This is a movie that at one point was the hot alien visiting Earth property which had a lot of directors attached to it., Of course the other story about an alien visiting Earth got made and released first and that worked out well for Steven Spielberg. John Carpenter made this, his most mainstream film, after “The Thing” failed at the box office and he needed to show he could do a commercial picture. While it did not have the box office success of “E.T.”, it is an artistic achievement and contains one of the most interesting performances by an actor in this, or any other year. Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen lend a sweetness to the film that is totally different than the other film, and a lot more mature in some ways.
The premise of the movie is that we have invited a visit from Extra-terrestrial beings, but are clearly not prepared to handle such a visit. The alien visitor is detected by the military and SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), but before they get to the site of a space ship crash, the visitor has taken on the form of a recently deceased house painter by cloning a body from DNA found in the widow’s home. He than hijacks the widow to take him to a rendezvous site on the other side of the country, “Arizona Maybe”. Jenny Hayden is confused as hell that her dead husband has come to life, but she recognizes almost immediately that something is wrong. The visitor has a rudimentary understanding of language but not much else and he learns by watching and copying the actions and behaviors of the humans he encounters.
This is a fish out of water, road picture for the science fiction set. There is an abundance of humor in the film and in the end it is a very nice romance as well. The chase is on as Jenny and and the Starman try to outrun the pursuers. One of the chasers is a scientist played by Charles Martin Smith, he wants to meet and interview the visitor. Richard Jaeckel is the intelligence officer in charge and as usual, the government and military are scary, pig headed, and fearful humans whose first reaction to the new and different is defensiveness.
Jenny becomes less fearful of the new “Scott” as she learns more about him and comes to understand who he really is. The Visitor reflects some things about us that are not always pleasant. For example, when he takes over the driving chores, he assures Jenny that he knows the rules because he watched her closely. When he almost kills them by rushing through an intersection, she challenges him and he answers, ” I watched you, red means stop, green means go, yellow means go very fast.” When they stop at a diner for food, he can’t quite fathom the brutality of our species as he meets a thoughtless hunter who mocks him for the concern he expresses over a dead deer.
The two actors do a wonderful job in their respective parts. Karen Allen is probably overlooked for her work because it is so natural in contrast to the bizarre behavior of her co-star. Bridges appears at times to be trained as a mime and a dancer. His body contorts as he adjusts to gravity, he mimics “Scott’s behavior based on a short film clip he has seen. His facial expressions are a reflection of wonder and naivete. One of the best moments in the film occurs when he tries a piece of Dutch apple Pie with whipped cream. The look of joy and pleasure on his face would be described by some as nearly orgasmic. It results in a real human moment for an alien who is trying to grasp the world around him. Often Bridges is trying to keep the face impassive, reflecting an emotionless approach but as he becomes more and more familiar with the culture and practices of humans, he shows concern and feelings in a very subtle way consistent with his situation. This was a rare Academy Award Nomination for a Science Fiction film, and one in the acting categories which was at that point even rarer.
The science fiction elements are not always explained, they just work. He is able to save Jenny’s life and defend himself with some small spheres that he carries with him. How and why don’t really matter, it simply reveals the advanced technology of the civilization he comes from. Still at times that advanced view is overwhelmed by the primitive circumstances he find himself in. He lucked out that he crashed in North America, he might very well have been ready to write the whole planet off if he had landed in some of the more exotic cultures in the world. Clearly though with our advanced sense of self, we are pretty imperfect as well.
There are dozens of incidents which will force you to look at humans differently and see if your perspective is truly open minded. The scientist gets discouraged when he realizes that the best hope for the visitor should he be taken captive is dissection. Jenny grows to love the man who resembles her husband and wishes that he could stay. There is a very dramatic seed planted for a future story and in fact, this was later turned into a television series. I never saw the show but it did have a popular following though not enough to sustain it for more than a season or two.
I have already complimented Allen and Bridges but there are others that add character to the story. Mickey Jones, a well known character actor shows up for a scene that gets a laugh or two but also exposes some of our prejudices. Gruff actress Lu Leonard was in Micki + Maude in the previous post as Wallace Shawn’s nurse. I knew I recognized her from somewhere and there was a line and tone that she used in another movie that I knew I’d recognize if I saw it, lucky me, this film is the very next one I did and she has the line that I finally recalled about the pie, “It’s terrific.” M.C. Gainey, another well known face played an over enthusiastic cop but he was almost unrecognizable to me without his trademark long hair and beard.
The music was done by Jack Nitzsche, an arranger and orchestrator for Phil Specter recordings. His ethereal score will probably remind you of the score he wrote for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. He won the Academy award for his song, co-written by his wife Buffy Saite-Marie and Will Jennings, “Up Where we Belong” from “An Officer and a Gentleman”. The scene where the Starman morphs from a piece of genetic material was a clever construction of film technique taking advantage of make up legends Dick Smith and Rick Baker and the work of special effects master Stan Winston.
There were a couple of places where the story gets a little preachy about the world we live in, but just when it starts to feel a bit too much, the script pulls back and reminds us of those things that we know make human diversity something to prize. Well they do encounter some unpleasant people there are also a number of good souls that make the experience warmer for the visitor. There are friendly fry cooks and waitresses. Sympathetic college students and natives to Indian Reservations who all add to the idea that the visitor expresses near the end of the picture. He shares a little bit of knowledge about the universe and his own insight on humans, “you are at your best when things are worst.” That is a hope that all of us can cling to.