Starman (1984)

Directed by John Carpenter

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In 1977 NASA launched Voyager 2, a space probe bearing messages of “greetings” in 54 languages.  In 1984 an alien intercepted that probe and headed to earth where its spacecraft was shot down somewhere over Wisconsin.  Unharmed, the alien made its way towards a cabin and, using a video reference and a few strands of hair, took the form of a recently deceased man (Jeff Bridges).

The Starman will run into the deceased’s wife, Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), and despite the initial horror of seeing your dead husband alive and effectively lobotomized, they embark on a road trip to Arizona where the Starman must arrive in three days to meet another spacecraft to take him home.

The alien’s arrival is like a friendly version of The Terminator, and the mission, to get him home, is reminiscent of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.  In the middle is a romance and a road trip comedy, with the characters butting heads before developing either a mutual respect or affection, a la movies like Midnight Run, Thelma & Louise or Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

The eventual romantic entanglement between Jenny and the Starman is unlikely, but the story knows this, and it thus hints at just how tormented, damaged and hollow she feels since the death of her husband.  In this alien with a primitive but growing grasp of the English language she channels just about everything she’s felt over the previous year of her life, all love, fear and even lust.  We only see Jenny for a brief moment before the alien arrives, and all she’s doing is drinking wine and watching old home video footage of her and her husband singing lovey dovey folk songs like they’re Sonny & Cher.  Because this is all we have to go off of, we see her as a fragmented, even depressed, lonely human being.  Then the alien arrives, and she’s willing to overlook the unmistakably alien quality of his behavior and fall for him.

So Jenny is a wounded soul, and the alien is there to make things right.  Not only is he kind and curious, but he can literally bring animals and people back to life.  He is a healer, and this stands in purposeful contrast with the U.S. Government intent on hunting him down and treating him with the same animosity the heroes face in The Terminator.  This time it’s we who are the problem.

It’s the same dynamic you see in other movies involving wondrous space beings, like The Iron GiantE.T and more.  Something inexplicably shows up on Earth and bonds with a young hero, often a child.  This person recognizes in the extra-terrestrial being what the adults, bloated with their own agendas, fail to see.

Over the course of stories like these you will often see one or more of the antagonists change their point of view, recognizing in the alien being the awesome power that the audience is quickly privy to.  It’s often these supernatural beings and their peaceful ways that are meant to highlight our own lack as a culture and species.  Their mere existence and the drama it causes, demonstrates our own faults, often our quickness to do battle and certainly the limits of our imagination.

It’s movies like these that use supernatural entities in an attempt to make us recognize the good in ourselves.  Sometimes it can be quite cheesy, and sometimes quite heartwarming.  You see this in various moments in between large plot points when the supernatural being, despite their raw power and mystique, struggle to comprehend something we consider quite basic.

In Starman, Jenny will teach the alien various colloquialisms and not to run red lights, despite her own lead foot, for example.  She explains to him the world as if talking to a child, and the alien, being an adult, possesses a lack of comprehending meant to feel profound rather than silly.  Rather than explaining to this being that this is just the way things are, the effect is for us to wonder if this is how things have to be.

Up Next: Trees Lounge (1996), Patriot Games (1992), Leave No Trace (2018)

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