Retro fix–John Carpenter’s sci-fi classic Starman, now streaming

Review by C.J. Bunce

John Carpenter movies are unique, whether you’re looking at his horror or his science fiction oeuvre.  The science fiction includes his first film, Dark Star, but the rest were much bigger productions, with Escape from New York, The Thing, Starman, They Live, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Escape from L.A., and Ghosts of Mars.  Of those, The Thing, Memoirs, and Starman were updates to established science fiction storytelling–The Thing an update of the 1950s sci-fi thriller The Thing from Another World, and Memoirs an adaptation of the novel, which was only the latest take on an established Universal Studios staple character.  The most mainstream is Starman, and it, too, followed in the vein of science fiction classics, especially important alien visitor trope pictures The Day the Earth Stood Still and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even Escape to Witch Mountain, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Superman, and War of the Worlds.  More importantly it influenced what came later, films like Predator, Carpenter’s own They Live, Men in Black, Independence Day, Signs, District 9, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Attack the Block, Cowboys and Aliens, The World’s End, Edge of Tomorrow, Midnight Special, Brightburn, The Arrival, A Quiet Place, The Vast of Night, The Adam Project, and Resident Alien. 

Over the past four decades Starman rarely has made its way to cable, or more recently to streaming platforms, but it’s now streaming on the free streaming platform Pluto.  Especially in a time when we’re shooting down objects flying across the skies, and Resident Alien is a top TV series, it’s a great time to revisit this sci-fi classic.

Starman seems like a simple story because it is.  A woman (played by Karen Allen) is still mourning the loss of her husband (played by Jeff Bridges) when a ship from another world enters the atmosphere and is shot down by the U.S. government.  It crashes near her home, and the entity presents itself without form at first, then it takes on the form of her husband.  The alien brings seven silver spheres that allow him to take special, supernatural actions.  He then “persuades” her to drive him to a rendezvous point where his people can take him home.  A scientist assisting the government (played by Charles Martin Smith) attempts to track their drive from rural Wisconsin to Winslow, Arizona.  On the journey the woman struggles mentally with whether to run away or continue with the alien, as she is both terrified yet mesmerized by seeing her husband again.  Together they teach each other the bare basics of what it means to be alien and human.

The appeal is in the acting and John Carpenter’s style adapted to this earthbound science fiction story in the mid-1980s era of his career.  For the celebrated composer, Carpenter chose many quiet spaces for the story, saving Jack Nitzsche’s theme for few major moments.  Some big names worked on this mid-level film, including Joe Alves, Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Dick Smith, and Doug Drexler.  The effects are not all that important to the film, however.   A light touch on An American Werewolf in London-style transformation scene upfront, some light-show effects, and an alien ship really just bookend an enjoyable road movie.  The script, written by more than a half dozen participants over several years, has just enough levity to keep the film from being too dry or dramatic.  The film is also a romance, but a romance as only John Carpenter could make it.

One hook for anyone around in the 1970s who followed the updates on the Voyager space probe journeys is that project’s role in this story.  Check out some of our own coverage of the Voyager program over the years here at borg–and the probes’ famous gold records recorded by Carl Sagan and others.

One film Starman can be closely compared to is Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  It’s said executive producer Michael Douglas and Columbia Pictures had options on both the script that would become E.T. and Starman‘s script, but skipped over E.T. for Starman for being too much of a Disney/kids story.  Of course Starman wasn’t destined to be a blockbuster–it’s a relatively quiet character study, but it’s a study with three memorable characters played by three major actors then and today, and it’s a showcase of the measured approach a master like Carpenter could bring to a simple alien visitor story.

Karen Allen began her career in National Lampoon’s Animal House, but she was only a year out of starring in Raiders of the Lost Ark when she made Starman Jeff Bridges was a household name, making his way ahead in Hollywood from his acting family roots (father Lloyd, brother Beau), after several TV appearances, and co-starring with major stars, including Clint Eastwood.  But Tron was his most recent success, and Starman would require more dramatic work from the actor.  His performance was so well received that it gave Bridges his third of seven nominations for the acting Oscar (he’d win for the remake of True Grit).  Bridges was good for Carpenter, because Bridges’ nomination is the only time a Carpenter film was nominated for an Academy Award.

As famous as Bridges in 1984 was Charles Martin Smith, who had starred in George Lucas’s breakout hit, American Graffiti.  Today it’s unthinkable the actor-director doesn’t have his own Oscar.  Smith has had memorable roles in some of genredom’s best films: along with American Graffiti there’s The Buddy Holly Story, Never Cry Wolf, and The Untouchables, along with dozens of TV roles.  Smith made Starman around the same time as Never Cry Wolf, and he brings to the film that same sense of authenticity and morality in a performance on par with François Truffaut’s similar, benevolent government advisor role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 

One of Carpenter’s go-to actors, the recognizable John Buck Flower makes an appearance in Starman, too.

Fans of Resident Alien will wonder if the writers of that current TV series are paying royalties to the writers of Starman, as all its major plot points can be found in Starman The alien can change its shape into human form, it becomes attached to a woman, food is a key learning tool–especially at diners (see, e.g., pie), both are pursued by an angry government official and a sympathetic party, and both aliens have special silver spheres that allow communication to their alien worlds–for starters.

Starman is a space visitor story without the evil invaders, and it reminds audiences why we shouldn’t always assume the worst in everything.  It tells the story of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in a different way, with the style of a rising director who was clearly a fan of science fiction storytelling.  Starman is a great 1980s movie that falls in line with films that weren’t blockbusters, but have stood the test of time, like Lifeforce, Silver Bullet, Enemy Mine, WarGames, The Watcher in the Woods, AlienNation, Outland, Tron, The Last Starfighter, DreamScape, Short Circuit, and D.A.R.Y.L.

Catch Starman now streaming free on Pluto.  You can also catch it here on Prime Video or via DVD or Blu-ray.

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