Starman is a beautiful 80s movie with a very simple idea – humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. In the hands of a lesser artist this many times rehashed premise would probably not make more than an average movie, but in the hands of the maestro John Carpenter it becomes a true classic.
Review by SAndman
July 31, 2009
Director: John Carpenter
story and screenplay: Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon
Jeff Bridges as Starman
Karen Allen as Jenny Hayden
Frances McDormand as Handler
Charles Martin Smith as Mark Sherman
Richard Jaeckel as George Fox
Robert Phalen as Major Bell
John Walter Davis as Brad Heinmuller
George Fox: Do you seriously expect me to tell the President that an alien has landed, assumed the identity of a dead house painter from Madison, Wisconsin, and is presently out tooling around the countryside in a hopped-up orange and black 1977 Mustang?
The back story tells of the launch of the Voyager probes and humanity’s recorded message of invitation to any alien life form that would chance upon it. And won’t you know it, somebody or something picked up the message and decided to pay a visit to our planet. Little did they know that men oftentimes say one thing and mean something completely different.
In the opening sequences the alien spaceship approaches the Earth and upon entering the atmosphere it is immediately detected by NORAD. At first, the military suspects a Russian plane.
As soon as they figure out it’s an alien spacecraft the government officials are informed and the order is issued that the craft must be shot down. Jet planes take off, track the craft, and take it down with missiles.
The damaged spaceship crash lands somewhere in northern Wisconsin in a lake. Instantly the search party is organized. Meantime, the alien traveler, depicted as the ball of light leaves the ship and inspects the surroundings.
Presently it comes across a log cabin, which belongs to Janie Hayden, a young and heartbroken widow to the late Scott Hayden, who had got killed in an accident.
The alien sneaks into the cabin and rummages through Janie’s belongings. He finds a photo album full of pictures and a lock of hair that belonged to Janie’s late husband. He focuses on the hair, analyzes it down to the cellular level, and using the advanced technology he clones a man.
Meanwhile, Janie wakes up, and hearing noises from the living room believes she is being robbed. She takes a gun from a drawer and walks into the room. She finds a baby lying on the floor. The baby presently transforms into a little boy, then a teenager, then a young man, and finally a grown adult, her late husband. Though the man looks exactly like Scott Hayden, his soul is that of the alien creature, the star man.
It is amazing how a straightforward and relatively short movie – it lasts about an hour and a half – packs so many themes, from loneliness and personal loss to life in contemporary America – which is America in the early 80s – with references to popular culture, plus a road story presented from the point of view of an average girl who happens to find herself in rather extraordinary circumstances.
One of the subplots of Starman is Janie’s story of coming to terms with the death of her husband and her attempt to resume human contact.
Also, the movie tackles the abuse of power and megalomania of people in high places as opposed to the basic decency of ordinary human beings.
At its core, Starman explores the interplay between humanity and an alien. As in many such movies, the alien becomes a litmus test which exposes the true colors of everybody he comes across.
The character of the alien is painted as the proverbial babe in the woods who can’t fend for himself and is compelled to rely on others to accomplish its mission. For all his simplicity, the alien shows strikingly accurate insight into human nature.
Essentially Starman revolves around a fundamental misunderstanding – the alien and those who had sent him on his mission made the mistake of taking the Voyager message for granted; they believed the recorded words of welcome and invitation; sadly, the opposite turned out to be true.
In spite of that, and the fact that he is constantly confronted with hostility and aggression, the character of the alien never shows resentment or anger. If anything, he is a dispassionate and occasionally klutzy observer of human customs and attitudes.
And when at one point toward the end of the movie he says, “You humans are at your best when things are worst.”, that is not just another sop to the audiences, a piece of ready-made Hollywood wisdom that should make us feel good about ourselves. That line comes from a creature who was shot at and hunted down, and who experienced persecution and hate at the hands of humans.
The beauty of Starman is that it never flatters its viewers. The movie tells a simple yet poignant story of humanity’s contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence and the ramifications thereof.
It shows the difficult process of discovering an alien being and accepting it for what it is without bias or fear. This inevitably becomes the (re)discovery of humanity, which no matter how uncomfortable or painful it can be at times, brings us to a better understanding of our own selves.