Yes indeed, it is time for another random 1980s movie review!
But first: a few words. This is not a personal blog and I don’t intend for it to be. But I’ve mentioned The Boyfriend often enough in here that it feels wrong not to make the announcement that, well, The Boyfriend and I went our seperate ways in early December and are no longer together.
I know that these things happen every day, and I am ok, but break-ups suck. They really, truly suck, and I’ll admit that I’ve been going through a rough time this past month and a half. Last Saturday I moved into a flat of my own after having stayed at my parents’ place for a month, and my first evening in my new home was so strange. The flat felt surreally big for just one person (two rooms! And a kitchen! And a bathroom!), and the rooms felt unfamiliar. I frequently have dreams in which I suddenly find out that my home has an extra room that I just never discovered before, and then I spend the rest of the dream marvelling over the extra space and eagerly planning how I’d like to furnish the room. On that evening last week, I felt like I was living that dream, and it was both a wondrous and an intimidating experience. I walked around restlessly for a while, then I started unpacking as much as I could manage, but I was really too tired and too emotional to get much done. So finally I decided to just sit down and watch a movie that I stumbled upon, John Carpenter’s Starman from 1984.
The plot turned out to be this: An extra-terrestrial being from a highly sophisticated alien civilisation travels to Earth, encouraged by the disc sent out with Voyager II in 1977, containing greetings from planet Earth and an invitation to come visit our planet. Having arrived, the being finds his way into a random Wisconsin house at night where he clones into an earthling, Scott Hayden (Jeff Bridges), who has been dead and gone for some time, by means of exstracting DNA from a lock of Scott’s hair which he finds pasted into a photo album. Scott’s grieving young widow Jenny (Karen Allen) wakes up and witnesses the metamorphosis, deeply shocked by what she sees. But the Starman needs her help: He has to be in Arizona three days later when fellow extraterrestrials will be there to pick him up, and he doesn’t know how to get there. Overcoming her initial fear and shock, Jenny embarks on a journey across America to help the Starman get back in time, and gradually the earthling and the alien start developing feelings for each other. Their trip, however, is anything but a peaceful journey, because the Starman will perish on Earth if he misses his flight home, and the FBI are hot on Jenny’s and Starman’s trail and want to capture Starman and forcefully examine him.
Now, before you start mocking me: I am quite aware that this must sound like kind of a ridiculous set-up for a movie. And sure, the whole thing is pretty much E.T. the Extra Terrestrial for adults. Or a dramatic version of 3rd Rock from the Sun, if you will. But whether it was my melancholy state of mind that evening or something else, the movie actually worked for me.
The Dude Abides
The success of the movie, for me, mostly has to do with the actors, who do a fantastic job. I’ve loved Jeff Bridges since The Big Lebowski and he doesn’t disappoint in this early 80s movie. He was nominated for an Oscar for this part and I think it’s fully deserved. His part as the Starman can’t have been an easy one, but Bridges really nails the alien’s approach to the foreign human body that he has assumed. His movements are awkwardly jerky and bird-like and his voice strange and forced all through the movie. Yet Bridges plays the alien with a truly touching gentleness and leaves some room for his character to grow visibly more comfortable in his new body, a development he mostly explores in his interaction with Jenny’s character.
Which is in turn handled beautifully by Karen Allen. She’s been a new girl crush of mine since I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time last year. I have since seen her as Laura in Paul Newman’s version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie as well, and I’m more and more convinced that she’s an underused actress. Her performance as Jenny Hayden sucks you into the story, right from the first scenes of the movie where we see Jenny watching old narrow-gauge home movies of herself and her deceased husband, an infinitely mournful expression on her face. If the Starman goes through a development in the course of the movie, Jenny’s character definitely does too, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine what a deeply unheimlich experience it must be to find oneself faced with the body of a deceased loved one, inhabitated by a strange unearthly being. But Allen gives a great, subtle performance of both this inital state of terror and Jenny’s growing trust in and attraction to the Starman, and she makes it believable. She is absolutely beautiful in the scene where the Starman asks her to “define love”:
“When someone you love… dies… shit…“
The movie isn’t without humour either, which is another thing I like about it. It keeps the pathos somewhat in check.
Finally, Charles Martin Smith is great in the part of Mark Shermin, the sympathetic scientist who is fascinated with the Starman and doesn’t agree with his superiors’ xenophobic attitude towards the extra-terrestrial.
Red Plaid Jackets and Blue Space Light
The art direction of the movie also made a real impression on me. The movie title is a decidedly sci-fi one, so sitting down to watch the movie, you kind of expect it to be all about streamlined spaceships and hightech sceneries. And there is some of that, sure. The Starman brings with him these strange silver balls that allow him to work his extraterrestrial powers on earth several times throughout the movie. Apart from being a nifty plot device, the balls exude a cool, electric blue light that lends something smoothly space-like and eerily otherworldly to these scenes. Behold, for instance, the super scary scene in which Starman clones himself into Scott right before Jenny’s eyes. A most memorable sci-fi scene:
However, part of the originality of the way the plot plays out is the fact that the movie goes very quickly from being sci-fi to becoming a classic road movie, focusing on Jenny’s and the Starman’s drive across America. This allows for images of shabby, cosy diners with solid wooden tables, rainy highways through dark green pine forests, and Jenny’s old beat-up, orange-red Mustang. The sophisticated Starman himself is clad in Scott’s old red plaid jacket and a red cap. As a result, browns, reds, and greens dominate the picture and embue it with a sense of earthy, organic materiality. It subtly establishes Starman as a movie about the clash between our world and the other-worldly, rather than simply a sci-fi flick. And it also makes the movie into a kind of tribute to our planet and to the human race. As the Starman says, the humans are a “primitive species”. But he also says: “We [the Starman species] are very civilised, but we have lost something. You are all so much alive, all so different. (…) Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst.”
The theme of the clash between the high-tech extraterrestrial and the earthly culminates aesthetically in the very moving end scene where blood-red and electric-blue mix as Jenny and the Starman bid each other farewell:
Jack Nitzsche’s score also works really well in this scene, with its beautiful, simple synthesizer theme. And I love how the dialogue here works to bring Jenny’s own earthly, personal journey to an end: She’s probably not just saying goodbye to the Starman here, but also to Scott, who had to leave her so suddenly, dying as he did in an accident:
“Tell me again how to say goodbye.”
“Kiss me. And tell me you love me. (…) I’m never going to see you again, am I?”
The final shot, lingering on Jenny Hayden’s pensive, upturned face is a much more effective and moving ending than any elaborate sci-fi spaceship take-off scene could have ever been.
“Obama is the Starman Child”
The attentive reader may have noticed that the Starman mentions a baby in the above clip, and asks Jenny to give said baby one of the silver balls. Well, you see, the Starman makes love to Jenny towards the end of the movie, and afterwards he delivers what may just be the creepiest post-coital line that I can think of: “There is something I must tell you. I gave you a baby tonight.”. The baby, he tells her, will be a boy, and it will be her dead husband’s, but it will also be The Starman’s. It will know everything he knows and it will grow up to be ”a teacher”.
It hardly takes a bible study group to pick up on the Messiah theme here. It’s kind of not very subtle. At all. There’s also a scene in which the Christ-like Starman resurrects a deer. The Starman baby has, however, apparently left a lot of fans hoping for a sequel depicting the life of this child and wondering whatever became of it. I found an interview with Karen Allen from last year, in which she reveals her idea of who or what the child is:
JW (interviewer): I asked my son what I should call this piece and he said “I don’t know ‘Obsessive Fan Meets…”
KA (Karen Allen): Jenny Hayden?
KA: He wanted to know if I still had that silver ball I bet.
JW: The one you’re left with at the end?
KA: Yes. And what I’ve done with it? And whom I’m giving it to?
JW: Well, what should I say?
KA: Tell him I gave it to Obama. Obama is the Starman child.
Aww. Indeed he is, Karen Allen. Indeed he is. And I personally don’t feel like there ought to be a sequel for this movie. Starman works well on its own, and a sequel would make the story into too much of a pompous epic and subtract from the down-to-earth story about loss and love that Starman also has to offer.
Which is not to say that the movie is flawless. There are, for instance, a lot of plot holes in the story. Like for instance; the Starman and his species are thousands of years ahead of us, technologically, yet they can’t coordinate for the Starman to be picked up immediately once he senses that he’s in danger on Earth? Also, I’ve tried to explain the plot to several friends during the past week, and every one of them has laughed at me when I did so, because it sounded so silly. But the great acting, the haunting art direction and a beautiful score all add up to give Starman a rare heartfelt quality, a hopeful, warm atmosphere that I found to be really comforting, watching it on that late night alone in my new flat.