Thursday, December 2, 2010

Starman (1984)

Title: Starman (1984)

Director: John Carpenter

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen


John Carpenter’s specialty is horror films, there is no denying that that’s what the man does best, it’s what he is good at. But often times he is seen only as a horror film director, when in reality, he has directed many types of films that have nothing to do with horror. Dark Star (1974) is essentially a sci-fi comedy, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is an action/suspense film, Big Trouble in Little China (1986) is an action/adventure/fantasy film. And believe it or not, Carpenter even dabbled in making a romantic film. As fate would have it, it’s a damn good one! Circa 1984 Carpenter directed Starman, which is not the kind of film you would expect John Carpenter to direct. Why? Because it’s a freaking love story that’s why and love films aren’t exactly what Carpenter is known for. But, there it is, and if you ask me, though a bit derivative of other films, this sci-fi love story stands as one of Carpenter’s best films. Go figure!

Box Office success is that way, follow me!

Story goes like this: one night, a lonely widow mourns the death of her husband by watching super-8 films they made together. In this home movies, they appear doing all sorts of happy things together. Essentially, she is torturing herself psychologically. She can’t seem to move on with her life. But one night everything changes when an alien being lands right smack in the middle of her living room as she sleeps! The alien looks through some of her picture albums, and finds a picture of her dead husband, the proceeds to morph into his image! So now, she has to deal with the fact that this alien being in her living room looks exactly like her dead husband! What does he want with her? Will she help the alien get back home? Or will she turn him in to the authorities that are after him?

They dont call him Starman for nothing!

As I saw this movie, something immediately came to mind. This is essentially the same story we saw a couple of years before in E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982). The only difference being that this alien doesn’t look like a walking turd with hands and feet; the alien in this film looks like Jeff Bridges. But seriously folks, this is the same damn movie, only with a better looking alien. You know the drill; the alien is stranded on earth and needs to get back home before the men in black get to it. The alien sends a message to his race to come pick him up, and so he must wait for them to get here. And he must arrive at a predetermined destination to meet up with them, so he can go back home. If he stays on earth, he dies. See what I mean? It’s the exact same story! Hell, you know how E.T. resurrects a dead plant in Spielberg’s film? Jeff Bridges resurrects a whole deer! The similarities are too many to mention here, just watch it with these similarities in mind and you’ll see what I mean.

But there was a reason behind all these similarities. You see, the script for Starman was being written at the same time as the script for E.T. The Extraterrestrial. So suddenly there was this tug of war over which of the two scripts was going to get made. The head honcho at Columbia Pictures needed to chose between producing E.T. or producing Starman, and he chose Starman. So E.T. went to Spielberg and Universal, while Starman went to Carpenter and Columbia Pictures. It was one of those situations where two studios were involved in making extremely similar films, eventually one fed on the success of the other. Same situation happened when Fox was making The Abyss (1990). When other studios smelled success with underwater films, they all started producing their own underwater monster features. Suddenly Tri Star Pictures was making Deep Star Six (1989) and MGM was making Leviathan (1989). Or when Tom Hanks made the child turns into an adult film Big (1988) over at 20 Century Fox. Suddenly other studios produced similarly themed films like Columbia Pictures’ Vice Versa (1988) and Tri Star Pictures’ Like Father, Like Son (1987). The phenomenal success of Spielberg’s E.T. had a lot to do with Starman getting made a couple of years down the line.

Spielberg, I'll steal your formula for success yet!

Essentially, I see Starman as a more adult version of E.T. But what if instead of him befriending a little boy, he falls for a super hot chick? Basically, they made a few changes on the formula established by E.T., making the story more adult oriented and not so kid/family friendly. I have to say that it works like magic. It gives Starman a unique adult feel that you don’t get from Spielberg’s take on the same theme, which let’s face it, can get sappy at times. I mean, Starman ends up banging the human he befriends! So this film has more balls (pun intended!) then E.T. ever did. And I'll go even further still with this E.T./Starman thing: In 1982 John Carpenter made The Thing and we all know what an awesome movie that is. I mean, its great an all grounds, suspense, effects, gore, horror. I feel its Carpenter's best film, yet in spite of all its awesomeness, The Thing failed to connect with audiences in 1982. It was a HUGE failure for Carpenter and that failure can be attributed to the fact that The Thing went up against Spielberg's feel good alien flick at the box office. Any film going up against E.T. that summer was going to die a quick death, and that's exactly what happened to The Thing. Now, here comes Carpenter with Starman in what feels like vengeful venture and says: "Im gonna do the same damn thing! I'm gonna copy your formula for success! And its gonna be awesome! And its going to be for adults!" Carpenter wanted to prove he could also make a feel good movie, and at the same time he ripped off the film that had cost him his first big failure at the box office. So I completely understand where Carpenter was coming from by making this love story.

But don't get me wrong, I don’t mean to bash on Starman. Even though it has some similarities with E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1979) Starman still manages to conjure up some originality with its situations and images. For example, how awesome was that transformation sequence in the beginning of the film when the alien being suddenly starts to morph into a human? This was a truly outlandish sequence that freaked me the hell out. Kudos to Stan Winston and Rick Baker for pulling off that unique effect before CGI ever existed! And how original was that sequence where Jeff Bridges uses his alien spheres to float in the air while sending a message to his alien pals? I thought that was such a unique image. Plus, Jeff Bridges character is one of those characters that makes everything alright, he is sort of god like in that sense. The dude is so freaking powerful that his powers extend to resurrecting the dead and making an unfertile woman pregnant! God like in deed!

After we get past the sci-fi angle the films turns into a love story. Karen Allen (looking super-hot by the way!) falls for the alien, and really, can you blame her if the alien looks, talks and is 100% anatomically similar to her husband? I felt like I was watching Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost (1989) because even though it’s a love story, it still has a freaky angle to it. It’s a film about an alien and a human girl falling in love, and that’s freaky anyway you look at it. Yet all the right notes are played out to make it a good love story. Kudos to Carpenter for pulling that off! Carpenter’s only purpose for making a film like this one was to make up for the huge box office flop that The Thing (1982) ended up being. He had to do something or else his career as a Hollywood director would have gone down the drains! So he went with Starman. Good thing for Carpenter that Starman ended up being a moderate box-office success, making a little more then its budget back. Another thing that helped Carpenter’s career was that Starman received a bunch of awards all around, including an Oscar nod for Jeff Bridges’ performance. After Starman, Carpenter continued trying to hit box office success by getting away from horror. He ended up making Big Trouble in Little China, which to Carpenters chagrin, also ended up being a dismal box office bomb. How did Carpenter manage to stay afloat as a director when his rate of success was so uneven? He played it safe by making two low budget movies back to back, that's what he did! These films ended up being They Live (1988) and Prince of Darkness (1987). He sure knew how to juggle his career between his box office lows and downs that's for sure. Gotta give Carpenter credit for that!

Rating: 4 out of 5
Jeff Bridges, enjoying success next to his father (Lloyd Bridges) on premire night

Starman (Full Screen Edition)Starman [Blu-ray]Close Encounters/StarmanE.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Widescreen Edition)E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial (2-Disc Widescreen Limited Collector's Edition)


Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...

You do a good job at making the somewhat pedestrian Staraman sound worth a watch, Francisco. I have only watched this once and that was back in 1984 at the theater. It made for a nice date flick, but as a sci-fi film it was a bust.

You correctly point out that it is essentially an adult E.T. clone. I’m one of those unsentimental curmudgeons that disliked the saccharine E.T.; which brought out all the worst of Spielberg’s cinematic clichés. Starman falls victim to some of the same clichés as a result. If you watch it as sci-fi, you’ll drive yourself crazy with the illogic of the film. So, you have to watch it as a straight romantic drama, which just isn’t my cup of coffee.

The Thing is often sighted as being John Carpenter’s best film, but, although I like it, I still prefer the atmosphere of the Howard Hawk’s 1951 original better. My favorite Carpenter film is Escape From New York, followed closely by Big Trouble in Little China. Even as a fan of Carpenter’s movies, I have often wondered how he has had such a long career, as he only had the one hit, Halloween, on which he has been riding for over thirty years!

Franco Macabro said...

Just out of curiosity Fritz, why did you find the sci-fi elements in Starman illogical? Everything clicked to me, Bridges is an alien, he copies Jenny's husband's DNA, morphs into him, calls his bodies, then he waits for the ship, it arrives and whisks him away, back to his planet.

Some of my favorite sci-fi elements included the morphing transformation, the scene with the metallic spaceship hovering over the dessert was cool, but of course, reminiscent of E.T.

And what about those little spheres that he used, powerful little things they were! I loved those images where the alien holds them as they glow.

I think what has kept Carpenter afloat as a director is the fact that his films find life on video, I mean, all his films are still available, and they continue to sell.

The thing with Carpenters films is that they are good, but for some reason or other, they fail to connect with audiences theatrically. Audiences discover his films after they've hit video stands.

Just look at Big Trouble in Little China, such an amazing flick, bombed at the box office yet many love it rabidly, my self included! I love that movie so much, it is probably one of the films I have watched the most in my whole life! I know it by heart, every single ' Burtonism' is engraved into my psyche!

These little phrases that Jack Burton spews through out the whole movie pop out in my every day conversations all the time!

I still need to see HOward Hawks The Thing from Another World, gotta write that one down. Thanks for commenting Fritz!

Unknown said...

Excellent review! I'm not too crazy about this film but I will say that Jeff Bridges is amazing in it. He manages to do the whole alien-new-to-our-culture schtick with relatively few cliched moments. He also has excellent chemistry with Karen Allen. I agree she is so beautiful in this film and her character has depth and intelligence.

And I also share your intense devotion to BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Loved it when I saw it in theaters back in '86 and still continues to be one of my all-time fave films.

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks for commenting J.D.

Jeff Bridges said that he based his performance on the jerky movements of birds, he studied bird behaviour for this role!

It works, because he is playing an alien who has never inhabited a human body before, so he moves and acts that way, I love those scenes where he is learning to talk and move his lips. A unique performance no doubt. Bridges was nominated for an Oscar, but F.Murray Abrahams beat him to it for his performance in Amadeus.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Yes this was certainly a departure for Mr. Carpenter, but one musn't forget that STARMAN followed CHRISTINE, which in my view was the worst film he had made up to that point. STARMAN was a vast improvement on CHRISTINE, and in its own way is one of Carpenter's most daring films. Not since his TV movie biopic ELVIS had a Carpenter film invested so much in character.

Franco Macabro said...

I havent seen CHRISTINE in ages! I believe I havent seen it since the 80's, I guess it's time for a re-watch on that one. It'll be the same as when I re-watched STARMAN, which I'd seen, but it felt like I was watching it for the first time all over again.

I remember CHRISTINE being amusing as a kid, dont know how I'll feel about it now though.

Totally agree about this movie being one of Carpenter's most daring, but at the same time I applaud him for trying something different. It might have been a desperate move in order to save his career in Hollywood, but it was a good one in my book.


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