Saturday, November 14, 2015

John Carpenter, part XII: He'd like to come and meet us, but he's afraid he'd blow his load


Largely charming, this odd studio effort finds John Carpenter acquitting himself well—despite the necessity of operating pretty far outside of his comfort zone.

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Bruce A. Evans, Raynold Gideon, Dean Riesner, Edward Zwick, Diane Thomas, and D.B. Cooper
With Karen Allen (Jenny Hayden), Jeff Bridges (The Starman), and Charles Martin Smith (Mark Evans)

Spoiler alert: mild

Now, if Christine had been nothing but a job for John Carpenter, then you'd think that this would be even more the case for his follow-up, Starman.  Once you account for the anonymous made-for-TV crap of Elvis, it's got to be the most atypical film of his whole career.  In Starman, you will find neither sleeping evils, nor an examination of civilizational decay, nor even a small community finding their characters efficiently sketched-out while they fight off some besieging enemy.  (Hell, clocking in at perilously close to two hours, even the runtime isn't very Carpenterian.)  It really must be considered one of the clearest-cut examples of pure work-for-hire in Carpenter's whole filmography; and yet you might be surprised how very eager he was to get the gig.  Starman, you see, comes with a backstory.

Following the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, two parallel projects were conceived, and though they began as independent riffs on the same basic idea, they wound up having an awful lot of similarities.  The first was something called Night Skies, a "wimpy Walt Disney movie," upon which Columbia Pictures passed.  However, since the major figure behind Night Skies was Close Encounters' own Steven Spielberg, perhaps you can guess what happened next: the film was picked up by Universal, ultimately retitled, and upon its release made a very large pile of cash.

Thus, having turned up their noses at E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Columbia found itself stuck with the other project.  This was Starman, which subsequently went through no fewer than five directors before Columbia finally found the only man in Hollywood actually willing to walk through the valley of Spielberg's shadow.  Of course, this was John Carpenter, who—to hear him tell it—had already been burned by E.T. once, when Spielberg's feel-good kid's adventure poisoned the well for alien invasion cinema and caused The Thing, Carpenter's first foray into studio filmmaking, to flop.  So, clearly believing that if he couldn't beat 'em, he'd join 'em—and hoping that a big, friendly movie like Starman would finally rescue him from the B-list—Carpenter went where Mark Rydell, Adrian Lyne, John Badham, Peter Hyams, and even Tony Scott hadn't dared to go.

(I kind of want to see the Tony Scott version of this movie.)

Obviously, it didn't work out: within three years, Carpenter would be right back where he started, making weird microbudget horror movies.  One thing we should bear in mind throughout this retrospective is that this wasn't the fate he imagined for himself back in film school.  No, in his eyes, his accomplishments have never matched his own, personal ambitions—which is in some ways outright tragic, given that (up until the late 1990s, anyway) I doubt you could find a single Carpenter fan who wishes that his career took a different trajectory than the one it actually did.

In any event, Starman, though fading into both commercial and cultural insignificance when set against its competitor, turned a modest profit, telling the tender story of an extraterrestrial who wouldn't make you vomit if it tried to fuck you.  Which, I assure you, it absolutely will.

We begin with the Voyager 2 probe, bearing our greetings to any alien race who might find it.  In real life, the odds of any of our space debris ever being discovered by anybody are so low that they would be difficult to calculate.  In the pictures, it happens all the damned time.  So we shouldn't be surprised when a spacecraft swallows up Voyager, and forthwithly sends a lone explorer to make first contact with the Earth.  We should also not be surprised when the aliens don't phone ahead first.  In short order, then, their explorer gets shot down.

Now marooned in Wisconsin, far from his intended landfall, this man of the stars—indeed, this sapient ball of luminous energy—emerges from his spacecraft.  Finding the environment hostile to his form of life, he seeks a more advantageous shape.  Soon, he discovers a lock of hair in a local woman's bundle of keepsakes, and grows a new, human body, aging from disconnected fetus to early-middle adulthood in the span of a minute.  At the sight of this, his unwilling hostess, Jenny Hayden, faints dead away.  And usually we'd roll our eyes at this kind of thing.  In this case, however, it's pretty easy to forgive her.  The transformation is genuinely grotesque (it is one of the film's few recognizably Carpenterian touches).  Moreover, the only reason she fails to shoot the Starman dead is that the specific human being he's chosen to emulate is Scott Hayden—that is, her husband, presently mouldering in his grave.

Essentially kidnapping Jenny, the Starman compels her to drive him to Arizona, where in three days he'll be rescued—at least, if they evade the NSA and their increasingly-conflicted SETI consultant, Mark Evans.  (You get no points for correctly predicting that Mark helps the Starman escape so we can get a somewhat mind-numbing "action" climax involving a whole squadron of helicopters, and near-zero actual tension.)  In the meantime, however, the vastly more important part of Starman unfolds: the thawing of Jenny's fear and revulsion, the building of mutual trust between her and the visitor, and—ultimately—a friendship that becomes love.

Starman is thus a road romance, and—ironically, but probably quite wisely—Carpenter makes a conscious decision to focus upon the growing rapport between our two leads, as opposed to either of the things he'd ever proven himself good at, namely the science fiction and the paranoid thrills.

The former can't be entirely avoided, of course, though Starman's sci-fi remains intentionally half-formed.  The Starman himself is left an enigma.  We know that his homeworld is far more orderly and peaceful than our own; however, the closest we get to "detail" is when he vaguely points at a star in the night sky and says that's where he's from, without ever naming it.  In fact, it's entirely impossible to believe that anybody could be remotely satisfied with the Starman's incredibly sketchy account of his civilization—you would have follow-up questions that lasted into eternity!—but, obviously, this rather badly misconstrues what Starman's science fictional intentions are, which is never to imagine any workable alien society, but to use yet another man who fell to Earth to make some pointed commentary about our own.  So maybe Carpenter ought to be commended for cutting out the filler and just getting right to the part where an alien dad chastises or praises our species, depending on which act we're in.

Oh boy!  It's one of those movies!

Unfortunately, when the commentary comes out as half-hearted as it does in Starman, it's not remotely clear that anybody ought to be commended for anything.  Nearly my least favorite part—even though it's well-staged and I find myself moved by it, somewhat against my will—is when the visitor comes across a dead deer tied to some redneck jerkoff's car in a restaurant parking lot.  The Starman feels feelings about how we victimize weaker forms of life.  Thus, in a fit of zenlike pique, he expends one of his magic energy balls—I forgot to mention that the Starman has magic energy balls—to bring the deer back to life.

Well, good for the deer.  I even happen to agree with the messianic alien about this: I'm a vegetarian.  And yet it's obvious that none of the half-dozen credited and uncredited screenwriters were, since Jenny has been sitting there the whole time, chowing down on her flame-broiled cow corpse, without so much as one condescending comment.  Why, it's almost as if the scene exists solely to communicate the writers' contempt for flyover country—and because it's being enunciated by their Idealized Leftist Space Jesus, it makes their contempt authoritative.  (But don't worry!  Since Starman is also intoxicated by our sensuality and diversity—you know, the very things we often hurt each other over—he ultimately judges us to be a worthwhile species.)

As for those alleged paranoid thrills, an obligatory cross-country chase develops, transparently existing to add some measure of suspense to the proceedings.  It fails so totally at this task that it's frankly easy to get kind of annoyed with it instead.  (Of course, just like every fucking story involving alien visitors, nobody ever mentions—not once!—that it might be a bad idea to greet the emissary of a civilization that could crush us like bugs with violence.)

This is why it's such a good thing that the true core of Starman, its weird romance, is so damned solid.  This is something you honestly could never have expected from Carpenter—a filmmaker whose romantic subplots might very occasionally occupy up to four whole minutes of screentime.  (The only major exception to date is Christine, which is, let's say, "different.")  But then there's Starman, sitting athwart our idea of what a John Carpenter movie is, proving that he always could be sweet (or rather, bittersweet)—he just apparently never wanted to.

As usual, Carpenter brings his eye to the game, coining some fittingly transcendent imagery to go along with his transcendent alien hero.  (Likewise, composer Jack Nitzsche delivers a very transcendent central theme, something Carpenter leans on perhaps a bit too heavily—which is one way you can tell that it is a JC picture, after all.  That brings us back to Starman's uncharacteristic runtime: you tend to notice the overuse of a given piece of music a lot more readily in a movie that's 115 minutes long than in one that's only 90.)

But, with all the talent in the world, Carpenter would've been up the creek, if it weren't for his two stars.  Obviously, there's Jeff Bridges, whose birdlike movements and uncanny inflections form the kind of brave (and potentially off-putting) performance that demands praise for both the actor and his director—especially since Carpenter and Bridges take their Starman from profundity to slapstick and back a hundred times over, hardly ever grinding their gears in the process.

It's easy, then, for Karen Allen to come in under the radar, because her character doesn't require the same brand of overt showboating.  Not that Allen, offering up the open-hearted brittleness that she did so well, is ever subtle—but there's surely no call for subtlety when you have a premise like this, and it'd probably be kind of dishonest if subtlety was what she'd brought.  I'm not fully prepared to call either Bridges' or Allen's performances great—if they were great performances, Starman would probably be a great movie, and unfortunately it's not—but they are awfully fine performances nevertheless.

Starman's at its most interesting when it's about Jenny—and when it's very, very gingerly feeling around the edges of the wound where her husband used to be.  While it never explicitly commits to this central idea, there is no mistaking that Starman—which is in essence a fantasy about Jenny's grieving process—is also a heartbreaking exploration of how very desperately we will try to avoid dealing with grief, if we can.  (It's very notable that Jenny refuses to ever give the Starman a name; if she did that, he couldn't be Scott.)  So there's a certain jagged beauty to the moment Jenny makes the conscious decision to ignore every reason why she shouldn't fall in love with an alien that looks like her dead husband—and thereby accepts the Starman all at once (and in every way imaginable), as the preposterous, magical gift from the heavens that he always was.  And, oh Lord, is it manipulative—that gorgeously-photographed denouement could not be more manipulative if Spielberg himself were behind it!—but by then, after having followed our star-crossed lovers all this way, is there anything you want more but to feel what they feel?  It's definitely not typical Carpenter—but it's good Carpenter anyway.

Score: 7/10

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