Overlooked movie of the week: Starman 

How do great films come to be overlooked? That is the question I will answer this week in regards to John Carpenter's 1984 film, Starman.

Multiple Carpenter films were overlooked in the 1980s because of one film and its sense of escapism - E.T.. It's too bad Carpenter isn't working now, for his harshly realistic films would fit right in with today's increasingly socially relevant movies.

E.T. versus Starman

There is no doubt E.T. is a great science-fiction film. However, I find it curious that E.T. - a rubbery, motorized automaton - has spawned legions of fans across two generations and a plethora of cuddly merchandise, and Starman - the titular alien character of John Carpenter's film, played by a very human Jeff Bridges - has not.

Ironically, Carpenter turned down E.T. to direct Starman. I used to think that decision was for the best, that Steven Spielberg was always better suited to tackle E.T.'s vast emotional terrain. However, after revisiting Starman, I'd now like to see what Carpenter would have done with it.

Starman's story is just as poignant as E.T.'s. Like E.T.'s Elliot (Henry Thomas), Starman's Jenny (Karen Allen) is a character whose spirit is broken after the loss of a loved one (Elliot's case involved the divorce of his parents). Like Elliot, Jenny is then healed by an unlikely bond with an extra-terrestrial. The twist is that this alien comes in the form of her dead husband (Jeff Bridges).

E.T. was released two years before Starman, thus stealing its thunder. The issue goes deeper than that, though. E.T. began the phenomenon of audiences being more emotionally engaged by artificial creatures than human beings. While it is more daring to present audiences with a non-human character to sympathize with, it is troubling when those characters are deemed more interesting.

Perhaps audiences are more comfortable with characters outside their species, for fellow humans often hurt and confuse them. Like Jenny's journey in Starman, our path to finding peace with other people can be long and difficult. In that sense, perhaps the film hit too close to home.

Before Starman, another Carpenter film was too dark for audiences in the wake of E.T. - the paranoid alien thriller, The Thing.

Carpenter's films seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the '80s, American audiences wanted classic Hollywood escapism from their genre directors - Spielberg, Lucas, etc. Carpenter worked within the popcorn genres, but he used them as a means of seducing audiences into harsh reality. The Thing's alien was a manifestation of our worst fears at the time - a nightmarish symbol of disease (specifically AIDS) and our view of those afflicted with it. For this reason, audiences avoided the film. They went with the more hopeful tale, the embrace of the human spirit - E.T.

In today's cinematic climate, both films would find their audience. The outlet for catharsis is no longer limited to escapism. Film is becoming a more obvious reflection of ourselves as the times grow more arduous (war, economic unrest, etc.). Even Spielberg, who typically produces escapist entertainment, reflected our post-9/11 fears with his paranoid thrillers, Minority Report, War of the Worlds and Munich.

We are now conquering our fears by seeing them realized. Therefore, films like The Thing could coexist with the E.T.s and WALL-Es. Carpenter should come back - he'd fit right in.


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Sam Watermeier

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