One of my favorite movies of 1984 was Starman. At the time, I was very much into acting, and Jeff Bridges’ performance is what I remember above all else. Memorably basic, yet adroit and casually hilarious, he embodied a role no one had ever really tried before. Strangely, upon re-watching (and wondering, titularly, does it hold up to the cinematic whims of culture?), I noticed Starman seems to have curious echoes of another 1984 film of great importance. The similarities between Starman and The Terminator aside, here’s what else I found.
John Carpenter deserves a lot of credit for making this movie work at the time. During the 1980s, he was the king of good, low-budget films. He had a huge run of cult favorites from Escape From New York (1981), to Big Trouble in Little China (1986) to They Live (1988). In this case, it seems the effects called for in the script were just a little too special for Carpenter’s budget. Visual effects, however, were great. The spacecraft crash magnificently lights a forest ablaze with eye-popping delight, but does it make up for the digital lite-brite display that conveyed to us the ship was shot down by an Air Force jet? No.
Also, regarding that shot of a naked Jeff Bridges levitating a marble and why it looks so weird: Jeff was shot hanging upside-down, hence the look of blood filling his face.
Here’s the thing about Starman. The story is rather flat; mankind sends a invitation to visit Earth into outer space, an emissary is sent in the form of artificial intelligence, that emissary is shot down on arrival, so it must meet up with a retrieval ship halfway across America, thus turning the bulk of the movie into a road trip.
That, the conflict Jenny grapples with (as she is forced to flee with this doppelganger of her dead husband), and Starman’s confusion about the state of mankind make up the meat of this movie. And that calls for some meaningful acting. Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark) attempts to characterize Jenny as a frail, lost soul who chooses to drown in her grief after her husband, Scott, is killed in an accident. As much as I admire her for taking that tack, it doesn’t work. Although her arc sees her falling in love again with Starman/Scott, she comes across as whiny and annoying.
Even more annoying is Charles Martin Smith as the alien-loving scientist from SETI. I’m pretty sure he’s always bothered me, whether he’s in American Graffiti, or The Untouchables, and here he comes off as an ass trying to play the cute, smart, winning geek.
It’s still an enjoyable film, with enough to keep you interested throughout. But something doesn’t carry through, as though the decades have dampened our fascination with alien visitations. What worked then (Columbia supposedly chose this script over another, similar visitation story involving an alien and a young boy) doesn’t necessarily work now (District 9?).
So, this Michael Douglas produced sci-fi drama, directed by John Carpenter (Douglas almost asked Tony Scott to direct), starring Jeff Bridges (nominated for Best Actor Oscar, and the role almost went to Kevin Bacon, yikes) definitely hit the right spots in 1984 – glowing blue lights, resurrected deer, Karen Allen in tight jeans, etc. But in conclusion, this is a rare time when I will say a movie needs to be remade. No hurry, or anything; I’d rather see fresh new material come out of Hollywood, and lots of it. But if they must keep remaking films that already had a good run in the past, Starman deserves to be on the top of the pile.
Here, if you’d like to judge for yourself, is Part One of like ten or eleven on YouTube. Enjoy.
(All photos: Columbia/Sony Pictures)