Starman is a sad, sweet road movie about a widow (Karen Allen) who finds a reason to go on living. On the surface, the film is about the romance she has with an alien (Jeff Bridges) who takes to the widescreen highways of America to meet his mothership. But for their chemistry, and John Carpenter’s underhanded direction (he uses the FX sparingly), the movie would be total corn. It is, of course, but it insists on the widow’s loneliness; it does not punch on the emotive turns of the plot. The forlornness, the non-melodramatic acting (Bridges is a stunner, going all in as an alert intelligence that tries to wear a man’s body), and the necro-Freudian love story (Bridges looks like her dead husband, but he’s a man-child that she mentors and nurses back to “flight” – meaning, she falls in love with him all over again, but lets him go this time): for a sci-fi flick from the mid-80s, done on a meaty to modest scale, these aspects are fairly atypical. I just wish the characters outside of the love bubble were not so one-dimensional. For the most part, these one-note walk-ons are transparent; they give Starman a chance to wow his woman, to make her want to protect him. Positioning him this way – as a messianic superhero, a primitive hunk whose inquisitive sweetness contrasts with the dick hicks and the military jocks that see him as a freak and an outlaw – feels lazy. Still, the movie locates a heartache that does not simply fade with the end credits. Starman is a less shrilly manipulative E.T.1
1The Thing (1982) was just as thoughtful, but it was bleak and gross. Released on E.T.’s heels, it did poorly at the box office. Critics piled on. So Carpenter made Starman as a kind of apologia, yet he made it his own. It’s one of his few non-horror films, and we’re lucky to have it.