There’s a starman waiting in the sky. He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.
Starman presents a story about what it means to be human, but from the perspective of a stranded alien visitor. His adventure, along with that of the woman who comes to love him, tells a tale spanning the cosmos in order to speak to the smallest elements of humanity.
The trailer for this film depicts the launch of Voyager 2, as an invitation to come visit Earth. The narrator says that someone has taken us up on that offer. An alien comes to visit and assumes the look of a dead man that was once married to Karen Allen. The two then drive around the United States meeting various people, while some government agents try to discover where the alien is and what he wants.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Voyager 2 races through space playing snippets of its recording to other intelligent life forms. It falls through the atmosphere of an alien planet, and a short time later a spaceship leaves that planet and heads to Earth. The scout pod is shot down over Wisconsin in a fiery blast. A blue, glowing energy sphere leaves the crash and enters the nearby cabin of Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) who was reviewing home movies about her dead husband, Scott (Jeff Bridges). The alien light studies the movies and photos, and recreates Scott’s body from a sample of hair taped in one of the albums.
The Starman grows from baby to adult in a matter of minutes, surprising Jenny who faints. Using one of his seven small silver spheres, the Starman sends a message to his homeworld to attempt the rendezvous in three days at the preassigned coordinates. His mannerisms are quirky and birdlike, and he only possesses a rudimentary skill at language, but manages to convince Jenny to drive him to “Arizona maybe,” by using a second sphere to generate a map. Jenny only complies because she is afraid that he will kill her at any moment. She tries to escape after a near-accident with a handyman’s car, but the Starman uses a third sphere to dissuade the attack.
Jenny becomes more comfortable with the alien that looks like her dead husband, who explains he means her no harm. He also tells her that he must arrive in Winslow, AZ within three days otherwise he’ll die. Jenny makes plans to leave him at a diner so he can make the trip by himself, but changes his mind after she sees him resurrect a dead deer with another sphere. Elsewhere NSA security director George Fox (Richard Jaeckel) and SETI scientist Mark Shermin (Charles Martin Smith) plan to find out who the alien is and what he wants. Shermin reminds Fox that they (humans) invited the alien to Earth, but so far they’re the hostile ones.
Recognized by police officers on the highway, a chase ensues and Jenny is fatally shot. Starman uses his fifth sphere to survive a fiery crash with a tanker truck, which leads many to assume they are dead. A sixth sphere helps resurrect Jenny. Starman leaves Jenny as she recuperates, so as not to put her at risk. When she awakens she calls and talks to Shermin to let him know that the alien is benign and wants to go home. She is then able to find Starman, who was stuck at a military roadblock and the two hop aboard a train to take them into Arizona.
On board the two make love, and the Starman informs Jenny he has given her a baby that will know everything he knows, and grow up to be a teacher. Unfortunately they travel too far, arriving in Las Vegas, and need to backtrack. Luckily the Starman has the power to affect the slot machines and they win enough money to buy a new car. Shermin realizes that Fox plans to capture and vivisect the alien and chooses to let the couple go when they are detained by Arizona police.
Jenny and Starman arrive at Meteor Crater, west of Winslow, AZ, and begin walking into it. Dozens of military helicopters descend on them, firing their guns and rockets to force the couple to stop. Suddenly a massive silver sphere descends over the crater, cooling the air and causing snow to fall. The Starman is healed by a beam from the ship and Jenny says a tearful goodbye to the man she has come to love, again. He gives her the final silver sphere to give to the baby when the time is right. Jenny sadly watches the alien ship depart.
“He doesn’t want to hurt anybody. Really, can’t you just leave him alone?” – Jenny Hayden
History in the Making
Starman is certainly the outlier when it comes to the films of John Carpenter. Known for his action and horror films such as Escape From New York and Halloween, Starman is a much more philosophical and introspective film about humanity, the human condition, and interpersonal relationships. Originally put into development in the late 70s, Starman was optioned about the same time as a film called Night Skies (which was eventually retitled E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and passed around a number of popular directors including Adrian Lyne (Flashdance), Tony Scott (Top Gun), and Peter Hyams (2010) before landing at John Carpenter’s feet. Carpenter created a grand adventure and road trip film which didn’t shy away from the necessary special effects, but also let the relationship between the two main characters take center stage.
Jeff Bridges, known previously for his work on TRON, returned to the sci-fi world as the quirky Starman. Bridges patterned his character’s movements after birds and was gifted with a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor. This is an interesting note as sci-fi films historically are nominated for technical Academy Awards (sound, effects, cinematography), but vary rarely for acting, writing, or directing awards; and fewer even rarely win those. Unfortunately Bridges did not win that year, with the award going instead to F. Murray Abraham for Amadeus. Bridges would eventually win a best acting oscar in 2009 for Crazy Heart, and return to a sci-fi film of sorts in 2001 called K-PAX, this time playing a doctor treating a man who claims to be an alien (Kevin Spacey).
An entirely simplistic description of Starman comes off as something like E.T. with adults, which is not altogether incorrect. The two films, both developed around the same time, have similar narratives. In each movie an alien comes to Earth and is stranded there, befriending a human, allowing both characters to grow as friends and become more understanding of each other. E.T. followed children and Starman follows adults; so the statement is technically correct. But Starman is so much more. E.T. is about the loss of innocence and about the boy, Elliott, transitioning to adulthood and coping with his grief and loneliness, while Starman is more about the alien Starman. He gets a chance to experience a gamut of human emotions as he learns about our species. Jenny also gets a chance to cope with her grief and come to terms with the death of her husband who she can get a chance to actually say goodbye to now. It’s different version of a story like The Man Who Fell To Earth; more mainstream and with more of a connection to the alien visitor.
This alien has his own set of powers that he uses, like E.T., which allows him to adjust the probability of the slot machines. Beyond that, the amazing powers he uses are part of the advanced technological aspects of his “space marbles.” These devices are never explained but can channel Starman’s desires to create a map, act as a communication device, revive complex dead organisms, heat metal, and create a protective aura around himself and others. They are like no other technology seen in sci-fi films to date. Usually the devices aliens have are more complex and used for specific purposes, much like human technology. The idea that a non-descrip sphere could perform all of these miraculous efforts was quite a leap for the film.
Yet for all these things that make Starman a sci-fi film, it’s really more of a love story and a road trip movie. Sci-Fi Saturdays has talked a lot about the hybridization of sci-fi films, and Starman continues that trend. Starman has more in common with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night or even Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally, than it does with E.T. or similar alien-type movies. The couple is paired together initially with a sense of distrust; Jenny is obviously scared of the implications of who this person could be, especially since he looks like her dead husband. But as time goes on, the two have adventures on the road and slowly begin to understand each other better, and eventually fall in love. This mismatched attraction between opposites is very common for comedy-romance films, but not so much in sci-fi. Later in the 80s there would be at least two sci-fi comedies that created a romance between humans and space aliens: My Stepmother is an Alien, and Earth Girls Are Easy. Not that these films were influenced by Starman in any way, but they do share some small amount of crossover.
What Starman does best, and something that has been lacking in a number of recent films reviewed here at Sci-Fi Saturdays, is delve into the nature of humanity. It explores what it means to be human by taking a non-human character and allowing it to experience the range of human emotions and feelings. In sci-fi movies that deal with this sort of interaction between an alien and a human, it’s usually just a humanoid alien that gets to understand the person they’re interacting with. Starman has the unique distinction of having the alien construct a clone of a dead human to inhabit. As the character experiences life in the road trip from Wisconsin to Arizona, he is able to learn from the feelings of the body he inhabits. He asks about bigger human elements like love, death, loss, and of course, Dutch Apple Pie.
But the Starman also provides hope to the characters he meets. In Jenny, he acts as a surrogate for her husband (who by all accounts died suddenly about a year ago) and allows her to fall in love with the person all over again, and even get to say a proper good-bye. With Shermin, who is a scientist with SETI and has been searching for proof of the existence of extra-terrestrials for years, the Starman provides unique proof that his work was not in vain. It becomes a thematic core to the film that allows Starman to give a broader message about humanity to audiences. There are two moments that the alien affirms the wonders of humanity. After meeting with Shermin, Starman shares that “you are a strange species, not like any other. And you would be surprised how many there are. Intelligent but savage. Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst.” Having an alien species, who have seen other species in the galaxy affirming the positive traits about your planet is a very reassuring message. Especially when the alien race is suitably advanced enough to have interstellar travel. Starman also says of his race, “we are very civilized, but we have lost something, I think. You are all so much alive, all so different.” This is what he comes away with after seeing humans kill animals, beat up other humans because of disagreements, lie, laugh, and chase after him. To him it’s not necessarily about the quality of the living, which says is paramount on his planet (no wars, hunger, and the strong do not victimize the helpless). He sees humans living their lives for good or ill, with a passion that his race has lost.
That passion exerts itself, in some, as fear. George Fox is determined to capture and examine the alien, which seems strange since he already knows that the Starman is a clone of Scott Hayden. What does he expect to find? But I digress. Fox uses the voluminous forces at his command to attempt to bring down the alien, and potentially anyone else associated with him. Both he and Shermin see the alien’s message of “greetings” with an opposite meaning. Shermin sees the wondrous hope that a visitation from a superior species brings. He also reminds his associates that “we” invited the aliens here, with the information contained on the golden record in Voyager 2. Fox, on the other hand, sees the alien as a potential threat that must be eliminated. This is succinctly summed up by Fox who retorts that “greetings” was “what the cannibal said to the missionary just before he ate him.” Shermin wonders who is in fact the cannibal and who is the missionary in this case.
The Science in The Fiction
Starman is not the first sci-fi film to use the premise of the Voyager program actually contacting sentient life somewhere out there. Star Trek: The Motion Picture postulated that a future Voyager probe, the fictional Voyager 6, was found and merged with some technological race of aliens and then returned to Earth to report its findings, leading to a “first contact” with a wonderful and dangerous new species. But that was in the 23rd Century. Here, seven years after the launch of the NASA probe, aliens have come knocking at humanity’s door to say “hello.”
Voyage 2 was launched by NASA on August 20, 1977 as part of a series of probes (in all only two) to record and photograph the outer planets in the solar system. It is famously known for including the golden record which is an audio and visual representation of life on Earth. There are examples of languages and sounds from around the world, including various types of music, which could provide any species finding the record a clue about the planet. As Starman states, it is basically a welcome mat from the people of the Earth, inviting others to communicate with us. A small message in a bottle thrown into the vast ocean of space in hopes that we are truly not alone.
The Final Frontier
Starman was a successful enough film, coming out at a busy Christmas holiday full of sci-fi films including Dune, Runaway and 2010, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It spawned one season of a television series that served as a sequel of sorts, which aired in 1986. The spin-off starred Christopher Daniel Barnes as Scott Hayden Jr–the offspring of the Starman and Jenny–and Robert Hayes as the Starman, who returned years later utilizing another body. The film has also been bandied about as studios think about creating a remake, but so far nothing firm has happened with these plans.
The film is a poignant examination of interpersonal relationships while also relating a larger story of humanity and our place in the universe. It has heart, humor and some amazing performances. Jeff Bridges certainly deserved the Oscar nomination for playing a character unlike anything else he’s ever attempted. Fans of John Carpenter’s work may see some other hints of the director in this film. The opening moments have a definite horror-vibe as the alien comes into Jenny’s cabin (if you had never viewed the trailer or read a synopsis, you might believe the creature was harmful). It still stands as a strong story and a necessary message that provides just as much entertainment today.
Tune in next week as Sci-Fi Saturdays explores its fourth Godzilla film, in the once-a-decade review of the creature.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.