What if you combined Steven Spielberg’s two big alien movies—Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial—and added a bit of romance? That’s the formula behind Starman, which came on the heels of those two films and doesn’t quite live up to either of them.
The romance is interesting, though, and works as well as it does thanks to Karen Allen, who was fresh off Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark when she appeared in this. Allen plays Jenny Hayden, a young widow still deeply grieving the loss of her husband Scott. When an alien crash lands near Jenny’s rural Wisconsin cabin, it takes the form of Scott (and Jeff Bridges) and asks for her help in reaching a rendezvous point in Arizona.
Beyond being one of cinema’s great smokers (don’t smoke, kids), Allen has always had a unique combination of feistiness and vulnerability. Her characters aren’t afraid to speak their mind, even when they know the cost of doing so. Here, as Jenny, she’s not only funny—tossing off asides that allow the movie to acknowledge the preposterousness of its premise—but also full of sorrow and yearning. If Starman works at all, it’s because of the way Allen gazes at Bridges, as if his mystery is her answer. We believe she’d seriously fall for this doppelganger because we understand how badly she’s hurting.
Which is good, because I can’t say I found Bridges’ alien all that alluring. (The Oscars disagree with me, considering he was nominated for Best Actor). Some of the early fish-out-of-water stuff is painfully unfunny (including an extended bathroom misunderstanding), while the way Bridges speaks—robotically repeating phrases, then popping his mouth open at the end of the last word—becomes thoroughly annoying. Bridges is making some committed choices—his quick, sharp movements are like those of a bird, or a robot, or a birdbot—but a little hint of humanity would have gone a long way.
Starman is directed by John Carpenter (Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13), yet beyond being handsomely filmed the movie doesn’t bear much of his auteurist touch. (There is an inelegant creature-effects sequence in which the alien first appears as a baby and grows up into the adult Scott before our eyes. I’m still not sure how Jenny got over seeing that.) The script, by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, goes through a lot of familiar plot mechanics—especially with a dull Charles Martin Smith as a government scientist in pursuit—but it at least has the good sense to put much of the story in Jenny’s, and thereby Allen’s, hands. Carpenter knows where the heart of the film is too; for all the interstellar fireworks of the finale, note that Starman’s final, perfect image is Jenny’s beatific face.