Anyone who is familiar with the filmography of cult messiah John Carpenter will be comfortably aware of the themes that course through the various plots of his legendary output. Sitting alongside healthy doses of dystopian cynicism, pathological distrust of authority and anti-heroes that couldn’t dig a single fuck if they were standing in a fuck-field with a shovel in their hand, is a strong, overwhelming feeling that everything will not be ok and the world is a dark and untrustworthy place.
However, in 1984, after still licking his wounds from the beating his remake of The Thing took at the box office, Carpenter yanked on the handbrake of his career and pulled a screeching 180° turn that saw him embrace a more hopeful outlook on an extra terrestrial encounter with Starman, a touching, sci-fi story of grief and love.
In a response to the messages of invitationsearthly peace sent out in the Voyager 2 space probe in 1977, an advanced alien species sends a scout party to our planet to check out our credentials and immediately get a decisive response when the military shoots their craft out of the sky. Crash landing in Wisconsin, the scout, a glowing ball of energy, emerges from the wreckage and stumbles across the recently widowed Jenny Hayden whose beloved husband, Scott, bought the farm and has left her consumed with mourning. It’s a tad insensitive of the alien scout, then, when it uses Jenny’s photographs and a lock of Scott’s hair to clone a human body for itself that looks exactly like her dead husband.
Unsurprisingly, Jenny is freaked out by the sight of the nude alien clone of her husband literally growing from infancy to adulthood right before her eyes and after “Scott” uses one of seven small orbs to signal for aid, he takes her as sort of a hostage in order for her to drive him to the rendezvous.
While Scott endeavors to get a handle on the intricacies of human behaviour (speech, social interactions, deviled eggs, rednecks), Jenny tries to process what is happening to her as she’s essentially been kidnapped by her alien spouse and initially tries to slip her abductor, but soon, in a strangely touching display of Stockholm syndrome, she starts to see the innocence at the core of her abductor.
However, as their bonding inevitably gives way to other, deeper emotions, the authorities, wary of an alien embarking on a road trip to Arizona, launch a full-scale (space) man hunt in order to bring them in.
While they may have an ally in well meaning SETI scientist Mark Shermin, Jenny and Scott still only have three days to make the rendezvous with the alien rescue craft before Scott’s cloned body dies. Can this couple not only make it to their destination in time, but will this adventure finally heal Jenny of the gnawing loss of losing her husband.
As I alluded to earlier, Starman seems to be the direct (and understandable) response to audiences inexplicably turning their back on Carpenter’s superlative The Thing back in 1982 in favor of Steven Spielberg’s far more benevolent and friendly E.T., so after already helming an adaptation of Christine to bolster his box office (Stephen King was a major draw back in the early eighties), the director embarked on a major tonal shift.
It’s not like it’s unheard of for established horror directors to step out of their wheelhouse, with filmmakers such as Wes Craven and Sam Raimi all trying out genres free of gore and sharp implements, but even so, its initially disorienting to see Carpenter attempt a story that’s so full of hope despite boasting a noticeably harder edge than E.T.. After all, even though the movie carries heavy themes of loss and grief, the story essentially takes the form of a kidnapping, with the hostage eventually falling in love with her misunderstood captor and it’s a typical, subversive wink from a Carpenter we’re more familiar with who also pumps in some good, old fashioned, shitty authority types who are dead set on vivisecting the visitor, despite it being repeatedly pointed out that he was technically invited here.
It always fascinating to see a director established in a certain genre step out of their comfort zone as it gives us a true glimpse of how good a filmmaker they really are and in trademark, no-nonsense, John Carpenter fashion, the director dives straight into the nuts and bolts of the thing and has Jeff Bridges’ alien arrive on earth almost immediately and take on the form of Scott. It’s a canny move as not only are we given a crash course in “Scott’s” motives, but we’re allowed to witness Jenny’s grief without being drowned in it. It shows an incredible amount of trust in the two leads that the movie chooses to explain itself as it goes instead of slowly ramping up and explaining everybody’s motives straight off the bat and thankfully Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen are more up to the task, turning in honest, believable performances with the latter making you wonder why she wasn’t in more movies and the former masterfully avoiding any camp, fish out of water, goofiness with his novel approach to an alien species gamely grappling with a human language.
If there’s an issue with Starman (despite not containing the David Bowie song) it’s that some of it’s more dazzling, visual moments have been lost in this time of computer generated effects. The scene where Scott grows from a freakish little latex baby to a stretchy headed adult riffs slightly on The Thing’s body horror vibes and hasn’t aged nearly as well as other, rubbery transformations of the period like An American Werewolf In London and other moments, like the couple emerging from a flaming car crash, protected by Scott’s dwindling alien tech seems rather rudimentary despite the awestruck score insisting otherwise.
So if the movie’s large moments don’t have the punch they once did, then it’s down to the subtler, emotional moments to carry the day – and carry them they do as Carpenter displays a surprising amount of tenderness, applying an admirably delicate touch to a story where a woman essentially counters her grief by banging the alien clone of her dead husband (what number of a close encounter is that?). A fascinating glimpse into a genre director stretching his legs in some unfamiliar territory, Starman doesn’t really get the overdue adulation that other Carpenter films have enjoyed and while this treatment of love and loss may not have the sarcastic, satirical impact of They Live, it succeeds in showing a softer side to the legendary director we seldom see.