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 Connectsâ€¦ 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 â€œprovocativeâ€ 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.