Starman (1984)

Dir. John Carpenter. Starring Karen Allen, Jeff Bridges, Charles Martin Smith

What separates grief from its lesser emotional cousins is how total it is, how difficult it is to shake, how nearly it stalks. In a film filled with gorgeous moments, the one that stands out most to me takes place in a truck stop diner, complete with low lighting and a hefty waitress. Jenny (Allen) is still trying to shake the alien (Bridges) at this point, although she’s doing it with more softness and less vehemence than she’d done earlier when, say, she played chicken with another car in order to get its driver’s attention. She’s telling him how to get to his destination in Arizona, just in case she isn’t there with him; we hit an insert where we see her fiddling with a picture from her honeymoon she’s kept. The alien is confused about why she’s going to the trouble of explaining the route and how to use a credit card if she’ll be there. “Why should something happen to you?” he asks. Karen Allen should have won an Oscar for the look on her face in the reaction shot and the way she says her line. (No, she was not nominated, ugh.) “Who knows?” she replies. The insert again, of the two of them in just genuinely terrible clothes and looking exquisitely happy together. It’s a tragic moment, a way for her to stare directly in the face of the unthinkable no matter where she looks. It’s also the first sign that she’s coming to accept the death of her husband. When something so terrible happens, there is no sadder answer than “Who knows?” but, perhaps, no better one. This is a movie populated with many decent people, from Jenny to that waitress at the diner (Lu Leonard) who tries to help her to Shermin (Smith), who ultimately chooses to do the right thing by the stranger than by his superior. It’s populated with many bad people too, the majority of whom are government operatives following orders to destroy a friendly alien or glory hounds after the shiniest prize ever put on their greyhound track. What they all have in common is how little they know, how marooned they are in half-understandings, groping after something that might replace their anchorless feelings with solidity.

Throughout the movie, Jenny holds it together. She does not blubber or wail or shriek or shake her fists at the sky at the unfairness of losing Scott. Her husband has been dead since last April, killed in some accident; we know, thanks to a very welcome clip of the future world champion Sixers beating the Bullets, that this is late October. We catch her watching some home movies of Scott, pouring her wine glass to the edge, wiping her eyes once, telling herself that she needs to go to bed. These are the words and actions of someone managing grief, not controlling it, and throughout the movie we watch her manage that grief over and over again, coming closer to control. She’s been given a strange, wonderful, and horrifying gift in this alien, who happens upon her house, images of Scott, and a lock of his hair. The death of a spouse is the central nightmare of any married person; to have a clone of that spouse show up with a passerine aspect and a limited control of the language can’t be that far off. It’s a little more time with someone who looks just like him, that she can fool herself is him, and then she ends up falling in love with him too. Although the look of her beloved is entirely the same, the longer the movie goes on the less this feels like a mimetic love. By the time they indulge in that train car tryst, Jenny is neither the kidnapped woman living a fever dream nor the desperate woman clinging to this new representation of her husband. She has fallen in love with the alien himself, Mary of Bethany at the feet of this Jesus, a master of death who must ascend again, and in love with the goodness he exhibits, and if she has to grieve over losing him it will be a different type of grief than the one that Scott left her with. That in itself is the proof we need that, strange as this looks, this is a different love than the one she carried before, because we know that she will not return home and pour out a bottle of wine in mourning for the alien. The mourning will need to express itself in another way, and it’s not hard to imagine much more joy and far less loss.

This is Allen’s movie, and the reason why it works is not because Bridges is a good actor or because the special effects are nifty or because this is such an engrossing story. It works because Allen is eminently believable in an incredibly difficult role. She is capable of doing less in a part, which is the goal of so many decent performances and the achievement of so many great ones. This movie is in large part a kind of love letter to what we would now refer to as “Trump country,” and because Allen sinks into the Midwestern politeness, or the Midwestern restraint that we expect from a native of Chequamegon Bay, we can believe in this woman taking an accidental sojourn across the Mountain time zone. Something about her face seems to default to sadness, and while there are moments where it might be maudlin, she also has enough comic touch to keep this out of the pantomime. I think about how overwhelmed she is when she sees the naked doppelganger of her dead husband and she passes out, in her underwear, sitting on something in her living room, legs splayed at an awkward angle, all like she fell into a toilet bowl. Sad and frightened, yes. Immune to this very human kind of oddness, not at all.

Bridges is quite good in the movie as well. (One can see why he’s the one with the Oscar nomination: there’s more performance in his acting than there is in Allen’s, and thus he got the nod, with the caveat that his performance is pretty firmly fifth out of five in a good field.) The way he leads his head like he’s trying to stick the tip of his nose on an invisible bullseye somewhere is endearing enough, although I struggle a little to figure out why a being made of pure energy is that fidgety. And he is quite funny when the scenario calls for it; in fact this seems to me to be the best of his acting in the movie, far more than the silliness of an alien wearing a body the way someone might wear a wet t-shirt. I knew the joke long before it was going to hit, but in that scene where the alien drives through a yellow light and very nearly gets himself and his passenger obliterated by a tractor-trailer, his deadpan delivery is perfect. Jenny screams at him about how bad the driving is, where the alien coolly retorts that he just watched her. “Red light, stop. Green light, go. Yellow light,” and there is just this tiny pause so you too can take a breath to laugh all the louder, “go very fast.” Then again, there are some scenes where I’m not sure there’s anything Bridges could have done to back down the total weirdness of the scenario. There’s a line in there where the alien tells Jenny he has given her a baby (boy, not my favorite way to express conception, but maybe you get more mileage from it), and then basically tells her that this child will be a prophet. It is deeply strange! A little more strange than even this movie can bear! And this is not Bridges’ fault that the script calls for a messiah, but it’s not exactly helpful in making his performance a better one.

The best scene in Starman is one in which a divine act is couched within a very simple setting. Having been touched by the sight of a dead deer on a man’s hood outside a truck stop, the alien takes an opportunity to go see it while Jenny is scheming about how to leave him. (He has just learned what Dutch apple pie is, has proclaimed it good, and has also upended the traditional structure of dinner before dessert in the doing. It’s a case of comic masking, not in any ironic sense but because it makes the marvel of his miracle all the more touching.) Carpenter keeps the camera well back from Bridges, placing it roughly where Allen is standing and watching him. He raises his right hand; one of those little metal balls is in there, we know, for it glows red. He keeps one hand on the deer. It begins to twitch. Cutting between Allen’s increasingly amazed face and the increasingly mobile deer, we see, first off, that the alien has power over death. But we also sense the tremendous gentleness in him as well; the deer sits at his feet for a few moments while he pets it like a cat, and a sweetness so total that it aches glows through the screen.

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