Between Dimensions: Starman (1984)


Between Dimensions is a continuing feature that examines science-fiction on the screen in all of its forms: big or small, good or bad.

Starman Still Connects… But With Keanu?

As the winter of ’09 has refused to depart gracefully, some movie time travel seemed a smart avoidance technique. I found myself stopping in 1984 wondering how well Starman would hold up after a quarter-century. I had vague memories of Jeff Bridges acting but nothing more. I’m pleased to say that Starman remains an excellent film. More surprisingly though, it seems to be what fans were expecting from Keanu, Scott Derrickson, and company in their unsatisfying remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Starman’s premise is classically simple. A UFO is spotted heading for California. This “provocative” flight path encourages the air force to shoot it down. The alien presence survives the crash in Wisconsin. While browsing his new neighborhood, the alien enters a cabin owned by Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen). Deep in grief over the recent loss of her husband Scott, she is crying her way through home movies and a bottle of wine. She soon nods off only to be awakened by a blue light. The light morphs into a baby, which to her shocked amazement grows into her husband right before her eyes. As he tries a variety of languages (learned from the Voyager probe) to talk with her, Jenny replies by passing out. When she wakes the new Scott (Jeff Bridges) is still there and asks for help. Then insists.

Although this movie could slip into predictability quite easily, it most definitely doesn’t. Instead, it focuses intensely on these two characters and how they move from being strangers of the furthest kind to two entities with an emotional bond that almost (but not quite) spans the universe. Considering the director’s well-earned reputation for his “let’s go to the gore” moves, John Carpenter displays an astonishingly light touch, letting the two actors carry the story while making us care about their fate.

Except for the weedy opening premise (the aforementioned Voyager was the alien’s invitation to visit – duh), Starman threads the alien encounter theme through the classic two lonely people falling in love with grace, humor, and sensitivity. Of course a chase drives the narrative. But it is nuanced with imaginative encounters and underplayed effects. With the military in pursuit, Jenny and Scott make a run for his rendezvous for his ride home. The emotional entanglement for the audience comes as we watch Jenny deal with her dilemma. Her beloved husband is dead. This alien has brought him back to life with quantum accuracy. She is agonizingly torn between her heart’s second chance and her head’s rejection of what she is experiencing.

What makes this tightrope work is the acting of Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen. He is all alien and without any CGI. From his twitchy, bird-like movements and learner’s gait to his stilted syntax, his portrayal of an alien learning to be one of us is moving, humorous, and very real. Yes, he has some otherworldly tricks but they are used sparingly. They make the pursuit more engaging while bringing him and Jenny closer. Karen Allen shows great range as she moves from disbelief and fear through understanding and finally to complete surrender. Through it all, Carpenter uses deft touches of humor to enhance the believability of our characters plight. It’s not hard to find the humor in tutoring an alien to act like us but it requires a great director and good actors to bring it off with such style. They even maintain that deft touch in a short sequence in SF’s location-of-choice, Las Vegas.

But you might ask. What does this have to do with Keanu and his remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Quite simply what we have in Starman is a re-imagining of the 1952 classic. It is something we might have hoped for from Scott Derrickson but understandably didn’t get. Both films support a Christian motif if you want to look. Then consider Starman’s story arc: both aliens arrive and are greeted with hostility; both live with us to gain an understanding of humanity; both connect with a female who eventually is won over; although their alien powers would seem to be a deal-breaker, they allow themselves to be hounded and chased; Klaatu leaves Gort, Starman leaves a representative who will be a teacher of men (this is a rather crude description of Starman’s emotional high point but I don’t want to give the fun away) Visuals echo the earlier film e.g. Gort carries an unconscious Helen Benson in his arms. Scott as the alien carries Jenny the same way as he saves her from a fiery collision. One line serves both movies almost word for word: “You are at your very best when things are worst”.

Re-imagining a classic idea can be done. It just needs imagination and the directorial and acting chops to let the heart of the story come through. Not an easy task. But then that’s what they get the big bucks for.

If you liked this movie nothing else measures up. Species totally cocks it up. Enemy Mine tries hard. As does The Arrival. The Thing from Another World (1951) gets the closest. And I’m not a big David Bowie fan.

SCORE: 4 stars

  • Bob The Slob

    carpenter is god. I love starman.

  • Bob The Slob

    carpenter is god. I love starman. Nice curt, completely agree. I really like your christian parallels theory too.

  • puba

    Starman was the movie that introduced me to aliens in cinema, after that i watched close encounters with Richard Dreyfuss. I really loved the way Bridges was like a baby in so many ways learning human. My favorite scene was when he ran the yellow light, because human life has so much of the, “these are the rules, break them at your peril,” aspect. Everyone breaks the rules, believing we can avoid or survive the consequences never taking into account that humans make rules for a good reason, even if they become a pain in the butt. When i was of a single digit age this movie sunk that point home for me in a way disciplinary action never could. It also did a great job of illustrating the precariousness of living because life is risky regardless of the species. Also for a little while their was a television series in which youngster from Starman’s species was sort of marooned on Earth and raised by humans, trying to get ‘home’, to learn more about his origins, it was interesting but could not have lasted and unfortunately did not have the herky-jerkiness of learning a new and alien culture since the series was about a man who was raised human. The show was discontinued before the protagonist ever got home, but it might have been interesting to watch the Starkid get to this alien world and have him represent humanity as he learns alien and wanders through that culture making the necessary herky-jerky transition Curt and I both found so heart-warming. Perhaps a retrospective in actual theaters featuring aliens teaching hums how to behave humanely would be in order sometimes we’re xenophobic like “Yob” and “Mot”‘s parents afraid of anything different to the point of revulsion and sometimes it takes a creature so unlike our self to remind us who we are just like Louis Gosset Jr in Enemy Mine. And we sure could use some reminding, now. What is it to be human, anyway?