The Voyager space probes included methods of telling any alien civilisation about Planet Earth, including greetings in many languages, songs and music, and instructions on how to speak basic English. Little did the scientists know that their message would be picked up by extraterrestrials so soon, and they send back a probe of their own which enters the Earth's atmosphere but malfunctions and crashes in a remote part of Wisconsin. The only person living nearby is Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), still mourning the death of her husband, yet in a funny way she's about to get him back...
In the John Carpenter canon you could look at Starman as the anti-Thing, in that it's science fiction and features an alien taking on the form of a human being, in this case Jenny's husband played by Jeff Bridges, but instead of wreaking havoc and placing the whole of the world's population in peril he wants to get back home, though not before spreading a little happiness. If this is sounding like another science fiction movie of the early eighties, then it was no coincidence that E.T. The Extraterrerstrial was made about the same time, as both were projects at Columbia only they passed on the Spielberg blockbuster to make this.
Oops. But although Starman was nowhere near the megasuccess of that film, it did pick up a few fans, and even an Oscar nomination for Bridges in surely the quirkiest performance ever to garner that status. He played the alien in the body of Jenny's deceased spouse as a kind of machine, picking up whatever information he could and using it to make his way through the often hostile landscape of the film. It could have been hopelessly cutesy, but somehow Bridges salvaged it from the realms of basic sitcommery and made it both funny and charming; there were quite a number of good laughs here in the stranger in a strange land details, but also a genuinely sweet companionship between Jenny and the Starman.
He never even tells her his name, but after a start fraught with misunderstandings - growing from a baby to a fully formed man in the space of seconds on the floor of your living room could make for a tense relationship if that sort of behaviour freaks you out - they begin to form a bond as the film took on the road movie conventions where he has to reach a crater in the middle of nowhere to meet up with his rendezvous. Reluctantly at first, Jenny loses her belief that she's been kidnapped to attain and understanding with her new friend, and soon it is she who is protecting him from the dangers of being new here and not being savvy to the correct way to act around people.
As this road trip and resulting agreement to help is being forged, there is further risk supplied by the United States Government. They couldn't help but notice this new arrival and send hawkish military man Richard Jaeckel after Starman, after getting the advice of fascinated SETI man Mark Shermin (Charles Martin Smith) who conducts his own investigation and proves more of an ally than he first intended. Along the way the eighties sci-fi preoccupation with pregnancy emerges once again, but this is part of the romance, for Carpenter showed a neat understanding of how to make this affair tick along without it appearing more absurd than it would otherwise - the performances of Bridges and Allen (in an equally tricky role as we have to be convinced by Jenny's reactions) went a long way to guiding the audience through the fantasy. By the end, Jenny has shown Starman the best of humanity simply by ensuring his survival; she didn't need to, but her compassion highlights not all of us are bad, and under the most extreme conditions we can be pretty good, considering. Poignant electronic music by Jack Nitzsche.
Skillful American writer-director of supense movies, often in the science fiction or horror genres. Comedy Dark Star and thriller Assault on Precinct 13 were low budget favourites, but mega-hit Halloween kick-started the slasher boom and Carpenter never looked back.