Starlight, star bright, 1st Starman to alight
By Sheila Benson
A sweet surprise comes our way with STARMAN. Director John Carpenter, whose beautiful visual sense is usually trained on something thoroughly unpleasant (such as the Thing, or dripping ghouls shrouded in seaweed), has gone straight. And like the sweetness at the heart of Cocteau's Beast, Carpenter has turned out to be a romantic pussycat.
With the exceptional performances of Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen and Charles Martin Smith and Carpenter's pure, uncluttered spaces, this straight-ahead, simple story of a starman come gently to Earth to observe becomes a chance for us to see ourselves at our most beautiful.
Not at our most hospitable, heaven knows, or our least xenophobic, but as he frames shots of shimmering cobalt skies or the spare delicacy of a storm fence in the sand, Carpenter looks at our country with an outsider's wide eyes. (Cinematographer Donald Morgan's work is rather like the pristine abstractions in German photographer Michael Ruetz's current coffee-table prize, "Eye on America.")
And at the heart of all this nice richness is a playful, growing love story. A sort of space-to-Earth IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, it places husky-voiced Karen Allen as an unwilling driver in a cross-country car race against time and potentially lethal U.S. government agencies. At her side is a creature (Jeff Bridges) who is like her dead husband, down to his bone marrow. But she has watched this exact replica grow from a glowing alien baby to a man, cloned from one hair of her dead husband's head.
We are faster than Allen to understand that Bridges means her no harm. She spends the first half of her enforced trip from her remote Wisconsin house, where he had crash-landed, to Arizona, where he must meet his mother ship or perish, trying to escape. Intellectually, you might understand the impulse. But face to face with Bridges - inquisitive, intuitive, unintentionally funny, and almost all-powerful - you don't ever want the trip to end or anything to happen to this precious visitor, with his awkward, slightly probing walk like an ambulatory dunk-'em bird toy.
In the screenplay by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, a lot of extraneous science-fiction clutter is done away with, especially the tracking of the couple by sympathetic government agent Charles Martin Smith and by National Security Agency baddy Richard Jaeckel, his dissecting table all ready to welcome this visitor. The economy is as welcome as a knife through bureaucratic red tape. By now the film makers assume we know the form of the genre by heart; we don't need '50s pinpointed maps or crisp directives from captains to lieutenants. Right. It gives us more time for our endangered central couple too.
Allen and Bridges seem to work perfectly on each other's wavelenghts; their acting styles are in the same slightly low-key, faintly comic naturalism. (Bridges has not been this wellmatched since with Lisa Eichorn in CUTTER AND BONE, a high water mark Bridges film.) The fun for us is watching each one change - for Allen to relax from wariness to sensuality; Bridges to really inhabit his human's body, with a full range of emotions, and to learn the tenderness of earthly love.
This may be spelled out a little patly, just as some of the plot points are occasionally too simply solved. (At the desert roadblock we never understand why that daring young hot rodder acts so obligingly as Allen's decoy.) But along with its great visual elegance, STARMAN has its own romantic undertow, and it is really too much to resist.