Few directors are as synonymous with their prime decades as 80s-era John Carpenter. Sure, his most iconic production came out several years earlier, but one look at the man's filmography from 1980-89 reveals an almost embarrassingly bulletproof lineup. Yet one of his very best films, Starman (1984), sits quietly behind less subtle fare like The Thing (my personal favorite), Big Trouble in Little China, and They Live -- not because it's inferior, but just because it's so far removed from what most people expect out of a Carpenter film. This is an entirely human drama heavily tinted with sci-fi, mystery, and a welcome splash of humor, armed with a pair of top-tier lead performances that earned one of them an Academy Award nomination. Sure, it's one of two Carpenter productions whose ticket sales were negatively impacted by E.T....but much like the other one, Starman has only grown in stature over the last several decades.
The story goes like this: an alien ship crash-lands on Earth after answering a call from the Voyager 2 space probe and getting shot down by the military. Its formless occupant drifts into the home of grieving Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), whose husband Scott recently died. While Jenny sleeps, the alien being uses photos of Scott -- not to mention a lock of his hair, preserved in a keepsake album -- to literally grow a new body, which quickly takes his adult form while a half-awake Jenny watches in horror. She's terrified, but understandably in total awe at the welcome sight of her deceased husband. "Starman", who uses silver spheres to perform miracles, calls home to warn his people about the dangers of Earth and makes Jenny drive him to Arizona for his ride home in approximately three days.
For years before and after the release of Starman, Carpenter was perpetually typecast as a horror director...but there are no jump scares or brutal killings to be found here, and only a few whiffs of tightly-wound suspense. This is an ultimately hopeful and entirely human drama in which one of the leads isn't human at all: he's just learning the ropes, using Jenny and other inhabitants as signposts in his brief but valiant attempt to understand life on Earth. Bridges' turn as the title character was, much to the actor's surprise, extremely well-received and earned him that Oscar nomination; he lost to F. Murray Abraham for Amadeus but won 15 years layer with Crazy Heart. Karen Allen is better-remembered for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but her turn as Jenny is a personal favorite: she and Bridges share plenty of screen time, and Allen continuously matches his intensity and presence. Starman's other strengths include fantastic cinematography by three-time Carpenter collaborator Donald M. Morgan (Elvis, Christine) and unforgettable music by Jack Nitzsche (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, An Officer and a Gentleman) -- this is one of only four Carpenter films not scored by the director.
Though its popularity has grown during the last 34 years, Starman never received a definitive release on home video. Columbia/Tri-Star's VHS and late-1990s DVD editions -- the last versions I watched, embarrassingly enough -- only included the trailer between them, but at least the latter was anamorphic widescreen (a rarity in those days). Things improved somewhat a decade later with Sony's 2009 Blu-ray edition, upgrading the A/V presentation but including absolutely no bonus features. We split the difference with Scream (Shout) Factory's new Collector's Edition Blu-ray, which retains the same 2009-era A/V presentation and offers a handful of supplements mostly ported from international DVDs. Hardly their most impressive package and clearly overpriced, but still a step in the right direction.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Starman's 1080p transfer is not advertised as a a new restoration and is likely the same as Sony's 2009 Blu-ray. This isn't as bad as it sounds, luckily. For a disc released just three years into the format, Starman's initial transfer was well-received and still holds up nicely: Donald M. Morgan's cinematography is top-notch, and the film's wide assortment of locales offers a fine variety of pleasing backgrounds and interesting landmarks. Starman's palette is more natural than stylized with lots of well-lit interiors and outdoor scenes, while the color saturation really pops nicely at certain points (Scott's red hat and flannel shirt, the orange Mustang, etc.). Black levels and contrast also look pleasing with minimal crush, although I noticed some obvious DNR at times. Don't get me wrong: a fresh scan would yield better results, but Starman still looks stronger than most catalog titles on Blu-ray.
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Likewise, the default DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is likely a repurposed version of Sony's Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track from their 2009 Blu-ray -- and though I don't have that disc on hand for a direct comparison, there's no reason to believe either one is dramatically different. This is a well above-average mix for the era and conveys a strong atmosphere at times: the extra-terrestrial moments obviously ramp up surround activity and low frequency effects, but the bulk of Starman is subtle down-to-earth drama. Dialogue is cleanly recorded (even during a ride-along road scene, which Carpenter admits having a lot of trouble with during filming) while sound effects and Jack Nitzsche's score enjoy a strong presence without fighting for attention. Overall, it's a perfectly solid track that doesn't leave any obvious room for improvement. Optional English (SDH) subtitles have been included during the main feature, but not the extras.
Shout Factory's interface offers chapter selection, audio/subtitle setup, and bonus feature access, with simple navigation and no annoying forced trailers beforehand. This Collector's Edition arrives in a standard keepcase with two-sided reversible artwork, a matching slipcover, and no inserts. As usual, it's a very nice-looking package that captures the film's atmosphere perfectly well.
We get a decent collection of extras as well, especially in comparison to past domestic releases. A feature-length Audio Commentary with John Carpenter and Jeff Bridges has been rescued from earlier international DVD editions, and it's as good as expected. Carpenter and Bridges, not surprisingly, have great chemistry together and cover a lot of ground including the casting and audition process, moving like an alien, working with Industrial Light & Magic, filming all across the country, speeding through yellow lights, re-editing the first cut with Marion Rothman, cameos and bit parts, bringing dead actors back to life, deleted scenes, and other stories from the set.
The newly-recorded "They Came from Hollywood: Remembering Starman" (24 minutes) is a welcome retrospective with several key cast and crew members including Carpenter, Bridges, actor-turned-director Charles Martin Smith, and script supervisor Sandy King Carpenter. There are some great stories here -- some of which date back well before the film's 1983 release -- and fortunately, there isn't a great deal of overlap with the commentary track. Unfortunately, some of the audio during several key interviews suffers from a few obvious defects including volume fluctuations, bad mic placement, and even a bit of static. Very poor quality control on Shout Factory's part.
A few older supplements are also here, and likewise appeared on various international DVD releases. The Vintage Making-of Featurette (12 minutes) is full of candid on-set footage and EPK-style narration, as well as input from actress Karen Allen, special effects supervisor Roy Arbogast, and those who participated in the more recent featurette. Last but not least is a collection of promotional material including a Theatrical Trailer, Teaser Trailers a few TV Spots, and a self-playing Slideshow of posters and promotional stills.
John Carpenter's Starman is one of the best films from a career-defining decade for the director. The lead performances from Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen are top-notch, the story by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon has loads of heart, Jack Nitzsche's score is unforgettable, and it's just a perfectly well-rounded production that has held up extremely well during the last 34 years. I hadn't seen this one in at least a decade -- despite its obvious strengths, Starman always hides behind less subtle Carpenter fare like The Thing, Halloween, and They Live -- but it's still an enjoyable crowd-pleaser. Shout Factory's Blu-ray package is technically the best home video release to date, but not by much: its A/V presentation is virtually identical to Sony's 2009 Blu-ray, all but one of the extras have appeared on various domestic and international releases, and it's overpriced. Nonetheless, Starman is firmly Recommended to fans and first-timers alike.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.