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.