Starman (Home Video Review)

Starring Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel

Directed by John Carpenter

Distributed by Scream Factory


It has become a bit of a rampant rumor that none of John Carpenter’s films – outside of Halloween (1978) – was a hit, either commercially or critically. The truth is most of Carpenter’s early works made money and received praise; The Fog (1979) mined a good bit of Blake’s gold, reaping over $21 million on a budget of $1 million. His oeuvre was building up to what might be his greatest achievement: The Thing (1982). It bombed, barely recouping its $15-million budget. Carpenter needed to remind audiences (and, more importantly, studio executives) he wasn’t just a “horror guy” and his stellar abilities as a master craftsman behind the camera extended beyond his most associated genre. Enter Starman (1984), a romantic sci-fi road trip that passed through the hands of several directors before winding up in Carpenter’s lap – and he nailed it. Aided by the ever-capable Jeff Bridges and a plucky Karen Allen, Carpenter became a studio gun for hire; he didn’t even write the score or receive a credit on the screenplay. Instead, he brought all of his knowledge as a filmmaker and stepped outside his wheelhouse to make a resounding emotional film full of something unexpected: heart.

On the same night newly widowed Jenny (Karen Allen) is grieving the still-fresh loss of her husband, an alien craft is shot down over the woods of Wisconsin. A being of pure energy escapes the shuttle and heads toward Jenny’s farm, where it observes photos of her late husband, Scott (Jeff Bridges), and clones itself to mimic his appearance. Jenny awakens and is, understandably, freaked the hell out. As the “Starman” explains, he has three days to get “here” (his finger jabbing at Arizona on a map) and he needs Jenny to take him. Their trip is bound to be fraught with peril, though, because the government has tracked Starman’s trajectory and they are closing in on his location. Led by steely NSA director George Fox (Richard Jaeckel), orders are given to bring in this alien dead or alive – though the ad hoc vivisection room being set up implies our new visitor will wind up dead either way.

This film is truly a joy from start to finish. Carpenter’s direction is impeccable; this was him proving a point not to himself but to everyone else who thought they knew his range. He was already assured in his capabilities. Seeing what Carpenter was able to do with a romantic sci-fi road movie makes me pine for the lost projects that never were, including his attempts at making a full-fledged western. Starman is well-written, with a script that jettisons anything deemed non-essential to the story’s heart. Starman and Jenny are taking a trip to Arizona so he can meet up with a rendezvous party; what occurs during that journey is wonder & awe on the same level as peak Spielberg. This film could easily have fit into Amblin’s wheelhouse. In fact, one Hollywood tale says Columbia had pick of either this script or another “alien come to Earth film”; they chose this one. The other was E.T. (1982).

Carpenter parted ways with Dean Cundey following The Thing (for whatever reason; who knows) and on this film he brought in previous collaborator Donald M. Morgan, who had just shot Christine (1983). The idea here was to use “America’s backyard” for most of the locations, showing off the country’s gorgeous landscapes and majestic vistas. Morgan’s photography is stunning, exploring the foundation of Americana and exposing hidden beauty across several states. Cinematography has long been an important trademark in Carpenter’s films and the transition from Cundey to Morgan, seamless as it is, showcases the director’s ability to convey exactly what he wants to his director of photography and get the right results.

I can only speculate why Carpenter didn’t provide the score – maybe studio mandate, maybe he wanted this “different” film to have a different sound – but the work done by composer Jack Nitzche is extraordinary. This isn’t some cut-and-paste studio job, either; Nitzche’s main theme is a beautiful piece of music. The music is able to complement and convey the actions and emotions on screen almost effortlessly, hitting those high feelings as easily as registering fear when danger lurks. The next time Carpenter would cede composing duties was with Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) – and that is a clear example of a generic Big Studio score falling flat.

Finally, I just can’t imagine a better couple than Bridges and Allen. The former studied birds and their movements in order to convey the weirdness of an alien wearing a cloned dead human suit. Bridges received an Academy Award nomination for his efforts, which says enough about how perfectly he nails his role. Allen is as fierce as she is stunning and watching her gradually transform from grieving widow to unwitting accomplice to teacher and lover is a testament to her acting and the script’s writing. This might not be a “John Carpenter” film in the traditional sense, but it is so clearly one in every way.

Scream Factory isn’t touting any new restoration/remastering information, and given this is a Sony title odds are they’re working with whatever they were given. Luckily, Sony keeps their masters in excellent shape and so the 2.35:1 1080p image reflects this meticulous work. As usual, Carpenter shot with anamorphic lenses and the images here, particularly those sweeping vistas and postcard backdrops of America, look astoundingly good. Fine detail is evident in every frame, giving the picture full life and a window-like appearance. Black levels are abyssal and dark. Film grain moves smoothly and looks organic. Textures look tangible. This is about as good as Blu-ray gets.

The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track is a strong showcase for Nitzche’s score, though the track also makes great use of the available speakers to direct sound effects and ambiance to create an enveloping world. Dialogue is centered and always understandable. Subtitles are available in English.

Special Features:

  • NEW They Came from Hollywood: Re-visiting STARMAN – featuring director John Carpenter, actors Jeff Bridges, Charles Martin Smith and script supervisor Sandy King-Carpenter
  • Audio Commentary with director John Carpenter and Jeff Bridges
  • Vintage Featurette
  • Teaser Trailer
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • TV Spots
  • Still Gallery
  • Optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature
Starman (1984)
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