October 24, 2015

Starman - The Movie


For those who don't know, I've been hosting a podcast for a while called Masters of Carpentry, in which myself, my co-hosts Alexander & Julia Adrock, and occasional guests, have been working through the entire filmography of writer/director/composer John Carpenter. There was some question about how I wanted to cover the television series Starman, a followup to his classic film, and since it met most of the criteria we were looking for here (short-lived: check! genre piece: check! available on DVD: bonus!) Tony was kind enough to agree to explore it with me here. This isn't so much us taking a break from the status quo so we can tie into something else as it is a very natural crossover, and a way to kill one project with two blogs instead of doubling everything up on both. After all, this would have been on our to do list regardless (though maybe not until after The Phoenix and The Powers of Matthew Star).

Anyways, I already spent an hour and change detailing the film and what I thought of it on the podcast, and you can all check that episode out here. Below, I'll let Tony chime in with his take on the movie (there were plans to have him guest on the episode, but logistics can be an ass at times) and next week, we'll jump into the series proper. I remember catching a few episodes when Scifi ran a marathon back in the 90s, but those memories are cloudy and it'll be interesting to see what they did with it. Spoilers: I really love the movie!


When you hear John Carpenter's Starman, it would be natural to assume that said Starman comes down from outer-space, invades Wilford Brimley's brain, and turns him into a lethal, zombified killing machine. Instead, what we get is a kinder, gentler Carpenter. So much so that this never once looked or felt like a Carpenter film to me at all. Granted, I haven't dived into his work the way Noel, Julia, and Alex have over at Masters of Carpentry, but I think I'm familiar enough with him to pick out his "isms", and I just didn't find them here.

Starman instead feels very Spielbergian - and it's not just the similarities between it and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and (especially) E.T.. It's not quite as sentimental as early Spielberg, but it certainly lacks Carpenter's trademark cynicism. We do get the government trying to catch Starman - presumably for some nefarious purpose that's never quite made clear - but that's a pretty common trope in this genre, and honestly, I was a bit surprised that Carpenter didn't push that a bit further, making them broader and more weaselly than they are here. I was also expecting a lot of lectures from Starman on humanity's shortcomings (war, greed, destroying the environment, yadda yadda yadda, because aliens in movies are either from a utopian society or they're here to eat our brains), and we get a bit of that, but we also get some balance, with Starman admiring our diversity while quietly lamenting his own kind's homogeneity, and finally stating that we're at our best when things are at their worst. It may seem minor, but it goes a long way with me because I don't need some alien telling me how much I suck, even if he's right.

The story more or less works as E.T. for the Big Chill crowd, primarily focusing on grief and loss as the two characters make their way cross country. It meanders a bit too much at times, particularly with the diner scene and the inexplicably angry hunter, but I was never once bored. The bulk of the credit for this I give to Jeff Bridges and especially Karen Allen. At first, Bridges' performance seems a bit too much. His speech patterns and mannerisms seem to scream, "Look at me, I'm acting!" but as the movie goes along, I began to appreciate the subtle brilliance beneath it all. He plays Starman early on like someone trying to get used to human physiology. Even something like using his mouth to communicate looks like someone attempting it for the first time. You can also see his growth as the movie progresses, which makes me appreciate the performance even more. I was pleasantly surprised to learn he received an Academy Award nomination for the role (losing to F. Murray Abraham for Amadeus). But for me, the heart and soul of the movie is Karen Allen. Best known for her role as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, she's a revelation to me here. I've always admired her work in Raiders, but I don't recall ever seeing her in another starring role. In this role, which could've been nothing more than rolling her eyes and going, "Oh, Starman!" she instead layers her character with a real humanity which grounds the rather fantastical tale into something relatable.

I'd never seen Starman before, and likely never would have if not for this Showcase. I went in with rather modest expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised when those expectations were vaulted. This is a profoundly 80s film, not so much in style as in zeitgeist. I don't think that dates it so much as defines it. I really don't know if this would play with a modern audience, but for those of a certain age, I think Starman might just hit the spot.


Ray said...

Great review on Starman. I remember after I first saw this movie sometime in 1985 on my "VHS" (a video home system: a video cassette recording system, Aka a VCR, using " magnetic tape which was encased in plastic and had 2 spools that were spun by the complex mechanical device to produce an analog video recording of approx 2 to 6 hours in length). I just had to throw that in there for the new comers.

The following year, my nephew and I went on a road trip after he finished college. On our travels from the west to the East coast we drove through Wisconsin, stopped to eat in one of those roadside truck stops, although we didn't come across any deer hunters that day.

Then after visiting New Jersey and Florida we drove home through the southern route and made it a point to stop and see Meteor Crater. We constantly recited lines from the movie, such as "I look like Scott" as we were driving, "We are coming to Winslow Ariz" and when we ate in restaurants we ordered Dutch Apple pie and told our server that it was "Terrific". We then headed back home to Las Vegas in hopes of hitting a Jackpot with 1 coin to cover our trip expenses. Luckily his Chevy Camaro which seemed to be running a bit jumpy going through the Colorado Rockies early on in the 3 week adventure, held up throughout the trip. Therefore we didn't need to hitch a freight train.

The movie had quickly become one of my all time top 10 favorites and still is as of present day. I think the acting of Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges was brilliant! Also Charles Martin Smith, playing the role of Mark Sherman was excellent in my opinion.

I just loved the message that the movie portrayed on humanity as we know it compared to potential far advanced civilizations and lifeforms throughout the universe. It was a shame seeing some of the comments on IMDB about the deer scene. In my opinion it was one of the most enlightening moments of the film, although the commentators were making silly squabbling over the reasoning behind deer hunting. I think they missed

Tony Williams said...

Thanks for the compliment, Ray and for sharing your story. What a great experience that must've been, and so cool to do it with someone who shares your love of the film.

You're spot on about Charles Martin Smith, and I failed to mention him in my review. I only ever knew him from American Graffiti, but in so many ways his character is our avatar here. I've since learned that he's become a reasonably successful director.

Ray said...

Oh you are very welcome. Thank you for putting up this Blog. I also meant to ask you. Have you begun to watch the Starman TV series yet? It is a bit corny, considering the time period and the video quality isn't that good (maybe that's because I watched it on You Tube long after I saw it when it first came out on TV) but I think it's a quite entertaining show which features the boy getting acquainted with his dad (Starman) played by the comedic actor Robert Hays, as the 2 of them seek to find Jenny Hayden. The show has some very touching serious moments. I was disappointed with the abrupt ending to the series as it was beginning to get pretty good. Let me know what you think.

NoelCT said...

Let me second the thanks for your story, Ray, and we're glad you're enjoying the blog. The plan is for us to cover the tv series here one episode each week, which is the pace we'll be watching it at, so please don't give away any more about what we'll be in for. :D I did catch a few episodes back in the 90s during Scifi Channel reruns, but beyond the basics of the setup, I don't remember much. It'll be interesting to revisit.

I'll also add to the Charles Martin Smith love. It's a shame he doesn't act as much these days, but he seems to be having a good time directing.

(be aware that I responded to your comment while I have my video cassette recording system hooked up to my laptop - it would have felt wrong any other way)

Ray said...

Oh, sorry, no problem Noel. Feel free to edit the parts that may have been spoilers. I can't edit it from my end, only delete I think. I tried to word it carefully.

NoelCT said...

Ah, no harm done, Ray. We try not to spoil ourselves too much going in, but you're absolutely welcome to share thoughts along the way as we work through it. Hope you enjoy our writeups! :)