Daniel Metzger’s review published on Letterboxd:
The 8th film from John Carpenter and fun fact: this is the first film of his I ever saw. I guess that makes sense seeing as most of his movies are rated R and this one is PG. But regardless, point is I saw this when I was younger and I remember liking it. I don’t think I fully appreciated all of what this movie was doing, as I was a kid and this movie isn’t really aimed at kids, but I enjoyed it because it has a lot of good jokes and it made me laugh. So coming back to it, I expected to find a nice little movie, solid but not like a great one. And wow wow wow, this thing hit me like a ton of bricks. This movie is wonderful.
Starman is somewhat of an outlier in Carpenter’s filmography as it is a very sweet, emotional and optimistic film, and he generally tends toward darker, more cynical material. This change of pace can be explained by the reception of The Thing. Carpenter said that he thought he had to do something as opposite The Thing as possible in order to restore his reputation and save his career. And he made a film that is the exact opposite of The Thing. It’s kind of funny how the way this movie explains what Starman is sounds exactly like what they say about The Thing: an organism that can copy human flesh. Starman is another shape shifting alien, but unlike The Thing, he is gentle and has healing powers. So yeah he took the “opposite of The Thing” challenge a bit literally.
Another way to describe Starman (the film) would be it’s a more grown-up version of E.T. Essentially, if instead of coming to earth and befriending a little boy, he met a grieving widow and took the form of her dead husband. What ensues is a road-trip romance/fish out of water comedy (come to think of it, the first Thor movie borrowed a lot from this).
There’s like a million things I love about this movie but I’m trying not to gush because I’ve been doing that a lot with these. Anyway, Carpenter shows in this movie that he is just as adept at telling sincere, emotional character-based stories. This movie was not his project from the beginning. He sort of took over after it had been in development for a while. So one could view this as him making a more mainstream film rather than a “John Carpenter movie”, but this film still feels so clearly and unmistakably him. I like to see it like this movie as John showing that he can make a mainstream, crowd-pleasing film just as good as anyone (better even) but that’s just not what he usually chooses to make.
Aside from Carpenter’s skillful and assured hand behind the camera, the main thing that makes this film work is the performances. In particular Jeff Bridges as Starman is just a phenomenal performance. He has such an otherworldly quality and he is completely convincing as a spaceman slowly figuring out how to act like a human. It’s a very technical performance but incredibly affecting and moving as well. He received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for this film. But I would argue almost as crucial to this film’s success is Karen Allen. She is so lovely and emotionally raw in this movie. She brings a real weight to this film that serves as a perfect counterbalance to Bridges’ goofy naïveté and general weirdness. The way their relationship develops over the course of the story is beautifully portrayed by both of them, and as strange as the circumstances are, it completely works.
This movie actually kind of reminds me of another 1984 film: The Terminator, in that respect. Both films involve a love story over the course of a couple days. And in both cases that love leads to something... (no spoilers lol). And in both films, the powerful human connection at the core of the story is what makes them great. That’s my opinion anyway. And thinking about that got me thinking about what’s wrong with movies today. Not to be a grumpy old man, but the way blockbusters nowadays have to have 8 big setpieces and 500 jokes really doesn’t leave time to believably develop a real human connection the way this movie does. When was the last time you remember a movie doing that? The last one I can think of is actually Thor! And even in that one it’s kind of rushed. So anyways that’s why I loved this movie. It made me feel things.
And on top of all that, this film has a really beautiful view of humanity. Most films like this with a magical space messiah get really preachy about how awful the human race is. But this film is about how in spite of all our flaws, there are so many wonderful little things about our world as well. And the idea of an Extraterrestrial seeing the beauty of humanity based on his experience with diners and truck stops is really profound.
So anyway yeah I think this movie is kind of perfect. I really didn’t see that coming but here we are. There’s just so much to take away from this that I feel like it’s gonna take some time for me to process and fully appreciate it. I’m calling it now that this is his most underrated film. People usually say that’s They Live! but a lot of people have seen and love that movie now and I don’t think that many people have seen Starman. This is a real hidden gem and I highly recommend it.
Weird that the David Bowie song never plays though.