Starman (1984) bridges together several genres and film motifs: science fiction, romance, the “road trip” film, and a military drama chief among them. This unique blend makes Starman equally as beautiful a story about love lost and returned as it is a challenging commentary on the way human beings treat one another.
When an alien starman crash landed just outside of Chequamegon Bay, Wisconsin, the citizens of Earth should have been excited. Several years early in 1977, the Voyager II space probe was sent out into the exosphere and beyond with a golden record containing an invitation to aliens that may encounter it to visit Earth. The invitation was peaceful and nothing but welcoming. Why, then, was the response mounted upon first contact so hostile?
Starman (Jeff Bridges) happened upon Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) in a time of utter turmoil. She had only recently lost her husband in a horrible accident. The being from another star came and took the form of Jenny’s late husband, unbeknownst to it, in order to help ease her into helping him arrive at its pickup point all the way in Arizona by three days’ time.
It is devastating, the juxtaposition of Starman’s intent against the intent of the United States Military. The people of Earth made a friendly gesture to the galaxy which was returned in kind. But, ultimately, there was no reciprocation on behalf of the people of Earth as promised when the time came. Starman was marked as an enemy that must be destroyed and studied.
The Missionary and the Cannibals
Before Jenny Hayden’s very eyes, Starman transforms from a newborn baby into a full-grown man. The body may have appeared familiar to her and its mind may have been full of knowledge and wonders beyond her understanding, but Starman arrived on Earth a blank slate. He barely spoke the language, having learned everything he did from a single audio track. Even moving his new corporeal form was awkward, if not at least endearing. The way Starman grew into his new body was endearing and the way he fumbled around while learning to blend in as a human was adorably similar to Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999).
Even innocent children have their humanity stripped, though, when they are aliens. The primary conflict of the film initiates when Mark Sherman (Charles Martin Smith), a scientist with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETA) is drafted by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Defense to aid in their search for the crashed alien. The nobly intended man of science was forced into a full-fledged military operation on United States soil. This war against the Starman pays no regard to his intentions or naivety, only his perceived threat.
Starman begins with a quiet commentary on The United States’ treatment of those it considers “aliens.” The blatantly illegal military action against a United States citizen on American soil is additional fodder to the level of discomfort the film arouses. The tipping point then comes when Starman and Jenny were forced to join a family sneaking across the Mexican border while evading the army. The parallel between their situations becomes entirely apparent as Jenny holds the baby in the back of the truck. Even the most innocent, like the Starman and the baby, are stripped of their innocence in the eyes of those that see them only as alien.
Should I Tell You What Is Beautiful About You
For as much as Starman is a piece of military drama about the corruption of science for the sake of war, it is also a beautiful romance combined with a comedic road trip across the United States. The emotional heart of the film comes not merely from the fact that Starman takes on the form of Jenny late husband. More so, it comes from the fact that she knows this is not truly her husband at all.
As the Starman said to Jenny when they first met, he took that form only to make her feel more comfortable with his presence. All that Starman knew of Jenny’s husband was what he saw in pictures and videos and what Jenny told Starman about him. The story began with great apprehension and repeated rejections to help Starman willingly. The animosity came from a place of pain above all the rational fears Jenny had of being abducted by an alien. All she could see at first was the pain of having lost her husband and the audacity to take on his likeness. As the plot progressed and romance blossomed though, Jenny’s time with the Starman helped her to heal.
Helping him make his way across the country began involuntarily. Jenny’s coarse feelings slowly softened up, but only out of a sense of pity and disdain for those who treated Starman poorly. This continued until a police chase led to a horrific accident that nearly claimed Jenny’s life. The Starman’s selfless act of saving her and driving off without her because he did not want to put her life at risk any longer finally busted open Jenny’s heart. From that moment on, she would be able to feel love again.
You Are At The Best When Things Are At The Very Worst
The romance between Jenny and the Starman is fun and touching, but the significance of love to this story extends beyond their time on the train and the baby Starman gives Jenny that night. There is a singular thing that allows the Starman to return back to his home planet, and it is love.
At every turn, love prevails over the hardest of challenges. Jenny somewhat accepted Starman from the onset because he looks like the man she loved. She became so enamored with him at the diner where he brought a dead deer back to life. He did it because his love for life was so great he was willing to risk using the magic metal balls that he needed in order to return home to save the deer.
Starman did the very same for Jenny as well when her life was in danger. The unconditional love of the stranger exhibited by the family cross the Mexican border is essential to their bypassing the military roadblock. Ultimately, it is Mark Sherman’s love for science and peace and quiet that allows Starman and Jenny to escape past the military. The only kind of love that never is allowed to prevail is the love for militaristic fervor against strangers.
Let All The Children Boogie
Starman blends so many genres into a range of emotions that make it unique in a crowded era of romance and science fiction alike. It never feels wholly like one genre or another, rather, simply a well-crafted blend of exciting with whimsical and thought-provoking with inspiring. As uncomfortable as the central conflict is to reflect on, in concert with the sense of wonder apparent in the final return of Starman to his home and the sense of joy that remains after the credits roll, Starman is a very valuable film for all kinds of audiences.
Jason is a graduate student at Binghamton University studying public administration. His mission is to find the universal values in the fictional worlds we love so we can make our real world better and more full. When not writing, Jason works on food justice and sharing music with communities throughout the region. Or he’s unlocking Xbox achievements.