Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s Love Week at The A.V. Club, so we’ve followed our hearts and lined up a slate of unconventional love stories.
Reconfiguring E.T.’s basic narrative for more romantic purposes, Starman charts the cross-country saga of an alien (Jeff Bridges) who, upon first landing in Wisconsin, takes the form of Scott, the dead husband of Jenny (Karen Allen), and then kidnaps the widow and sets out for Arizona, where he plans to reunite with his intergalactic travelers. What ensues is a love story with some not-so-subtly weird undercurrents, as Jenny’s increasingly amorous feelings for the visitor are quite obviously rooted in the fact that he looks and sounds (and feels!) just like her former spouse. Yet if Jenny’s situation is, from a practical standpoint, severely strange, that’s ultimately beside the point, as John Carpenter’s film is really a science-fiction fantasy about getting a chance to overcome grief by reconnecting, briefly but intensely, with a lost loved one.
As written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, Starman follows a familiar narrative path, with Jenny first frightened of the Starman, then touched by his inquisitiveness about his new surroundings, and finally smitten with his mixture of selfless compassion and appreciation for life—qualities he exhibits by bringing both a dead deer, and a gunshot-wounded Jenny, back to life. Despite a role that requires him to act like a curious simpleton who’s also wise beyond our understanding, Bridges (in an Oscar-nominated turn) uses unnatural body language and a sense of bizarre detachment to uniquely compelling ends, and he’s aided by Allen in a performance of believable emotional confusion.
Ultimately, Starman overcomes its more ridiculous and formulaic elements—including a thread involving Charles Martin Smith’s benevolent alien expert and his more ruthless military bosses, who want the Starman captured for study—through expert direction. Carpenter’s gorgeous widescreen compositions constantly contextualize his characters amidst their expansive rural West environments, conveying how they feel, and how they stand vis-à-vis themselves and others, through shrewd and evocative framing. In one beautiful panoramic long take after another, Carpenter captures a potent sense of his protagonists’ plight and their various settings, culminating with a final, stunning close-up that may be the greatest of the filmmaker’s career.
Availability: Starman is available on DVD, which curiously cannot be obtained from Netflix, but may be in stock at your local video store/library. For those not into the whole physical media thing, the film can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.