Starman (1984), a movie that feels like a middle road between The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Thelma and Louise (1991), is John Carpenter’s attempt at a love story, John Carpenter style. It’s a science-fiction film in the same way that Phenomenon (1996) is sci-fi. Both take sci-fi premises and shift the focus to that of feel-good character-based dramas. This isn’t to knock Starman (or feel-good character-based dramas in general); it’s just to say that you can’t approach Starman in the same way that you’d approach a movie like–say–Independence Day (1996). Featuring the talents of Jeff Bridges (as Starman) and Karen Allen (as Jenny Hayden), this movie got a fair amount of critical applause in a time when science fiction wasn’t necessarily taken seriously. Bridges was even nominated for an Oscar (Best Actor in a Leading Role) for his inhuman portrayal of the extraterrestrial visitor. Starman is your basic “alien visitor on a mission of peace is pursued by our war-thirsty and overzealous government scientists ” plot-line, which might sound worn and tired, especially since E.T. (1982) predated it. But where E.T. focused on the relationship between a visiting alien and a young boy, Starman explores the more mature emotions of romantic love and suffering between two lonely individuals. The idea of human-alien relations can be more than a little unsettling, but when you consider that Starman takes the human form of Jenny Hayden’s recently deceased husband, it becomes a little more palatable. In a somewhat creepy (John Carpenter style) scene at the beginning of the film, Starman grows from infancy to adulthood in the course of minutes, bringing to mind the outdated effects of the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London (1981). Of course, Carpenter is a master of the horrific, so tackling a heartfelt drama is like Quentin Tarantino and Tony Scott making True Romance (1993).
The rest of the film plays out like a Southwestern road-trip movie in which Starman and Jenny Hayden are on the lam, racing through the plaid/flannel/trucker-cap-clad world of the Mohave Desert, all the while growing closer as they grow closer to their inevitable separation. It’s a mushy concept, and I’ll admit that I got a little misty-eyed at parts (possibly due to the half-bottle of Cabernet that accompanied me on my journey), but even though it might be a bit too sentimental for the more hard-nosed sci-fi fans, Carpenter and Bridges pull this one off in a serious way. Every scene is relevant to the plot, and every cheesy moment is as tightly executed as the last (not to mention that Karen Allen pulls off the tortured widow with subtle grace (where was her Oscar nod?)). If you’re looking for something that veers from the sci-fi norm without sacrificing all the film tropes that we’ve grown to love, check out Starman. You might just find yourself busting out the Kleenex.