Jimi Fletcher draws on real-life experience while considering the emotional impact of John Carpenter’s anomalous, sci-fi love story
Can a film work more for you if you have a personal attachment to the drama the characters are going through? Surely a film should transcend that sort of thing, that the skill of the writing, the direction, the performances and everything else should make you understand and empathise with the drama, even if you haven’t had any of it happen to you. I’ve never had anyone close to me kidnapped, but I can still be utterly invested in a thriller like 1996‘s Ransom, where that sort of thing happens. And yet, if that sort of thing had happened to you, it could make the film easier to relate to, but maybe it could end up being too close to comfort. Certain films may end up acting as unwelcome triggers, and so we may want to avoid them.
However, there are also films where very real situations are the starting point for something that could only happen in the movies, and as such can be easier to stomach. Take John Carpenter’s Starman, a film which takes the very real emotion of grief and literally goes on the road with it, with an alien sitting in the passenger seat. I first watched it as a child and was utterly enraptured by it — in fact, it may very well have been one of the first romances I had ever watched. I suppose love stories weren’t going to be my cup of tea as a ten-year-old, but science-fiction certainly was, and Carpenter and writers Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon’s masterstroke was to use the in-vogue plot hook of aliens coming to Earth and develop a heartbreaking drama from it.
I’ve always admired Starman, always found it deeply touching, but my latest viewing of it was unlike any other I have experienced, because, like its main character Jenny, I myself am now a widower, following the death of my wife Carole from cancer. You may think, maybe now’s not a good time to watch a film about a grieving widow, but on the other hand, maybe now’s the perfect time. And of course, this is a film about grief that softens the harshness by wrapping it securely in the comforts of genre. This isn’t a raw, uncompromising study — something which I, admittedly, might have had a tougher (if potentially more rewarding) time of viewing. I may not have watched Starman so soon at all were it not for my contributions to this site, which gave me a chance to express my feelings in a focused way. It also helped me answer the question I asked in the opening paragraph.
I don’t think I’d been affected by this film this much since I first watched it decades ago. A scene near the start, where Jenny (Karen Allen) is re-watching home videos of herself and her late husband Scott (Jeff Bridges), was particularly moving. There isn’t much filmed footage of my wife (in fact, I’m wondering if there’s any at all), and I don’t think I could handle watching any of it if I had the opportunity. I honestly think it would tear me apart right now. Then again, who knows, maybe it would be a comfort. I’m not sure. Grief has been with us since we’ve existed, but before the advent of film, all we had to remember our loved ones by was our memories. Even photographs and portraits, which serve as reminders and distillations of people, have more of a remove to them than actual filmed footage. I look at photos of my wife regularly, but the bittersweet feelings they provoke are something I can just about handle, whereas film….I don’t know, I don’t think I could take it.
Of course, film is not an exact approximation of reality — it’s not interactive, it doesn’t feed off all of our senses and is no substitution for the real thing, but it would be vivid enough for me to affect me intensely, and it could get to me in the way it gets to Jenny. She knows her behaviour is indulgent, but she can’t help but live in the past, to lose herself in happier, earlier times. It must be tempting, especially with the haze of drunkenness to weaken your resistance. So yeah, I can really feel the pain of Starman‘s most heartbreaking scenes, but I always had to a lesser extent beforehand. Watching it as an adult, the film’s tenderness hits me greater than ever before. It is Carpenter’s loveliest, most tender film, a beautiful love story, as well as a proper crowd-pleaser. It’s a road movie, a romance and science-fiction, and Carpenter’s genius is in his ability to blend it so well together that you can’t see the joins, and yet, maybe because it’s not quintessentially Carpenter, remains somewhat underrated.
Jenny Hayden : What’s it like up there?
Starman : It is beautiful. Not like this, but it is beautiful. There is only one language, one law, one people. There is no war, no hunger. The strong do not victimize the helpless. We are very civilized, but we have lost something, I think. You are all so much alive, all so different. I will miss the cooks and the singing and the dancing. And the eating! – – And the other things.
Following the box office failure of The Thing, a film now widely regarded to be Carpenter’s masterpiece (alongside Halloween), Carpenter directed Christine, a crowd-pleasing, entertaining shocker that, nevertheless, felt like his least personal work — it seemed more like he was a hired hand for this film. No doubt about it, his style and excellence were still in evidence, and it’s not a mere retread of his earlier movies, but there’s a reason it’s no one’s favourite Carpenter film. It just didn’t have that extra genius touch. Still, it made him a commercial proposition again, and, staying with Columbia Pictures, he broadened his style with Starman. His first love story, it also feels very much like him giving people the extra-terrestrial tale that audiences wanted instead of the bleak, graphic nihilism of The Thing back in 1982. Remember, 1982 was the summer of E.T, which broke records absolutely everywhere and was proof that the masses wanted friendly aliens, not amorphous, murderous ones. Starman shares some similarities with E.T. In fact, it was originally written years earlier, but further development was delayed after the latter became absolutely enormous. Regardless, Starman is utterly its own ‘thing’, for want of a better word. It turned out to be another hit for Carpenter, and is the only film of his to have gained an Oscar nomination (for Jeff Bridges’ performance).
Based on the real-life space probe Voyager II, which was sent up into the stars to investigate the solar system (and in reality, is still doing so), Starman offers us an alternative turn of events where extra-terrestrial life picks up Earth’s call and visits the planet to make contact. Unfortunately, the military shoot the alien’s craft down, forcing it to crash-land somewhere in Wisconsin. The craft’s pilot, a sphere of energy, escapes the wreckage and seeks sanctuary, discovering the isolated home of widow Jenny Hayden, whose husband Scott was killed in a car accident. Hoping to present itself as a less-daunting presence, the alien (or Starman) metamorphoses into a clone of Scott (made possible by using his DNA from a lock of his hair kept in Jenny’s scrapbook).
This backfires somewhat, given that greeting someone in the form of their dead husband was never going to have much of a calming effect. Nevertheless, the two form an unsteady partnership as the Starman reveals his urgent need to meet with his kind at a rendezvous in Arizona in three days time (his kind can’t survive on Earth – in fact, he’s already dying), and so begins a journey during which the Starman (who is slowly but surely adapting to his new persona) and Jenny (who is learning to cope with her grief) soon fall in love with each other, all the while being pursued by the military (led by a boo-hiss Richard Jaeckel), who want to keep the Starman on Earth so that they can kill and then study him. It all builds up to an exceptionally powerful finale where the Starman leaves Earth forever, leaving Jenny behind.
This is a tale of star-crossed lovers where the relationship can’t work strictly because of the physics — the Starman can’t survive on Earth and she won’t be able to survive on his own planet. It’s a deeply sad end result, as their love for each other truly seemed to have transcended the space between planets, albeit with some compromise; I doubt very much that Jenny’s feelings for the Starman would have developed had he remained a blue ball of energy. I mean, as blue balls of energy go, he’s obviously very handsome, but still.
In all seriousness though, the fact that Jenny does fall for the Starman is an interesting development. I imagined what it would be like if I was the Jenny character and the love of my life had ‘returned’, even if only superficially. Even if, underneath the surface, it wasn’t my Carole, and I knew it, the very fact that there was an identical-looking being in my house would be overpowering. I would instantly have intense feelings for this other being, and the past that she and I had shared would come back. Of course, the personalities of Scott and the Starman are clearly very different, and by the end it’s obvious that Jenny has fallen in love with the latter for who he is, not just who he represents. Of course, if he had assumed the form of a complete stranger, her love for him would have been entirely different, if it happened at all. I guess love is a mix of all things, and the physical side is just as much an important factor as everything else.
Now you may consider the ending of this film to be a downer, and one on level it is, but I think that Jenny emerges from this film a stronger person. I feel her goodbye to the Starman is the proper goodbye she never got to have with Scott. The events of the last three days have seen Jenny continue to grieve and yet she’s also, thanks to external events, forced to move forward, and maybe this was what she needed, for as much as we might not want to get out of bed, or get on with life, ultimately we eventually have to. Tellingly, Jenny doesn’t have another alcoholic drink for the rest of the film. As for the Starman, who knows how he will be once he returns home (forever changed, maybe?). Will this affect his relationships back on his planet? This could be the start of something destructive, or maybe even exciting. Likewise, the Starman’s assurance that their son will know what to do with the last of the magic balls that he brought with him to Earth suggests that the world may also be forever changed, eventually.
As for the Starman, well, his planet is clearly Utopian, a world where ‘there is no war, no hunger…the strong do not victimise the helpless…we are very civilised’, but even he admits that their society has ‘lost something’, and maybe that’s what happens when so-called perfection is attained. There is only ‘one language, one law, one people’, and while that might sound like a very peaceful, successful thing, it also reads as somewhat sinister. Was the Starman’s planet once like ours, with all the differences, quirks and versatility gradually aired out so that only one kind remain? Yes, it may be ‘beautiful’, but at what price? Of course, I’m looking at this from a human viewpoint, towards a planet that isn’t made up of humans or human thinking at all, but either way, as Talking Heads once put it, ‘heaven is a place where nothing happens’. Maybe as humans we feed off of imperfections, of a desire to be perfect without actually ever getting there. Even though the Starman is not human, maybe he soon comes to appreciate this now that he has seen it. As he himself puts it, ‘humans are at their best when things are at their worst’.
Jeff Bridges gives a remarkable performance. His brief appearances, via home movies, as Scott is the Bridges we already know and love, but as the Starman the actor delivered a performance unlike anything else he’d ever given us. Inspired by studying the rapid, movement of birds (especially their head movements) to convey a non-human physicality, he gets the mannerisms of an alien entity occupying a human body just right, never overdoing or exaggerating the otherness of his character. Beginning with a rudimentary grasp of English and motor functions, to the point where he becomes potentially dangerous when he picks up Jenny’s gun, he soon settles into his new skin and develops both physically and emotionally, and it’s all delivered so beautifully.
Mark Shermin : Have people from your world been here before?
Starman : Before yes. We are interested in your species.
Mark Shermin : You mean you’re some kind of anthropologist? Is that what you’re doing here? Just checking us out?
Starman : You are a strange species. Not like any other. And you’d be surprised how many there are. Intelligent but savage. Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you?
Starman : You are at your very best when things are worst.
Yet as much the Starman grows in character, this is just as much, maybe even more so, the story of Jenny, and Karen Allen is so, so good in this role. A great actress with natural charm who did decent work with what she was given in minor roles in Animal House and Cruising, it was her breakout role as Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark which got everybody’s attention, delivering a brilliant, engaging and energetic performance that took the thankless role of the hero’s love interest and injected it with pluck, guts, sexiness and humour. Jenny is a very different character to Marion, When we first see her she is at her lowest ebb, but you see her change and grow as the film moves on. When she first smiles about an hour in, it’s like a ray of light. The scene when she breaks down in the restaurant remembering her times with Scott is beautifully delivered. Her pain feels utterly real.
One thing that Carpenter did incredibly well during his heyday was to end his films on an unforgettable closing image, be it the surfing astronaut in Dark Star, the exterior of the empty Myers house in Halloween, the fiery, desolate and haunting wide shot of the destroyed Antarctica base in The Thing, the literally killer final strike of The Fog, the hand approaching the mirror in Prince of Darkness and even the hilarious shock of the monster hiding in the back of Jack Burton’s truck in Big Trouble in Little China, all of these films left you with an image that stayed with you all the way home. Starman is no exception. With the Starman returning to his home, we never actually see him or his planet vanish. We simply cut to Jenny as the light emanating from the Starman’s planet begins to disappear, with camera pulling up and back, staying on her awed, sombre face as she watches the new love of her life leave forever. It’s a remarkably restrained culmination to a deeply emotional ending — the film fades out (rare for Carpenter, he usually cuts to black) and all we are left with are the credits and the beautiful score.
The music, surprisingly, was not scored by Carpenter but by veteran producer and composer Jack Neitszche, who worked on the soundtrack for cult classics Performance and Cutter’s Way, co-produced many songs by Neil Young, and had just won an Oscar for producing the smash hit ‘Up Where We Belong’ for An Officer and a Gentleman. The score is incredibly Carpenter-esque, with chase scenes backed by that pulsing, repetitive synth hook that the director’s fans had come to love. There’s also the main theme, a lovely, spacious and beautifully synthetic dream which you could argue is a teensy bit overused throughout the film but still packs an incredible emotional punch at the end.
And that ending really is devastating. The Starman’s home literally comes down to Earth to save him, bathing the area immediately below in a beautiful red glow, sprinkling with snow. It’s a glorious scene, and the Starman and Jenny’s final goodbye is up there with the all-time sad farewells, and yet I leave the film feeling something, something approximating hope. It’s far away, but it’s there, visible in the distance, and as much as those closing minutes hurt, they also feel like a promise, a promise that things will get better. By the time the end credits appeared, I was in tears. The world’s a lovelier place with this film in it.