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Hidden Gems: Starman (1984)

Josh, Albert and I are big Carpenter fans. So we sat down to discuss a treasure to us, his film Starman.

Gabby: Would you consider Starman an underrated, overlooked or even largely forgotten or undiscovered?  Especially for those who did not see it in its original releases (including DVD and BluRay) or are big Carpenter nerds (I’m looking at you Albert).I have listened and read many Carpenter discussions from film critics and Starman hardly ever gets mentioned. It seems such a shame to me as it is a truly beautiful movie. Why do you think this might be?

Josh: I don’t know that the movie is forgotten (it did even inspire a short-lived TV series) but it doesn’t seem to get talked about much in relation to Carpenter’s body of work. Fans tend to reject it when directors they love for one genre dip their toes into any other (see also Wes Craven’s criminally underrated Music of the Heart) and it’s unfortunate. I still hold out hope that we’ll get to see him do an honest-to-god horses-and-six-guns western before our planet is plunged into darkness, but I doubt it could ever happen because there’s no audience for non-horror John Carpenter. Hell, even his last horror movie made no money, so who knows what his audience would come out for? I was a kid when Starman came out, so I don’t know what the reception was like at the time, but it’s strange to see such a sweetly optimistic movie from a guy who spent so much of his career delivering bleakness. I was glad that Charles Martin Smith never turned heel, as most other movies would have forced his character to do. That alone shows a faith in humanity that much of Carpenter’s other work lacks. I like this side of him, this filmmaker who wears his heart on his sleeve. That being said, what do you two think of the sentimentality at the heart of this movie? Do you think it works or do you think it’s just Carpenter trying to distance himself from the perceived failure of The Thing?

Albert: In my opinion, Starman is most definitely an underrated AND overlooked movie in The Horror Master’s resume, and that right there would be exactly why. It’s technically a kinder, gentler JC, yes — but as a film it’s simply a beautiful meditation on love and loss seen through a sci-fi road trip prism.900x900px-LL-b92143b7_Karen_Allen_Starman_18 I absolutely adore it; there’s a scene in it that makes me cry, each and every time I see it…I will elaborate later on that. I think the reason so many people write it off is more than just horror geeks not liking that one of their heroes made a movie about (ugh) romance and emotional recovery, but more than that, that he was simply a director for hire and as such they shouldn’t take it seriously. As if the thought process is, “well, he didn’t develop it so it must mean nothing to him personally and as such I don’t accept it as a REAL entry in his resume.” Sorry to say, that viewpoint is more than a little bit of bullshit. Yes, he was Christine technically a director for hire, but the same could be said about his previous movie. Or any number of his films; Carpenter is, first and foremost, known as a professional.

Even if he’s hired on and develops his relationship to the material from that point, after it’s already been floating around Hollywood for a while (which was the case here — Columbia and Universal actually switched properties a few years previous, each of them having a project they couldn’t make work for whatever reason and wanting the other instead…that other project became a little movie you may have heard of called E.T), he brings his own sensibilities to the piece. I feel that the viewpoint he brought wasn’t just inherent to the story (but I’d say that the script by Raynold Gideon & Bruce A. Evans is fantastic and the emotional aspect comes honestly) but something he knew had to be present. I never saw it so much as “I’m sorry for The Thing, let me make a nicer alien movie” as it was just “this is the movie I’m making, from a great script, and I’m going to do my job to be as honest to the story and characters as I can because that’s what I do.”

I could be wrong; it could completely be an apology for the perceived insult The Thing threw at audiences starman(most people in 1982 were pussies, apparently) but it never felt that way to me, which says a lot about not just his skill as a director and storyteller, but the cast he brought together to bring it off. In fact, I’d say this movie throws one specific fact into stark relief — Carpenter is most underrated for his work with actors and the performances he gets from them. It would feel disingenuous to claim that he just hires people and lets them do their thing (although knowing who to cast is at least half the work and a skill in its own right).

The performances by Bridges and Allen are magnificent, without a single false note or wrong turn, and as talented as those two actors are I think we must give some credit to Carpenter for shaping those performances into the gems that they are. I’d put this alongside Fearless as the single greatest turn Bridges ever gave; watch those two flicks back-to-back and you are seeing a man operate at the highest levels of his profession. Where he begins with the character of Starman and where he ends…it’s just amazing. You really feel like you’re watching a human body operated by a being who doesn’t understand the human body.

It’s uncertain but that changes; it’s new and becomes more comfortable as the story goes on. His movements — almost bird-like — feel like a consciousness that has never inhabited such a thing before, and it’s masterful to observe.tumblr_n8cvo9tCam1sfbwo2o1_r1_1280 Allen, though…she steals my heart. Every time out, she is so real and broken but not ruined and stronger than she thinks and finds that capacity within herself that she thought she’d lost forever — to love again — and she sells it in every scene. The final shot of just her face, eyes blinking as the light plays across, changing, as the score swells, well…it just gets to me (it is not the scene that always makes me leak, although I’d be a liar if I said it doesn’t make me cry some viewings). I adore it, and her. If I hadn’t already been nursing a crush on her from her participation in the greatest movie ever made (that’d be Raiders of the Lost Ark, for the savages among you) seeing her so beautifully inhabit Jenny Hayden would have more than done it for my 9-year old self in the theater that night. That’d be something I would be very curious to hear both of your thoughts on — if you feel Carpenter doesn’t get enough love for his directing as far as performance is concerned. I mean, obviously anyone with eyes and ears can watch his films and see the craftwork that’s present, but less people praise him for the acting his cast gives the films.

Gabby: I highly agree with you Josh when you talk about the optimism in this movie. Jeff Bridges’ character as an alien to this planet starts off saying that we are a primitive race. But by the end, he sees humans as beautiful. I think his speech to the cop about why he thinks this is one of the most moving scenes in the film.

I think that it might be sentimental but it is so sincere. It doesn’t paint everyone as good, but flawed. Some more so than others, whilst some more willing to love and accept. Such as that wonderfully warm woman in the diner. I think the dealings with core and complex feelings like love and loss through the prism of a non-human gaze makes this more dynamic than sentimental.

That is a wonderful way of putting Albert; “emotional recovery”. I adore the two lead performances here. I agree Albert that Karen Allen is the heart and soul of this film. She handles this complex recovery with grace. What are your thoughts on their performances Josh? Some of the subtleties with the way she uses her face, particularly her eyes, are heart-breaking.

I really can’t think why Carpenter doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to coax great performers. This film alone should prove he deserves it.

So tell us about the scene you shed tears Albert!

Albert: It’s a wonderful thing, the optimism in the movie. Especially coming from Carpenter, who doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of faith in people as a whole (which I get, seeing as I view myself as a cautiously cockeyed optimistic).tumblr_n2ly24uajf1rml3nvo2_1280 There’s still some of that here, mostly in the fact that the US military’s first reaction is to dissect Starman and more immediately see him as a threat. I think the reaction Charles Martin Smith has when he says indignantly “we invited him HERE!” pretty much sums up our viewpoint towards that, as well as the filmmakers. But the urge — and ability, most importantly — to see the good in people saves the day, ultimately. People go out of their way to help them; the hot rod kid, the waitress Gabby mentioned, and Sherman in the climax and others do not have to help these people, and do. It’s heart-warming without being cloying or manipulative.

Some may not feel the scene that makes me cry gets away with that, but I find it to be honest, moving, and powerful on a very deep (almost primal) level. It’s the moment where, through the diner window, Jenny sees Starman use one of his magic marbles to resurrect the dead deer lashed to the hood of the asshole hunters’ car. I literally cannot watch it without my heart swelling and my eyes filling; I have tried, and failed, to do so on multiple occasions (mostly when I’m in a room with guy friends, but it always ends the same and I always think “well, fuck it, they know I cry now, so what”) but the sincerity and beauty of that scene is overwhelming to me.

Here’s a being who wouldn’t understand why we would do something so barbaric and pass it off as sport and chooses to reverse a wrong that’s been done to a living creature, one that didn’t deserve to lose its life in that way. I’m not a vegetarian and I don’t judge people who hunt to feed themselves and their families, but that particular group of pricks seem like the sort who enjoy killing things for the sheer fun of it, and I do judge the FUCK out of those people. So when Starman waves his hand, the deer stirs and falls to the ground like a new-born before rising and disappearing into the woods, yes — I cry (my eyes are itching writing this, to be honest). It’s one of my favorite moments in any film I’ve ever seen, and that’s due to the simple beauty of it. There’s others that get me sometimes, depending on my mood.

The scene you mentioned, Gabby — where Starman says that what he finds most amazing about our species is that we are at our very best when things are worst…that’s incredibly affecting to me,1764-2 because I know that the best of us (and even sometimes the worst) are capable of just that, if we try. It’s what we should all strive for. Basically…people who think John Carpenter is a one trick pony who relies on latex and fake blood to tell a story without any substance or heart can suck it, is what I’m saying. This is a flick I saw for the first time at 9 years old and immediately loved. LOVED. Maybe I was just a weird kid (this is not an action-packed sci-fi adventure, exactly, and a lot of kids might not be into it) but I like to think it was that Starman is a good story told well, and the emotional impact of it is something that many people could and can respond to. What about you guys? Am I the only one who found himself in a room that suddenly got dusty while watching the movie?

Josh: Yeah, it’s awfully dusty in here too. Must be those space-marbles, they do kick up some dust don’t they? As far as the military wanting to dissect him, that’s par for the course for alien movies, friendly aliens or otherwise. Even ALF was on the run from Uncle Sam. What I appreciate is that Charles Martin Smith in almost any other movie would have seemed like he was on the side of the angels until all of a sudden he wasn’t because the script says so. I love that they didn’t use that particular cliché.

Albert, you’re spot on about the other “good guy” characters not coming across as cloying, which is another easy pitfall of movies like this. Karen Allen is luminous and I will not hear a word spoken against her, so just in case let’s jump straight to Jeff Bridges: what do you two think of his performance? I know he was nominated for an Oscar, but I also know Kim Basinger actually won one of those things so…do you think he deserved the acclaim? I like his stilted speech patterns but sometimes he seems a bit too “actorly” for me, like he’s trying too hard to say things the way a human wouldn’t. I’m not saying he’s bad, not by a long stretch, I think he’s very good, there are just a couple of moments where it felt forced to me. Have either of you seen the TV show? I haven’t in years so I don’t remember much about Robert Hays’ performance but I don’t recall it being quite as broad. I may be completely off-base, though.

Gabby: I too think Jeff Bridges’ performance is too “actorly” but the moments when he truly connects with Karen Allen are very touching though. I think that is a testament to how much heart she pours into this, it would be hard not to connect to that as an actor, or as a human being for that matter. I never saw the TV show but it definitely got a bit dusty in the film for me too. What are your thoughts on why this movie should be continued to be seen, revisited and introduced to audiences?

Albert: Bridges and Allen are beautiful together, that’s what I see and know and remember about the movie. I remember the sense of wonder it gave me as a child, and not from huge special effects or spaceships or the like; it was from a connection with the characters and the feeling of something otherworldly learning about our planet. As with the best fiction, it finds the truth inside that, and by showing us how the Starman sees us and our world, we see it ourselves in a new or different light. That’s always a great thing, in my opinion. Reasons like that — not just the subtle, confident storytelling or the top-notch acting — are what keep me coming back to the flick. It’s why I’ve seen it about 25 times over the course of my life, and will watch it at least 25 more. It is emotionally honest, and entertaining as it is so. That’s rare.

Josh: Albert, I’m glad you mentioned that about connecting to someone learning about our world, because that’s the thing that stands out most to me with Starman. There are so many sci-fi movies that attempt to capture that but most end up being…well, K-Pax (apologies to Jeff Bridges). Starman lets us feel wonder along with him without turning into syrupy treacle and that would have been such an easy trap to fall into. It absolutely deserves to be seen or revisited. if only to show that John Carpenter, master of bleak terror, has a heart.

Gabby: In addition to what both of you have mentioned,14 I believe that Karen Allen is able to perform the idea of grief and alienation so beautifully as well as Carpenter portraying it with all his soul for everyone to see. I think he is so much himself here, it is a great treat to see each time you do and think will always be so. The questions raised in the film such as how do we deal with grief, loss, love, loneliness and what it means to be human are so beautifully raised and these are eternal questions that will keep this film relevant for many years to come.

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