Friday, August 21, 2009

Carpenter's Tools: Starman

What fresh Carpenter is this? After establishing himself as one of the best niche directors, well, ever, he stumbled slightly with the Stephen King adaptation Christine, a noticeably commercial attempt to make up for the tepid receipts from The Thing. Carpenter believed that The Thing fared poorly because it came out the same year as Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. How perfectly fitting, then, that he should direct perhaps the finest of the "E.T. clones" made throughout the mid-'80s to capitalize on the massive success of the benevolent alien story.

Working with a script by Bruce A. Evans (who would later find great success with his screenplay for Stand By Me, funnily enough another King adaptation), Carpenter placed himself far outside of his comfort zone. It probably irked the Hawks disciple to be placed into a niche in the first place, but he certainly made the most of his shifted career path. With this film, however, the director proved that he could hop genres with style, even if he rarely ventured outside horror-action again.

But stepping outside of the pigeonhole means little to the film in question. No, what makes Starman so wonderful, so light and so affecting are the superb performances Carpenter draws from his actors. After the embarrassing casting of Christine, Carpenter is back to drawing the finest from those in front of his lens, and he actually manages to get good performances from much of his secondary cast (remember how bad everyone who wasn't Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence and Nick Castle were in Halloween?). He also handles Evans' light, feel-good script with both the sweetness of that aspect as well as the tension of those who seek to hurt our benign visitor.

The Starman comes to Earth after intercepting the Voyager II probe, which contains selections of music as well as a recorded greeting from the head of the U.N. He crashes in Madison, Wisconsin, and assumes human form when he scans a lock of hair in a photo album and clones the DNA. Then a woman (Karen Allen) wakes up to find her dead husband in her living room. Understandably, this shakes poor Lisa up, and it likely doesn't help that this alien, who looks like her husband, bids her to take him to Arizona.

Jeff Bridges' performance as the Starman is nothing short of fantastic: he gleaned his only knowledge of Earth's languages and syntax from the recorded greetings and songs, so Bridges delivers his dialogue in halting, emphasized staccatos. Bridges is one of the best actors in the business because the very last thing he appears concerned with on-screen is his appearance. Not many actors could contort their faces as wildly as Bridges does when the Starman minces through a sentence, and fewer still could pull it off without desperately mugging for laughs. These moments are funny, yes, but only because Bridges sells them with sincerity and Allen plays the straight woman well.

This light tone defines even the film's serious moments, such as the Starman using his powers to bring a shot deer back to life or Lisa's struggle to separate the sight of her husband from this advanced life form. The military gets wind of the alien's presence, and of course it's run by a cold-hearted intelligence chief who wants to kill the Starman and then ask it questions. One of the scientists in his think-tank, though, voices dissent. "We invited him here!" Mark Shermin yells, referring to the Voyager II probe found in the Starman's ship.

These characters are all so much fun -- Carpenter's inherent flair for camp creeps through, certainly with Bridges but even the NSA chief Fox -- and the dialogue is charming and funny enough, that you can almost forget the compulsory nature of the script. Why does the Starman need to go to Arizona? Because that's where his brethren will meet him, and if he's not there in three days, he'll be abandoned to die on the planet. Why can't the all-powerful race, who have nothing to fear from humans and their silly missiles, wait a day or two? And I nearly winced when the Starman gives an uplifting mini-speech near the end to Shermin that not only casually drops the fact that these aliens visited Earth before and have been monitoring it for some time but lays on the saccharine goo with its exultation of mankind. "You are at your very best when things are at their worst," says the dying Starman. Dying must have clouded his memory somewhat because, apart from Lisa and Shermin, everyone he comes across on his journey tries to capture him, beat him or kill him.

Nevertheless, it earns its bittersweet ending, and Carpenter, the man who made a name for himself as a master of suspense, proves able to coax sweeter emotion from this film with only the slightest prodding. Jack Nitzsche's score sound reminiscent of Carpenter's usual style at first, but it morphs into a gentler soundtrack, in some ways an aural cue of Carpenter's transition in the film. As much as I wish that the plot didn't drive a story in which a woman has a chance to reconnect with a visage of her dead husband, even if that visage isn't him and never will be, is food enough for one film. Actually, Solaris already proved that. But with Bridges, Allen and Carpenter steering things, Starman achieves an honest sentimentality it doesn't quite deserve. Because let's face it: it takes a supreme coordination of talent on-set to make a line like, "I gave you a baby tonight" not doom a picture straight to the MST3K files.

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