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In 1977, NASA sent a probe called Voyager 2 into space. On it, is a gold phonographic disk with a message of peace, but what’s more, an invitation for intelligent alien life to visit our world. Seven years later, one does, a scout that naturally gets shot down by the U.S. military when it enters our atmosphere. It escapes capture though and, in the form of small blue light, dashes across a Wisconsin bay and into the isolated home of recently widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen). There, with her watching in bracing fear and wonder, it finds a strand of hair in a scrap book and clones itself into the form of her dead husband, Scott Hayden (Jeff Bridges). It’s one of the film’s more disturbing (yet visually incredible) sequences as it literally grow from a DNA strand to infant to child to man in a matter of minutes. I’ll talk more about that in just a moment.
From there, she comes to learn what and who this new Scott is, realizing it isn’t dangerous, then agrees to help the being from another world make its way to Arizona where it will rendezvous with a returning ship. The problem is, the government is on the trail, led by the National Security Agency, hunting with a dead or alive mandate to find the Starman. So is SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) scientist Mark Shermin (Charles Martin Smith), who crosses paths with the NSA because he wants to make proper contact. Smith is well-cast and delivers tenfold.
Directed by John Carpenter, Starman is a far departure for the visionary director of Halloween (1978), Escape from New York (1981), and The Thing (1982), creating a powerfully emotional character-driven story that embraces its sci-fi themes and makes it a road trip with a surprisingly effective film about tolerance and romance. Bridges walks a fine line in a performance that could have easily been parody, but makes it so convincing, he embodies the same kind of heartwarming innocence that Tom Hanks was able to capture in Forrest Gump and earned himself an Academy Award nomination for his efforts. It’s one of the best roles of his career.
Let’s get back to the opening moments though, where the alien life-form has somehow deciphered the messages on the Voyager 2 and managed to find Earth. After traveling over the North American hemisphere and eventfully along the central United States it settles in this small cabin by a lake. That in itself makes for a profound string of images and sets a tone the film never betrays, this sense of belief that the woman in this house has as much purpose in all this as the alien itself. This isn’t random.
The brief, visual-effects-laden regeneration scene is a stirring moment, and with it comes a hesitant few seconds, given the director behind the camera, where we suspect this might be a return to his outer space horror themes from two years earlier when he unleashed the now classic The Thing (1982). With legendary makeup artist and effects masters Rick Baker and Stan Winton on the job, there’s further reason to think whatever begins bulbously writhing on the floor at the start of the scene isn’t going to be so benign. We tense for gore but what we get is something altogether better: wonder. And a naked Jeff Bridges.
And so begins his sensational turn as Scott, a human body housing a life form that is using the body to try and navigate this strange and unsafe world. What Bridges does is to give the character a strong sense of humanity while at the same time layering it in peculiar traits that help remind us he is in fact playing an alien, but also allows us to further empathize with his actions. Twitching like a fragile bird, he feels vulnerable, despite his fit form. This is an aspect of the character that at first feels distracting, even a little forced, but after a short time, we see how impactful these traits are and how defining they become in creating the character. Bridges loses himself in the process and it’s not long before we are as well.
The film essentially sticks to that road movie concept once the two take to the journey and it is because of this that we have more opportunities in seeing what powers, both extra-terrestrially and otherwise, “Scott” has. He carries with him a set of small blue-glowing orbs that provide a variety of abilities that by our standards and knowledge on Earth become magic in our eyes. That is perhaps best demonstrated with what he does in a diner parking lot, which earns him further admiration from Jenny and the ire (and violence) of hunters. He learns a valuable lesson about what it means to be human.
That understanding is naturally what Scott is after all along, and there is a touching scene in the diner just before the above-mentioned moment where Jenny attempts to describe what love is, a concept that is not so easy to describe amongst ourselves, let alone a being from another planet where there are no emotions. Watch this scene carefully as Bridges utterly seems detached from himself, as if indeed possessed by an alien entity. It’s really great.
Starman is a film of sublime intent and while there are some weaker moments, the affecting result is one that has only improves as the years pass. The relationship between Jenny and Scott is the hinge that keeps this so wide open, the careful evolution of both who come to know better what it means to be alive on our precious Earth. In a landscape heavily populated by creatures from space with destructive ambitions, it is films such as this that shift these norms and challenge us in much deeper ways. It was announced recently that the film will be getting remade, of course, though few details are known yet. The filmmakers of that upcoming project should do well to study this one carefully and hopefully glean that it is the characters rather than visual effects that earn it the praise it deserves. Watch Starman.