a romance, and as a road movie. There's also a touch of comedy and a little satire. But none of this is overstated.
Where it works best is as a fantasy romance. All of the most memorable scenes of fantasy have already been described and these are a triumph for the special effects team, but they are made more emotional by the reactions of the ever present witness, Jenny Hayden. On each occasion when the Starman reveals his other-worldliness, Jenny Hayden is there to experience it at first hand through her developing emotions - the fear and the awe, the delight, and ultimately the love.
One can read what one wishes into the movie. One could see God-like allegories, alluded to in some previous sections and in photo captions. Here we have a being who has come down to Earth from the heavens and taken human form. He performs miracles, including the resurrection of the dead and the healing of the sick. And he gives Jenny Hayden a baby when she believes she cannot have one - a sort of miraculous conception. Finally, on the verge of death after offering his message of hope to mankind, he is resurrected and returns to the skies.
One can also see a satirical element. On the one hand we may send out wonderful messages of peace and greeting to aliens, reaching out and seeking contact. On the other hand, if someone actually responds to those messages and comes in peace, would we treat them with respect and a warm welcome, or with mistrust and fear? George Fox is a character who is seen to be doing his official duty, but it's a duty borne out of a paranoid need to maintain control in all circumstances.
There are messages in ‘Starman’, but it would be wrong to make great philosophical claims for the film. When all is said and done this is first and foremost a touching and beautiful romance, played out to an inspiring musical score, and with a whole lot of magic thrown in. The two leads are both attractive characters, and so as the movie progresses, one finds oneself rooting for them both; for Jenny to find true love and happiness, and for the Starman to find his way home to a world we can only imagine is more beautiful than this one. Treat it as a fantasy romance, and 'Starman' is one of the most charming films of its kind, ever made.
Photos on This Page
All screenshots are taken by the author from the movie 'Starman'.
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