#5 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.
In order to further prove himself to Hollywood, Carpenter took on this project, a script that had been in consideration for production by Columbia at the same time that Spielberg made E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, as an effort to prove that he could work outside of horror. The end result is a rather wonderful little road picture that feels apart from Carpenter’s filmography in the same way that The Straight Story felt apart from Lynch’s. It’s apart stylistically but feels part of the whole thematically, even though it’s not his own script. There’s a wonderful humanism on display, anchored by some very good performances from a committed cast.
The Voyager 2 probe, with its golden disc of messages to the stars, is captured by an alien intelligence and a vessel makes its way to Earth. Struk down by a military aircraft, it crash lands in the Wisconsin countryside near the remote cabin where Karen Allen’s Jenny sits quietly watching home videos of her recently deceased husband Scott (Jeff Bridges). The alien being, formless and just represented by a point of light, flies to the house and takes the shape of Scott. Shocked, Jenny can’t really process the image of her dead husband come to life in front of her, speaking haltingly and unnaturally in broken English like he’s a man from Mars. The alien, Starman, cannot just rest there, though, he has to make it to a crater in Arizona in three days to get picked up at an agreed upon rendezvous point with another ship.
So begins the road trip across America.
The heart of this movie is the weird and, ultimately, warmly human relationship that develops between Jenny and Starman. Jenny drives, first in total fear of this thing that looks like Scott and is obviously an alien. He has a collection of small gray balls that he can do amazing things with like forcing a man’s lug wrench to melt or project a map of the United States, and she has no choice but to go along. As she goes, Starman reveals himself as a gentle individual, only there to observe Earth in response to its greeting message, and Jenny begins to feel affection for him.
At the same time, the military is looking for them. Now, this subplot breaks down into two parts. The first is centered around the SETI scientist Mark Shermin (Charles Martin Smith), attached to the NSA and helping the military in its search for Starman after investigating the crash site and finding his broken spacecraft. Shermin fits the movie perfectly. He’s wide-eyed and eager to meet Starman to learn what he can. The other side is represented by Major Bell (Robert Phalen), and he’s a generic military bad guy, intent on kidnapping Starman to do experiments on him. I entirely get what Bell is supposed to represent (humanity’s less evolved side), but I actually don’t think it fits the story. It would be like including an assassination subplot into The Straight Story. I can imagine a different version of this that cuts out the military completely. Instead, it’s just Jenny and Starman traveling to Arizona with Shermin, independently, on their tail while they have to elude purely local law enforcement for the small bits of trouble that they get into. It would be a more focused story with fewer tonal jumps that seem to work against the film.
Without it, the film is a tender movie about finding life after death. Jenny’s connection with Starman is finding an extra few special days of connection, allowing her to begin to move on from her grief, especially considering the gift that he leaves her with. All of this is anchored by the core two performances from Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges. Allen gives it her all as a broken, grieving woman, and she’s very good as she slowly opens up to Starman. However it’s really Bridges that does something special. Building a performance off of tics from birds and with an extremely mannered and stilted way of speaking, he creates a character of surprising depth of feeling so that when we see his exit, there’s real emotion at his parting.
This wasn’t a film that John Carpenter would have made if The Thing had been a success. This is a very reactionary move on his part, and I’m glad he made it. Starman shows a gentler side of Carpenter that he rarely let out, usually embracing the more cynical side of how he viewed the world. There’s tenderness and a guileless humanity on display, and then there’s also a subplot about how the military is filled with dumb warmongers. Well, I guess we can’t always have everything.