Its not the likeliest movie to be the sleeper of the Christmas season. A comedic scifi love story about an alien who falls in love with a human? Directed by a horror-movie specialist? Starring an actor whose movies have never been hits and an actress who was bad-mouthed by Steven Spielberg? With special effects that are deliberately unspecial? STARMAN, as this unlikely product is known, has the further distinction of being the project Columbia Pictures put into development years ago alongside a Spielberg project called E.T. Columbia passed on E.T., in part because their research told them STARMAN had broader appeal. Then, when the other extraterrestrial movie broke every record in Hollywood, nobody wanted to touch the too-similar STARMAN. But here it is at last - several years, five directors and numerous rewrites later. Directed by John (HALLOWEEN) Carpenter and starring Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen and Charles Martin Smith, it's not the best movie of the year, but it's one of the most irresistable. Only an infant would find it original, and only a Scrooge could remain unmelted by its sweet romantic heart.
STARMAN begins with the obligatory shot of a spacecraft hurtling across the starry heavens. But the craft is broadcasting the Rolling Stones' SATISFACTION. It's Voyager 2, launched in 1977 with a disc containing samples of earthling culture, greetings in 54 languages and a message from U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. If Voyager 2's culture package was an open invitation to visit Earth, then STARMAN is the first extraterrestrial to R.S.V.P. to the party.
He lands in the Wisconsin countrysside, in the form of a ball of light, and then clones himself into human form from a lock of hair. The twist is this: the hair belonged to the late beloved husband of widow Allen. When he springs to life, metamorphosing from infant to adult on the living-room floor of her country cabin, the buck-naked man (Jeff Bridges) who stands before her is a dead ringer for her dead hubby.
This is not easy for her to grasp. He looks like the man she loves, but Scott didn't talk in flat, affectless tones, and never asked her to define words like gas and bozo. Nor did he walk with a stiff, flat-footed gait, his head jerking like a bird searching for a worm. Needless to say, when the Starman orders her to drive him all the way to Arizona, where he has to rendezvous with his mother ship, she's terrified and attracted. But off they go, and so begins the extraterrestrial version of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.
What does that say about our society that the two most affecting love stories this year are both interspecies romances? In SPLASH it was a man and a mermaid. Here it's a widow and an alien light bulb. Have the purely human obstacles to romance become too mundane? (Yes, if one judges from the current FALLING IN LOVE.) It would seem that we need to go literally out of this world to find the requisite innocence to spark an old-fashioned, two-hankie love story. But who would have guessed that Carpenter, who gave us THE THING and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, would have a romantic touch this delicate and true? The secret of his approach is his utter, unpretentious simplicity. Carpenter has always been a classicist, happy to work within the confines of Hollywood genres. (Howard Hawks is his favorite director.) He long ago learned the Hawksian lesson that the best director is an invisible one who puts his talents in the service of a story.
Newborn Humanness: Love stories live or die on their casting, and Carpenter proved a master chemist in bringing Bridges and Allen together. These two seem ideally scaled for each other. They're both beauties, but in a relaxed, unostentatious way. With the wrong kind of actor playing the alien, the humor could have turned arch and precious, the romance sickly sweet. But false emotional moves have never been in Bridges' repertoire. Working body first, this most physical of actors creates a character who changes from an aloof and somewhat disdainful alien anthropologist to a creature succumbing to his newborn humanness. He's a Spartan discovering the joys of Epicureanism. Like E.T. and the benign visitors in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, this outsider is ar more spiritually advanced than we messy violent Homo Sapiens. There's even a scene where he brings a deer tied to the car of hunters back to life. Sappy stuff, to be sure, but neither Bridges nor Carpenter allows the piety to get out of hand. And Allen plays her growing passion with such skill and charm that we swallow this high-caloric brew wholeheartedly. Allen has always seemed an actress on the brink of something wonderful: in STARMAN she seems at last the most delicious of leading ladies.
Writtten by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon (and rewritten by Dean Riesner, who doesn't get a credit), the movie is full of good stranger-in-a-strange-land gags (even the obvious ones about men and women's restrooms work here) and some less-than-inspired villainy. There are the nasty government bureaucrats, led by Richard Jaeckel, who want to capture and dissect the visitor, and the good scientist (Charles Martin Smith) who wants to protect the Starman from our brutish ways. None of this makes a great deal of sense, but a holiday movie without bad guys would be as naked as a Christmas tree without decorations. Even when the movie is just going through the genre motions, you stay with it because it's so amiable in an almost B-movie way. Nothing about it is overdone. (some of the sets and special effects, in fact, seem underdone, which is surprising for a $24 million movie.) And it has a terrific musical score by Jack Nitzsche. The love theme may hae been programmed and performed on a "Synclavier Digital Music System," but it achieves the same moist-eyed effect Franz Waxman used to get from a pit full of violins.
When the idea for STARMAN was first put into development by Columbia Pictures in 1980, Frank Price was head of that studio. Now that he's top man at Universal Pictures, the success of his former project may be nice for his ego, but it can only eat into his own company's profits. Ironically, it was to Universal that Steven Spielberg owed a movie back in the days when E.T. was in development at Columbia. Spielberg told Columbia that it would have to share E.T. with Universal, says Price, "and I didn't want to partner with anybody." This, even more than the fact that their research told them E.T. was just a kiddie movie, made price decide to pass on Spielberg's movie.
E.T. Mania: "There was a draft of the screenplay that was written in 1981 that is spookily like E.T.," says John Carpenter, who came aboard in late '83. "and I don't know which one came first or second." Four directors had been off and on the project before Carpenter. Adrian Lyne worked on it for a year, and Mark Rydell for a day. Two days after John Badham signed on as director, he saw the Spielberg movie. "He came back," laughs Columbia chief Guy McElwaine, who succeeded Price, "and said, 'I can't do it. I don't wnt to be compared to Steven.'" Badham hurriedly departed to take over WAR GAMES. The only other director who would touch it was Tony Scott, known primarily for English commercials. McElwain fired him after a few months. "He didn't see the story the same way I did," says McElwaine. STARMAN now looked like a dead project - buried by E.T. mainia.
The only way to rescue the project, it seemed, was to cut out all similarities to you-know-who. "We did a surgical job on the script," says McElwaine. With no director involved, Columbia turned to their top rewriteman, Dean Riesner (DIRTY HARRY and CHARLEY VARRICK are among his many credits), to recraft the story, making the Starman a more ambiguous figure and emphasizing the love story. There were eventually two Writers Guild arbitrations to determine the screen credit, and Riesner lost out on both rulings. Director Carpenter was so outraged that he dedicated the film to Riesner.
Both McElwaine and Price now caim to have hired Carpenter for the job, so well did this thorny project turn out. Michael Douglas, the film's executive producer, was delighted with the choice, and Carpenter was delighted to be offered a major change of pace - he loved the IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT element of the story. "The funny thing about this project was that the other directors became obsessed with the special effects, obsessed with what Starman and the ship were going to look like," says Carpenter. "After reading the script, I thought, 'What's the deal here? That's the thing you get over quickest. Get on with the story.'"
Allen found Carpenter wonderfully open to collaboration. The kinds of problems she ran into with Spielberg on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC ("I need to work on the character to make it understandable, and Steven wants to do what he wants to do") did not arise. The two stars and the director rehearsed on a Burbank sound stage for two weeks before filming, talking through all the stages of the evolving love story. Allen says she persuaded Carpenter to lessen her character's terror of the look-alike alien. "It would be wrong to play her just frightened. The person next to me in the car is the person I most wish to be sitting next to me. I thought I ought to play it like it was a dream. I wanted to mix the fear with wonderment."
Allen likes to call the movie LOVE STORY OF THE THIRD KIND or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE FOURTH KIND. Coproducer Barry Bernardi thinks "it's like HEAVEN CAN WAIT. She gets one more shot at her husband who died." Now the public can add its own titles to this cinematic Rorschach test. Call this movie what you will - classical, eclectic, derivative, a ripoff - it's a crowd pleaser of the first order. In a couple of years, no doubt people will be comparing their movie to STARMAN.