Sony // 1984 // 115 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // August 24th, 2009
In 1977, Voyager II was launched into space, inviting all life forms in the universe to visit our planet. Get ready. Company's coming.
For a brief moment in mid-1980s, it looked like director John Carpenter (Halloween) might successfully make the leap into the mainstream. His 1984 film, Starman, earned critical acclaim, decent bank at the box office (it's his second highest grossing film after Halloween), and a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Jeff Bridges. Heck, it even inspired a short-lived television series starring Roberts Hays of Airplane! fame. But alas, Carpenter was not destined to be the next Steven Spielberg...or Robert Zemeckis...or even Joe Dante. His next movie, 1986's Big Trouble in Little China, returned to a familiar pattern in the director's career: It bombed big-time at the box office, earning back less than half of its production costs, was generally panned by critics, and then went on to become a highly respected (and profitable) cult classic on home video. Oh, well.
Meanwhile, Starman has become something of a forgotten gem in Carpenter's oeuvre. The flick has been released only once on DVD, and even then it wasn't treated with much respect. It was unceremoniously dumped onto DVD way back in 1998 when the format was still in its infancy. The transfer was a pan-and-scan hatchet job. The folks at Sony apparently never saw a need to rectify this wrong...until now. Starman finally returns to Earth on this fine (though no-frills) Blu-ray.
Invited to visit Earth by the Voyager II unmanned space probe, an alien (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski) lands in a rural area of Wisconsin, taking the form of the deceased husband of grieving widow Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen, Raiders of the Lost Ark). After determining that Earth is not a hospitable environment for his species, the Starman makes contact with his people and sets up a rendezvous at Arizona's Meteor Crater, to take place in three days. Jenny and the Starman head off for Meteor Crater with NSA Chief George Fox (Richard Jaeckel, The Dirty Dozen) in hot pursuit. Despite having invited the alien to visit Earth, the U.S. government wants to capture and contain him. The NSA has forcibly enlisted the help of SETI scientist Mark Shermin (Charles Martin Smith, American Graffiti) in their hunt. As the Starman travels across America, he learns English, observes human culture, and develops a surprising bond with Jenny.
The third movie John Carpenter made inside the Hollywood system (after The Thing and Christine), Starman is easily the director's gentlest and most mainstream picture -- even if it features an alien and nefarious government agents. Starman was written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, who would go on to collaborate on the screenplay for Rob Reiner's Stand by Me. It was co-produced by Michael Douglas (who, despite being famous primarily as an actor, has been a producer since the mid-'70s when he was instrumental in bringing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to the big screen). The picture's story of an alien stranger in our strange land is often lazily likened to an adult version of E.T.. True enough, I suppose, but not only is it smarter and less emotionally manipulative than that film, it also skirts the obsession with prosthetic and optical effects that was the hallmark of science fiction movies of the 1980s. Starman also deftly avoids the technical mumbo-jumbo that tends to burden speculative science fiction. The alien's creating a physical body for itself by cloning Jenny Hayden's husband using a lock of his hair is plausible within the context of the movie, yet still handled through an almost expressionistic use of simple prosthetic effects. Instead of an arsenal of high-tech gadgetry, the alien employs glowing orbs that are never explained but conveniently seem able to do just about anything the plot requires. By clearing the film of technology that requires dry explanation, Carpenter frees himself to focus on theme and character. One can read the Starman as a Christ-figure, interested in coaxing the best out of humanity but immediately set upon by agents of our worst instincts. But that's perhaps the least interesting approach to the film. More interesting is its open-ended exploration of the nature of identity and the complexities of human bonding (if the Starman inhabits a clone of Scott Hayden, then to what extent is he Scott? Does Jenny fall in love with the Starman, or is she in love with the memory of her lost husband, or does she somehow love them both?). Like all good speculative science fiction, Starman isn't so much concerned with strange happenings and beings from space as it is the intricacies of life as a human being.
Today, Starman is mostly remembered for Jeff Bridges' much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Bridges perfectly plays the ticks and idiosyncrasies of an alien forced to figure out the English language and how to operate a human body on the fly. Though quirky, there isn't an iota of show-offy self-awareness to the performance. Bridges is earnest, odd, and completely believable across the movie's entire running time. He's well supported by Karen Allen, whose earthy beauty and naturalism are perfect for Jenny Hayden. Bridges and Allen navigate the movie's scenes of high emotion without overreaching or straying into cloying histrionics, while playing smaller moments with a maximum of charm. Starman is a smart piece of character-driven science fiction anchored by superb performances by its romantic leads.
The movie was shot by cinematographer Donald M. Morgan (Christine) and displays Carpenter's eye for beautiful compositions in the 2.35:1 frame. The flick's visuals are tightly constructed throughout, but take on an added beauty when Jenny and the Starman arrive in the otherworldly desertscape of Arizona during the final act. Natural colors and a (then) modern setting lend Carpenter's elegant compositions an unostentatious air -- the movie looks great without self-consciously drawing attention to its own beauty through stylized colors, excessive camera movement, or over-wrought conventions like slow motion. Starman is straight-up filmmaking, executed well -- and it looks superb on Blu-ray. Transferred from a well-preserved source, the 1080p image offers fine foreground detail, accurate colors, and a tight grain structure. Crisp detail doesn't extend into the background, but the movie wasn't shot to deliver deep focus. Establishing shots of wooded Wisconsin or the deserts of Arizona deliver plenty of sharp detail.
Audio is presented in a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that is probably overkill for a movie that delivers a lot of dialogue and little in the way of thunderous effects, but still sounds great all things considered.
The disc contains no extras, which is a shame because any home video release of a John Carpenter flick that doesn't contain a director's commentary is a crime against humanity. Carpenter knows how to be informative and entertaining when talking about his films in particular and filmmaking in general.
As movies made about extraterrestrial visitations go, Starman is no Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but I'll take it over E.T. any day of the week. It is a thematically rich, well-acted picture made by one of America's most underrated director's. And, boy, it sure looks great in high definition.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated PG