Starman, like all John Carpenter films, presents a very different view of a situation or world of oddities. In one of life's great injustices, it is the only John Carpenter film to have received an Academy Award nomination, and it is an even greater injustice that Jeff Bridges did not win. If ever there were an example of how to play an alien life form that has come to Earth, showing how he adjusts to human quirks and routines, this is it. It is even more amazing to see Karen Allen turn in a masterful performance as Jenny Hayden, the young widow of the man whose visage our alien assumes. For the first half hour or so of the film, Allen so convincingly shows that she is in mortal terror of her visitor that she sucks the entire audience in on her own. When Bridges demonstrates to her that he means her no harm, she keeps the audience's interest by acting as a proxy for our efforts to understand the protagonist. She has only been in one high-profile film, but it is here that she proves her real mettle in acting.
Oddly enough, this is also one of the few films Carpenter directed but did not write the score music for. Instead, that duty is passed on to Jack Nitzsche, who has done nothing so remarkable since if you read his credits. His music is far more conventional than is the norm for a Carpenter film, which makes it contrast well with the bizarre situations the character finds himself in. The sound design, by contrast, is quite minimal, merely foleying the environment the titular alien finds himself in for the most part. Special effects are also kept to a minimum, merely showing the facets of alien technology that our alien has at his disposal. The most elaborate effects occur at the beginning and end of the film, where alien technology makes itself more prominent. For the rest of the time, it is mostly trick photography and clever editing. And it is a testament to Carpenter's skills as a director that it works. The film relies almost entirely upon the actors, in a contrast to modern films, and it works.
You will have noticed that my summary calls Starman "E.T. for adults". Two years earlier, E.T. had killed Carpenter's previous masterpiece at the box office, but the DVD format gives Carpenter the last laugh. While Spielberg seems to be unable to let today's audiences see his runaway success as it was actually made, Carpenter's film seems even more relevant now than it did in 1984. Not long ago, I wrote a list of the top ten characters shown in film whose mannerisms, displayed emotions, and biographies most resemble the characteristics I have come to associate with Asperger's Syndrome, from my own personal experience. If I had seen Starman before writing this list, then the titular character would be featured somewhere very close to the top, if not right up there at number one. Bridges acts out the desire to learn information it takes most of us years to store in three days, as well as the results of not having it, so well that one could be forgiven for thinking he was in this situation himself.
As he has always done, Carpenter shoots Starman in a Panavision aspect ratio, and as always, he makes such brilliant use of the frame that panning and scanning it should be considered criminal. We fine people for defacing public property, after all. Granted, Carpenter is not as dynamic as Sergio Leone, but he does approach that level in a number of shots. He also seems uncannily aware of how his shots will turn out after the special effects are added, making his scenes so visually compelling at times that they approach an alien quality. The only moment where his vision is exceeded by the limitations of his technical staff is the near-to-final shot in which the alien vessel makes its appearance. It was probably laughable even back then, but fortunately it is only used in a couple of shots, as Carpenter demonstrates his ability to tell when a solid performance from an actor will serve his purposes better than an elaborate attempt to convince the viewer they are seeing something they are not.
Sadly, Starman became yet another brilliant idea from Carpenter that got lost in the changing economics of the film industry as the theatres became more and more the exclusive province once more of the major outlets. Finding itself marooned on home video and stripped of much of its photographic beauty, it has only been since it found its way to DVD-Video that Starman has been able to find its proper place in the market. Much like the 1970s, the 1980s is a time that self-imposed historians of culture would like us to believe brought us nothing of value, but like Devo or Tron, Starman stands for all time as a mark against them. It is a film that could only have been made in the 1980s, with 1980s culture and a truly 1980s view of the world with both the attendant beauty and the attendant ugliness hopefully preserved for when we truly are ready to make contact with an alien civilisation. Speaking as someone who is as alien as the human race is (not) ready to deal with at present, I can say we have much further to go than even Starman gives us credit for.
For all these reasons, and others, I gave Starman a ten out of ten. They do not make films like it anymore, and that is a real shame.
Review by mentalcritic from the Internet Movie Database.