Friday, May 30, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Starman (1984) ***½

PG, 115 min.
Director: John Carpenter
Writers: Bruce A. Evans, Raynold Gideon
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel

I have been meaning to revisit John Carpenter’s “Starman” for quite some time now. I remember enjoying it a great deal when I was younger and more so having a good amount of respect for it as something above your average 80s sci-fi flick. Watching it now, it’s easy to see where the respect came from.

I notice things now I never could have in my youth. Most importantly is how claustrophobic the movie feels. This is a window into the brilliance of Carpenter. He didn’t set out to make a typical sci-fi thriller, but chose to make a deeply personal movie about a woman who has lost her husband before they’ve even begun their life together. It’s important that the movie begins after his death and with the audience knowing nothing about him. He’s hers. He doesn’t belong to anyone else.

Now comes this alien being who looks exactly like her deceased husband, but acts nothing like him. In most film director’s hands, not allowing the audience to know the man he’s replacing would be a handicap. In fact, I would imagine that most would like to show the audience who he was in flashbacks and through other forms of exposition. Instead Carpenter keeps his audience just as unaware of the man he’s replacing as the alien himself is. All we see of the actual husband are some home movies with no context and barely any audio. Jeff Bridges may not even utter a complete sentence as the husband.

Bridges is the key to making everything work though. It took him five nominations to actually win an Oscar, one being for this very role, but he deserved it for this role just as much as for any of the others, possibly more so considering he’s given no material with which to win the audience over through empathy until deep into the movie. And yet he does gain our sympathy and we do empathize with his plight without Bridges ever breaking from the emotionless set of personality traits with which he’s given to work.

The claustrophobia is also a result of the amazing budgetary restrictions with which Carpenter must work. For one of his few studio efforts, he must’ve impressed with this one. In order to afford the special effects necessary for the story, Carpenter whittles down his cast of characters to the bare essentials. There are basically three main characters, one supporting heavy and a bunch of extras. Bridges and Karen Allen carry the majority of the load with their very personal story. Charles Martin Smith, coming off his sleeper success of “Never Cry Wolf” (another film I’ve been meaning to revisit for quite some time), carries the thematic burden as a government contractor who seems to be the only one capable of understanding that we actually invited this alien to our planet with the Voyager 2 satellite. Richard Jaeckel handles the government heavy.

Of course, “Starman” is sort of a companion film to Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing”. It’s his answer to that film in many ways. In that film the visitor from space in an immense threat to man. In this one, man is the threat to the alien lifeform. Both aliens can hide among the human population by taking a human form. In “The Thing” this is how the alien thrives and survives. In “Starman” his time is limited by his human form, which will eventually kill him, so he must leave. Both require a human connection to survive life on Earth. One we seek to study with disregard for safety, the other we seek to destroy in order to study. They’re quite a pair. “Starman” is definitely as good as I remember.

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