John Carpenter On a Clear, Starry Night
By Michael Dare
STARMAN is awesome, a full-strength blast from the heart that will turn the most hardened cynic about sci-fi into an amiable softy. It's a Close Encounter of Another Kind, a 2010 written by an explorer of the heart rather than a scientist, in which a frighteningly human alien heeds our invitation to come visit, and shows us what it means to be homo sapiens alive on a beautiful planet of wonder.
He first appears as a pinpoint of blue light travelling swiftly through the night air over mountains and lakes till he reaches a secluded little home in the woods. Here director John Carpenter pulls a delightful switch on the opening shot of HALLOWEEN, giving us another POV shot that slowly creeps up on a house in which a helpless unclothed woman lies sleeping. But whereas the shot from HALLOWEEN caused terror, this one causes pure fascination. It's as though Carpenter were trying to redeem himself for all the fear he's caused us in the past.
But it's not an apology; it's genuine growth both of technique and soul. The shot continues with occasional strobic flashes, a series of x-ray visions as registered by the alien while examining the new world around him. Our new world. We are the Starman, and the shot has us asking "What am I?" rather than "What is that?" We somehow feel at peace, and when we spy Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) sleeping blissfully, we know she's in no danger.
As we pass by the film projector set up in Jenny's living room, it comes on giving us a brief glimpse of a home movie showing the person we're about to replicate. We look through a scrapbook, in which we find a lock of hair. Then comes one of those sequences that makes you want to rewind the film and look at it again and again. We close in on the lock of hair, zoom in closer and closer till we actually enter it's genetic structure, and the cloning process begins - thanks to the incomparable cinematic slight-of-hand by Dick Smith, Stan Winston, Rick Baker, and Industrial Light and Magic. The Starman now stands naked, a brand new human being in possession of a piece of flesh machinery that happens to be a perfect replica of Jenny's ex-husband. Soon they've taken off on a cross-country trip to Meteor Crater, Arizona, where the Starman has an appointment for a rendezvous.
Karen Allen has the difficult task of portraying Jenny, a woman who's not only scared out of her gourd but who can't help feeling attracted to this perfect facsimile of her lost lover. It's a performance that's carefully measured, impeccably sincere, and full of surprises. She's the straight man to Jeff Bridges' comic cosmic visitor, and she's the perfect foil.
"Brilliant" might seem like an overused item in the critical lexicon, especially suspect when applied to the art of film acting, where a performance can so easily be built by a director with manipulative editing, but there's no more appropriate word to use to describe Bridges' stunningly orginal creation of the Starman. His performance works on dozens of levels, each one perfect and precise. He's simultaneously mechanical and soulful, cold and compassionate, Arnold Schwarzenegger in TERMINATOR and Peter Sellers in BEING THERE. From the very start, when he's learning to manipulate his new human-tissue appendages, and throughout the film, the Starman is a spiritual entity discovering all the uses and all the potential for expression of an adult human body. Bridges lets us see the struggle of the puppeteer to gain control of his new marionette, and even when he accomplishes a true sense of domination over his new physical form, he never lets us forget for an instant that there's a deeper, more intelligent force at play. He delivers his lines flatly, emphatically, giving each word equal emphasis, never betraying the slightest emotion. He quickly picks up mannerisms from those around him, but his versions of them are blatantly fake. His frown is ridiculous, his grin obviously counterfeit, yet we understand that underneath it there's often a real burst of tenderness trying desperately to release itself. On one level, Bridges lets us see the fabrication, the automation inherent to manipulating a body, and on another level he never lets us forget that this doll he's playing with has a soul that will never be able to truly express itself in this new form.
When we watch Brando or Pacino, we see a performance created from the inside out, one based on sense memory and deep emotional contact. Olivier and Gielgud create their characters from the outside in, using pure technique and stagecraft to express emotion. But for the life of me, I can't figure out how Jeff Bridges could have created the role of Starman. Where could he have started from? The role is so utterly original there's simply nothing to base the characterization on. "If you were going to play Babe Ruth, you could do research," Bridges is quoted as saying in a press release. "But for this role, there's absolutely no frame of reference." Though Bridges has never had trouble exhibiting sincerity and passion in films like AGAINST ALL ODDS, CUTTER'S WAY, and FAT CITY, if you try to find a hint of the outrageous comic sense and physical dexterity necessary for the role of Starman, you won't find it. When I try to think of another actor who could have pulled it off, I come up blank. He's created a role that contains within it all of creation, and I still feel like applauding.
Everyone involved with this film has done their best work ever. Also more than fine are Charles Martin Smith and Richard Jaeckel as the good and bad government agents whose adversarial positions give the film much of its dramatic thrust.
John Carpenter is a director whose work, like Brian DePalma's, was dangerously slipping towards a sheerly visual style, with the constant repetition of flamboyantly frightening images triumphing over any sense of substance. From HALLOWEEN through THE FOG, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE THING and CHRISTINE, Carpenter has been remaking the same movie. It's as though Spielberg, after making JAWS, had decided to continue making nothing but fright films. Spielberg took the next step towards enlightenment immediately, but it's taken Carpenter four films to finally change tactics. STARMAN is his CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, his E.T., his BEING THERE, and unquestionably his finest work.
STARMAN took four years to get made. Unlike other projects in Hollywood, where everyone's always looking to create (or buy) the right property, the one that will cost-effectively bastardize any two successful pictures, STARMAN suffered from reading just a little bit too close to the most successful movie ever made, E.T., not to mention close to WAVELENGTH, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND... and John Carpenter's unduly maligned THE THING, of which STARMAN is the diametric opposite in tone and concept, and certainly as an appreciation of human physicality. Though its ending left both its hero and its audience out in the cold, the rest of THE THING scared the daylights out of everyone. The only reason it failed is that it came out the same year as E.T., when everyone wanted visitors from the stars to be cute and cuddly, not horrifying and bloodthirsty.
Carpenter exacts just revenge with STARMAN. It's tender, adult, playful, and overwhelmingly positive, a film you want to hug, to show to everyone you know to let them know how wonderful it is to be alive on a planet, with a physical body that's capable of experiencing a planet's worth of pleasures.