Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1984)

10. Starman

After “The Thing” collapsed at the box office and with critics, John Carpenter was in work-for-hire mode. “Starman” was hardly a personal project for him. The film had passed through directors as divergent in style and approach as Mark Rydell, Adrian Lynn, John Badham, Tony Scott, and Peter Hyams before finally arriving at Carpenter. The director was apparently looking to distance himself from the exploitation genre, you can’t help but get the impression that “Starman” wasn’t much more then a job for him.

If anything, the movie almost feels like Carpenter publicly apologizing for “The Thing.” Often described as “E.T. for grown-ups,” though actually pre-dating that project, “Starman” is a sappy extraterrestrial love story. An alien who appears to be made of pure light, an interesting idea the film explores in no way, crash-lands on Earth, before stumbling into the cabin of grieving widow Karen Allen. Luck would have it that all the photographs, home movies, and a lock of hair of her late husband just happens to be left out. Using these resources, the alien grows a human body from infancy to adulthood in minutes, the movie’s sole moment of interesting special effects. Shocked and thoroughly confused, Allen and the Starman, now played by Jeff Bridges, head out on an adventure, to get to his emergency pick-up ride in three days. The two strange-strangers come to understand and eventually love each other is inevitable. The duo is pursued by a military general who acts like an asshole pretty much for no good reason.

I don’t hate “Starman.” There are plenty of likable elements to the film. The film managed to do the unthinkable by earning an Academy Award nomination, despite being in the science fiction genre. Bridges’ critically-lauded title performance certainly is very good. In modern language, he goes “full-alien,” not being afraid to play his character as occasionally off-putting, uncanny, or odd. His motion is stiff and robotic, right down to unblinking motionless eyes, capturing something inhuman in a human body quite well. Honestly, he comes very close to over-doing it, as his body language is frequently distracting. However, Bridges still manages to make the character relatable, most notably in a scene where the alien first taste Dutch Apple Pie. One of Bridges’ best tools as an actor is his innate likable and that is what makes the Starman memorable.

Yet a part of me can’t help but like Karen Allen’s performance more. It’s the less showy role. Though the film comes dangerously close, Allen is never reduced to just reacting to the amazing things around her. Early on, her grieving and tears are heart-breakingly real. Even if the script is hopelessly hokey, the affection she comes to feel for the title character comes off as genuine and likable, as is her initial fear and surprise. It’s fair to say the two lead performances are the best thing “Starman” has going for it. I also liked Charles Martin Smith as the reasonable SETI agent, who manages to make a hackneyed role a friendly presence.

Really, it’s the script. From the moment they meet, you know these two are going to fall in love and change one another’s life. The emotionless alien will learn how to love. The human will be given hope once again. (It’s a testament to Bridges’ performance that he can make haury lines about how special humans are touching.) When Allen mentions in passing that she can’t give birth, it’s inevitable that Starman’s mystical, far-reaching powers will gift her with a miracle child. Why exactly does the alien have magical powers? He can bring a dead deer back to life, walk unharmed out of a massive fireball, and seems to have a death ray in his pocket. The character has three magical metal balls he carries around, which seem to be portable deux ex machinas, since they can do anything. Which is weird, since the character’s innate powers seem more-or-less limitless.

My biggest problem with the story lies with the evil military forces tracking the two. Obviously, if an alien landed in Wisconsin, the government would want to track it and capture it. But that doesn’t explain their unerringly hostile reaction. The most groan-inducing moment comes when helicopters open fire on the two. (They somehow manage to miss.) Did aliens kill Richard Jaeckel’s parents or something? Why the hate-on for E.T.? The hostility extends down to minor characters as well. Rednecks beat up the alien after resurrecting their deer, without questioning the guy’s magical powers. A pair of local cops are total cowboys, going on high speed pursuits and jimmying car doors open.

For every character that is a hindrance, we have another that is oddly helpful. A dinner waitress is unusually invested in her customers. A cook that picks up the hitchhiking Starman is very accepting of his passenger’s quirks. Similarly, another random motorist is willing to set off a huge explosion as a distraction. “Starman” exists in a world of clichés and contrivances.

While the practical special effects work fairly well, the digital effects have aged badly. There’s very little sign of Carpenter’s trademarks, unless the unseen light being’s POV shots count. The ending is hopelessly abrupt. Jack Nitzsche provides a droning, electronic score. Despite its many problems, “Starman” still occasionally works. It’s the small, humorous moments that stick with me the most: The alien’s gleamed understanding of traffic lights, his total joy at experiencing human dessert, the way he beats the house in Vegas. Those memorable, likable moments paired with two strong lead performances rescues the film from mediocrity.  Despite “Starman’s” positive reception, I think it says a lot about the movie that Carpenter has never returned to the romance genre since. [Grade: C+]

1 comment:

Sean Catlett said...

The world just didn't understand their love, man.