STARMAN: The Master Of Horror John Carpenter Is A Big Old Softie [Blu Review]

Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen chemistry abounds

Romance films are a risky endeavor.

The genre lives and dies on a few core essentials which cannot be compromised or the whole project will fail. Of primary importance is the casting of the leads (and the chemistry between them). You can have an amazing story, excellent dialog, award-worthy cinematography, stylish direction… and if your leads don’t mesh with the audience, the movie is irreparable.

Also, romance is eternally relevant and universally relatable, but when telling a story squarely within the genre, there’s no hiding from it. Your audience MUST come along for the emotional ride between the leads or no other flourish or genre layering can maintain audience loyalty.

I mention all of this because it’s crucial to understanding why John Carpenter’s Starman feels like such a longshot, and why it works like gangbusters.

Carpenter is my all-time favorite director. And while I primarily love him for some of his more blue collar action/sci-fi/genre stuff like Big Trouble In Little China, They Live, or Assault On Precinct 13, he’s best known as the Master Of Horror. He’s not known for on-screen romance. Starman (and Carpenter), therefore, had a lot to prove in 1984 with this project. Fortunately Starman is the perfect romance vehicle for someone like Carpenter to tackle, with sci-fi and chase elements also mixed in.

Starman depicts a man-made satellite sent out into the galaxy featuring recordings and samples of our world cultures being picked up by a mysterious spaceship which responds by sending a being to our planet to make contact. This titular character happens to [crash] land in the vicinity of Jenny Hayden’s (Karen Allen) property, and, assuming the physical form of her deceased husband Scott (Jeff Bridges) in order to make her feel more comfortable, demands Jenny’s assistance to rendezvous with his people hundreds of miles away. I know, a lot just happened in that last sentence. But honestly, that hook is the most complicated and sci-fi element of the film. It’s otherwise fairly refreshingly straightforward.

Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon’s script strikes a really tricky balance that allows this plot to work and gives the leads time to shine. Bridges, in an Oscar nominated role, gets to play a mysterious being literally walking in another man’s shoes. Both child-like and bird-like, Starman must focus on his rendezvous with his mothership or he will die. However, along the way he’ll soak in as much of our culture as possible. Allen’s Jenny, on the other hand, has more or less been traumatized by watching a strange creature morph into her dead husband right before her eyes, and is then forced to take this being on the road. The dynamic these circumstances creates between these two leads is absolutely fantastic. They’re somewhat destined to fall in love, but despite all the sci-fi tropes and obstacles between them, their path to falling in love feels natural; nay, human.

There’s a purity and innocence to the Starman character. There’s not a malicious bone in his body as he’s a being of higher intelligence. He doesn’t grasp the human race, however, and out of necessity, Jenny begins to teach him and empathize with him. It helps that he’s seemingly able to perform miracles with the use of some otherworldly spheres he’s brought with him on his journey. Starman’s abilities combined with his earnest desire to understand humanity make for an intriguing character. Jenny is preoccupied with escaping from her situation at first, but soon comes to care for this powerful creature that looks just like her beloved husband. What’s fascinating is that she falls in love with Starman, and not so much with Scott. Their love is tender, aided by a gorgeous score from Jack Nitzsche and amplified by the increasing danger they find themselves in.

Outside of our two leads, there’s a whole Close Encounters Of The Third Kind-lite element happening, with the government tracking the arrival of the spacecraft and attempting to engage with the alien. Wonderful character actor Charles Martin Smith (The Untouchables) plays a kind of geeky and outnumbered version of Truffaut’s awe-filled character from Close Encounters: the empathetic and pure scientist who just wants to discover the mystery and share it with the world. But he’s employed by the government, as embodied by Richard Jaekel’s George Fox, who will of course stop at nothing to apprehend this creature. Martin Smith is excellent and his arc is another element of the film that soars. For the first two thirds of the film the whole big government baddies piece never quite works and feels like a distraction from our leads. But in the film’s climax when Martin Smith’s Mark Shermin actually gets to stick it to the man and have a powerful discussion with Starman about the beauty of our humanity, all the non-love-story stuff also clicks into place for a banger of an ending.

But again, the key here is that Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen click. We care about our main characters and we want to see them fall in love. We invest in their race against the clock because John Carpenter took the time to work with his actors and bring to life a strong script in a way that works. He may be the Master Of Horror, but credit should be given where it is due and Carpenter proves with Starman that he’s an actor’s director (and a big old softie). As the emotion and the killer score swells for the visually iconic finale, Starman cements its place as another top tier film from one of America’s great filmmakers.

The Package

Perhaps the only thing more endearing than a commentary track between John Carpenter and Kurt Russell might be a commentary track between Carpenter and Jeff Bridges. It’s clear that these guys are genuine friends and also that they respect one another’s craft deeply. This fantastic commentary track is an easy recommend that makes this disc worth owning outright. And while that track does not appear to be newly recorded for this release, there IS a featurette created just for this Collector’s Edition Blu featuring Carpenter, Bridges, and Charles Martin Smith (as well as Sandy King-Carpenter who was script supervisor on the film and is now married to the director). This is a great disc for an often overlooked title in John Carpenter’s oeuvre. An easy recommend for Carpenter fans or even just hopeless romantics.

And I’m Out.

John Carpenter’s Starman is now available on Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory

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