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After presenting the screen's most gruesome depiction of interstellar visitors in 1982's The Thing, director John Carpenter took a decidedly more gentle and optimistic look at the skies with his third foray into science fiction, Starman (1984). Developed by producer Michael Douglas at Columbia Pictures, the 1979 script was crafted by future Stand by Me (1986) scribes Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon around the same time as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982, also originally a Columbia project) but took longer to reach the screen due to extensive talent assignments behind and in front of the camera, with filmmakers ranging from John Badham to Mark Rydell considering it before Douglas eventually picked Carpenter because, as he said in the Boston Globe, "John has a great sense of style and deals with action masterfully. I knew he'd get to the emotional core of the story."
The majority of the film is told through the eyes of fragile young widow Jenny Hayden (Raiders of the Lost Ark's  Karen Allen), who mourns the loss of her housepainter husband in a remote mountain home. One night a crashed starship brings an alien visitor who, using the DNA from a scrapbook hair trimming, assumes the form (played by Jeff Bridges) of her departed spouse. While the government and scientists (represented by Richard Jaeckel and Charles Martin Smith) hunt the alien down, he persuades the terrified Jenny to take him to a meeting point where he can rejoin others of his race and return home.
One of the most powerful fusions of love story and science fiction, Starman succeeds largely thanks to the clever scripting and portrayals of its two lead characters. Jenny's fully-developed character is one of the genre's finest, a wounded but strong human being whose numerous obstacles (grief, infertility, loneliness) are relieved when she finds the unlikeliest of fates, a similarly vulnerable being whose own education is in her hands. Carpenter himself likened the approach to a classic romance in an LA Weekly interview, stating "it's all the classic stories of star-crossed lovers, the lovers who can't really make it together but have a bond of love, like in Brief Encounter . It really works on that level, because it touches a little thing inside of us. It was easy for me to tap into that, real easy. It's a departure, because people haven't seen something like this from me before." Grounding the relationship in reality necessitated scaling down some science fiction aspects of the original script, which was more science-oriented and granted the alien more demonstrative powers like flying and mass telekinetic destruction.
However, enough traditional alien mayhem remains to satisfy genre viewers, including a striking opening sequence with Bridges evolving from a baby to adulthood (pre-CGI, of course). The impressive visuals were the combined work of Dick Smith (the teen-to-adult effect), Rick Baker (the baby), and Stan Winston (the face-stretching), with Industrial Light & Magic handling the hair-cloning.
Ultimately the success of the film's alien must go to Bridges, who was still considered an upcoming name at the time. Actors ranging from Tom Cruise to Kevin Bacon had been considered, but Bridges proved to have the correct balance of warmth, curiosity, and the willingness to look ridiculous in front of the camera. The gamble paid off in an Academy Award nomination and a considerable career boost, followed by the equally successful Jagged Edge . Meanwhile the Strasberg Institute-trained Allen, who only had a few non-Raiders credits to her name (including the widely-reviled Cruising, 1980), offered another strong lead performance and seemed destined for stardom, but instead she turned to focus on motherhood, stage work and her own yoga studio, with occasional rare returns to the big screen in films such as The Perfect Storm (2000). Playing Jenny proved a pleasant challenge to her acting abilities, and she had much kinder words for her working experience on Starman than Raiders when talking to Starlog magazine: "The role is a complete study in imagination. I spend the film building and sustaining an emotional state. What happens to Jenny never has and won't -- happen to me... [John Carpenter] is a really nice guy. The people working with him have a really nice thing going. They've developed this strong support system. He has chosen a good group of people. They stay with him film after film. They can bounce things off of each other in order to get the film made. I had a good time making Starman."
Unusually for Carpenter, he did not score the film himself (The Thing is another rare exception); instead he turned to the composer Jack Nitzsche, one of the music industry's more fascinating and volatile behind-the-scenes personalities. Best known in popular music circles as the close arranger and conductor on many of Phil Spector's most influential recordings, Nitzsche went on to collaborate with many of the industry's biggest names including Neil Young and the Rolling Stones. He also began dabbling in film scoring in the early 1970s with projects like The Exorcist (1973) and soon turned all of his attentions to that field, winning acclaim with One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest  and his Academy Award-winning theme to An Officer and a Gentleman , "Up Where We Belong." Much of his Starman score works within the solid electronic idiom established by Carpenter but with a pair of powerfully emotional themes for the main characters, as well as a nod to his Spector days with Bridges and Allen dueting on an upbeat rendition of "All I Have to Do Is Dream" (heard on the soundtrack but played onscreen in a more stripped-down acoustic rendition). Unfortunately, Nitzsche died in August of 2000 from a heart attack.
Buoyed by successful sneak previews and excellent Christmas holiday business, Starman became a surprise hit and opened the door for Carpenter to expand his directorial abilities with the big-budget homage to Hong Kong fantasy films, Big Trouble in Little China , as well as a return to romantic science fiction with the far less successful Memoirs of an Invisible Man . Meanwhile the story of the Starman was continued in 1986 for a single-season TV series of the same name, with Robert Hays taking over as the lead role in a return to Earth fourteen years later to... well, let's not ruin the end of the original film, but you can probably figure it out.
Producer: Barry Bernardi, Michael Douglas, Bruce A. Evans, Larry J. Franco, Raynold Gideon
Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: Bruce A. Evans, Raynold Gideon
Cinematography: Donald M. Morgan
Film Editing: Marion Rothman
Art Direction: Daniel Lomino
Music: Jack Nitzsche
Cast: Jeff Bridges (Starman), Karen Allen (Jenny Hayden), Charles Martin Smith (Mark Shermin), Richard Jaeckel (George Fox), Robert Phalen (Major Bell), Tony Edwards (Sergeant Lemon).
by Nathaniel Thompson