"They don't let me do romance, I'm an old horror guy." - John Carpenter, on the Starman commentary
John Carpenter will probably always be known as a horror filmmaker, mostly thanks to Halloween being his most successful film and The Thing being, arguably, his most acclaimed (albeit not at first). But throughout his career he tackled action and straight sci-fi films almost as often as horror, so he could get away with branching out a bit easier than say, Wes Craven, who pretty much made exclusively horror films (his lone exception, Music of the Heart, was too far of a departure for pretty much of any of his fans to take the risk along with him). So it's a shame he didn't get more opportunities to make films like Starman, because it still had one foot set in the sci-fi genre, giving his fans an easy "in", and - more importantly - it's a damn good film that ranks highly in his output, far as I'm concerned, and a reminder that despite his trademark grumpiness, there's a sweet side to the filmmaker we didn't get to see as often as some of us would have liked.
In fact it might be amusing to find someone who had never seen Starman (good time to introduce them; Scream Factory just put out a new special edition) and was unaware of the plot, because in the first few minutes it seems like it could be a Thing spinoff and thus very much in typical Carpenter territory. An alien craft is shot down by the US government, and its occupant finds its way to an isolated home where it proceeds to morph itself into a clone of a human being (Jeff Bridges) - so far, so good! But "alas", the alien does not proceed to wipe out humanity - he just wants to get back home, and needs the owner of the home (Karen Allen) to get him from Wisconsin to Arizona in three days. Along the way he learns a bit about Earth, its occupants, and yes, love, while also giving Allen's character a whirlwind of emotions as the body he's mimicking is that of her recently deceased husband.
The government assholes offer some minor action beats, but for the most part the FX and spectacle is limited in favor of the romance between the two characters, and believe it or not, the film is far more engaging in these moments than in any of the scenes you'd think the director of Escape from New York would be more comfortable with. I like the film a lot, but I tend to be wanting the government scenes (mostly featuring Charles Martin Smith as a SETI agent that wants to find - but not harm - the Starman) to be over with so we can get back to Bridges and Allen bonding. Allen's character goes from terrified kidnap victim to protector as it gradually dawns on her that her traveling buddy doesn't want to hurt her and he's not, well, the kind of alien you'd find in other John Carpenter movies, possibly mirroring that would-be audience member who might have expected something more pessimistic when they saw that iconic name (in the equally iconic font!) above the title.
It's nice to see her come around, though the film is truly at its best when we see Bridges trying to learn how to talk and act like a human being. Bridges was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for his work here (his first nomination as a lead, third overall), and honestly I could watch him do this routine for hours - it's funny, it's sweet, and it's even a bit heartbreaking at times. There's a scene where Jenny has put a note up on a bathroom mirror, alerting whoever finds it that she's been kidnapped, then he enters the room and sees it - but he's so green he doesn't even know what it means. Instead, he's far more interested by a paper towel dispenser, and you leave the scene with a weird feeling of "This woman is terrible for trying to get away from this sweet man!" You'd think after two hours the shtick might wear thin, but Bridges is too good an actor to let that happen, and watching his human side slowly evolve (but never fully take over) is a true joy.
Now, I'm not saying Carpenter's other films have a lack of great characters: this is the man who gave us Snake Plissken, Jack Burton, Nada, Doctor Loomis... it's clearly not a skill he lacks. But he rarely gave us much in the way of a full romantic relationship, and Starman shows he's just as comfortable with "mushy stuff" as having Michael Myers jump out at someone or letting Kurt Russell kick some ass. Some of his films had pre-existing couples (Village of the Damned had a number of them, in fact) and there are a number of characters who meet and jump into bed seemingly a few hours later (Prince of Darkness, The Fog, etc) but even when there is a bit of a real growing love between two people, such as in Christine, it's always secondary to whatever horror or sci-fi plot is selling the tickets. Starman, on the other hand, might have been even better if they discarded the government stuff entirely and just let Jenny and Starman have their journey uninterrupted, and that was probably the reason the film became one of Carpenter's highest grossers (and his only Oscar nominated film).
Ironically, the closest the filmmaker ever came to making something like it again was Memoirs of an Invisible Man, which is I think the only one of his films that doesn't have his name above the title. Like Starman, he was not the first director on the project; both of them went through a number of high profile filmmakers (for Starman, the likes of Adrian Lyne and John Badham came and went; Memoirs was an Ivan Reitman movie for a while and Richard Donner was also briefly involved) before landing the only guy that had the resolve to get it done. Carpenter's never spoken too much about Memoirs, but considering that it starred Chevy Chase (who was also one of its producers) we can use the historical record to assume it probably wasn't the most enriching experience of his career, and apart from a few of his regular actors you'd never guess he had anything to do with it.
Unlike Starman, the FX here do kind of take center stage, but for good reason - they're often astonishing, and hold up well today even under the scrutiny of its Blu-ray (released earlier this year, also from Scream Factory). But Carpenter and the script (co-written by William Goldman, RIP) make sure to take the time to give Chevy and his love interest, played by Daryl Hannah, plenty of time to grow, and those scenes are among the film's best. Chevy's not the greatest actor in the world, and he tends to just kind of play himself, but he's (ironically?) giving one of his best performances as the Invisible Man - he doesn't go for the easy laugh as often as you'd expect, and he showcases the bummer side of being invisible, instead of just the fun perks. There's a quick bit where he's narrating about how hard it is to even get food, over a scene where a prized apple is snatched away by a security guard, and it makes me feel for the guy every time I've seen it - how often can you say you felt real empathy for a Chevy Chase character? It's even kind of funny when he finds out Wally World is closed.
And it's the last time he got to show off some of his romantic lead skills. At the beginning of his career he was likened to Cary Grant thanks to Foul Play and Seems Like Old Times, where he got to woo Goldie Hawn, but most of his subsequent on-screen wives/girlfriends were either established (the Vacation films, Funny Farm) or brief flings (Caddyshack, Fletch). His chemistry with Hannah is solid; even if the film was a hit I don't think people would be clamoring for more films between them like they did for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but they play off each other well - and Carpenter, bless him, lets their scenes breathe, and even uses the FX to enhance their bond. One of the film's most striking visuals is a bit where they get caught in the rain, with the water drops on his body allowing her to "see" him again, with Shirley Walker's music swelling... it's a lovely romantic moment, which isn't the sort of thing you can often say about a John Carpenter film (or a Chevy Chase one, for that matter). On the vintage bonus features on the Blu-ray, Chevy says that John is the best director he's ever worked with, and - as someone who has paid a lot of attention to what he's said over the years - I am inclined to believe he meant it, as he rarely offered praise of any sort for his directors, only his co-stars.
Long story short: we could have/should be living in a world where John Carpenter's Ghost was a thing. One thing about a lot of romantic films (moreso the comedies than the more dramatic ones) is that they're directed like glorified sitcoms, because it doesn't matter as long as their highly photogenic leads are in focus, but how many of those "fish out of water" types end up scoring an Oscar nomination for one of the stars? Or warrant a second Blu-ray release? Carpenter's ability to not only make engaging films but also get strong performances from his leads (again: Chevy is GOOD in Memoirs) is what makes his genre movies so easy to love, so it feels almost wasteful that we only have two movies like this to show his lighter, romantic side (with respect to Big Trouble in Little China; Jack and Gracie's banter is fun and comes close to this kind of territory, but come on - we watch the movie for the fights and Jack's one-liners). It sounds weird to say, but it's true: the romantic movie genre needs more guys like John Carpenter.