Hollywood is full of mysteries--among them, how a pair of writers like Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon could produce a brilliant script for "Stand by Me" and also collaborate on something with such uninspired dialogue as we get in "Starman."
Define uninspired dialogue. Uh, how about when an alien who only knows 100 words in English manages to understand a whole lot except for abstractions that make for good, artificial ways of getting people to talk about their feelings and advance the emotional plot? Throughout the movie we get the alien's repetitive requests for random words he hears: "Define love." "Define shit." "Define beautiful." With only a hundred words under his belt, if logic prevailed, this alien's entire role would consist of him asking for definitions and clarifications. As it is, he does this so often and so randomly that it's artificial and as annoying as little kids who keep bugging, "Are we there yet?"
But I get ahead of myself. On August 20, 1977, the U. S. launched the space probe Voyager 2 in the direction of Uranus and Neptune to gather data. That much is fact. The basis for "Starman" (1984) is a "what if" extension of fact. What if that space probe also transported a recording of "hello" in 54 languages, along with a message from the head of the United Nations urging whatever intelligent life finds the probe to "please visit"?
We watch a pretty good replica of the Voyager 2 go toward a gigantic mothership in deep space, the way that ships are pulled toward the Death Star by its gravity belt. We see it drawn inside, hear the message played, and we watch a small spaceship leave the mothership (talk about instant messaging) and head straight for Earth, where U.S. Armed Forces try to shoot it down. It takes evasive action but crash-lands in Wisconsin, America's Dairyland. All this takes place in the opening sequences. The alien is a scout, we later learn, and if he doesn't make it to a crater in Arizona three days from now, he'll be left behind to die.
Director John Carpenter leans pretty heavily on "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," which came out in 1982, because aside from the basic situation of a single friendly alien making contact with a single human and being chased by plenty of unfriendly people who want to dissect him, there are specific scenes that smack of "E.T." Among them is one in which the nameless Starman (Jeff Bridges) meets young widow Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) for the first time, and both scream--an echo of little Drew Barrymore's encounter with E.T.
"Starman" is rated PG, but this is the old rating system, and parents should be warned that full male nudity from behind is shown, Allen wears skimpy panties for one scene, and the two make love to where you can see the shapes of her breasts. Starman learns how to give the finger and say "Up yours, Buddy," and someone is saying "shit" at least four times. But if parents who enjoyed this the first time around want to share the experience with their children, be prepared to have them asking just as many questions as Starman. Define "movie projector," for example, because the film begins with Allen watching 8mm home movies of her and her late husband, who's an unabashed Gomer. So when the alien intelligence probes the house (we see the house from his point of view, same as in "E.T.") and discovers the film and photo album with some of Scott Hayden's hair, he takes some and processes it and becomes a DNA-cloned replica, or at least his physical shell of Scott, transforming right in front of her very eyes.
"Starman" is one case where the Hi-Def technology exposes the movie trickery that we didn't notice in standard def--or maybe it's just that special effects have progressed so rapidly that these look dated and quaint. But you can clearly see that this transformation was accomplished with Claymation shots, and the space ship looks like a model against a brilliantly clear space sky. Later shots, as when Starman reanimates a deer, are more convincing, but the overall effects were much better in the 1977 film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," which also influenced this little alien love story.
That's right. Unlike "Rosemary's Baby," we get an affable alien who comes into the life of a lonely widow, takes on the physical appearance of her husband, tries to imitate his goofing-off-for-the-camera facial gestures, and when he has to run, he grabs her and makes her drive off in her orange Mustang (which looks a little red). As the two road-trip from Wisconsin to Arizona, the cops and feds are on their tail, as well as a more kindly member of the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (Charles Martin Smith). Along the way, of course, she starts to warm to him.
Initially, I remember enjoying this film, and the ending still holds up as a suspenseful-enough climax. But I didn't recall the logic being so bullet-riddled, or Starman being as much of a Rain Man as he is. Over the course of this 115-minute film, his character becomes pretty hard to take. Whether it was Bridges' improvisation or Carpenter's direction, we watch Starman constantly turning his head quickly and robotically like a lizard or bird, looking this way and that, with glazed eyes. And then he talks in this, well, Rain Man way, and keeps saying "Define this" and "Define that" and it annoyed the heck out of both my wife and me in ways that we couldn't recall happening before.
Can anyone have babies?
I understand the human reproductive process as you know it.
Huh? Okay, first, I don't know why "reproductive process" made it into the most basic 100 words of English that the U.N. and NASA decided to fire off into space, but even if they were, if he understands the human reproductive process, isn't it dumb to ask "Can anyone have babies?" We also see him watching TV intently while she sleeps, the look in his eyes revealing that he's learning things for the first time. So what is he watching? The famous beach scene in "From Here to Eternity" in which Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr roll around in the sand, passionately kissing. This 1953 film didn't show anything more graphic, and yet this guy who needed to be told about food and sleep suddenly understands all-out sex?
As I said, Hollywood is full of mysteries, and the mystery for me is why I didn't notice any of this when "Starman" first came out. It's a sweet alien-human love story with okay effects, otherwise.
Ah, your mothership!
I was impressed by the Blu-ray. This 1984 film has never looked better, and the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer seems to be a good one, with no halos or artifacts and true-looking colors. Detail holds up in the shadows pretty well too, and that's good, because like "E.T." and "Close Encounters" there's plenty of shadowy sequences. The sense of 3-dimensionality is a little inconsistent, and some scenes have a little more film grain than others. But I'd say that overall the 1080p picture looks pretty good. If anything, the increased definition draws attention to special effects that now look just a little cheesy, some of them. "Starman" is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio is an English or French Dolby TrueHD 5.1, which does an adequate job but by no means feels like a dynamic soundtrack. There just isn't as much resonance, and the sound doesn't fill the room the way the best HD audio tracks do. Rear speakers get involved for ambient sounds, and the distribution of sound across the channels is natural enough, though. It may not blow you away, but it's a clear soundtrack, with no distortion or audio artifacts. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, and French.
There are no bonus features. The government doesn't want you to see them.
In one respect, "Starman" is an offbeat love story. In another, it's a typical buddy road trip movie. And when it comes to sci-fi, you'll see similarities to all sorts of films, including "Escape to Witch Mountain." It's just one of those films that seems more original than it really is, if you probe around a bit. And Bridges' portrayal of Starman can be as hard to take as the lapses in logic.