Sunday, December 14, 2014

Responding to an Invitation to Come and Visit Sometime

Starman (Jeff Bridges): Dutch apple pie with whipped cream. It's wonderful.

Jenny (Karen Allen): For a primitive species we have our points.

Voyager 2 was a space probe that was launched in 1977 to explore the solar system. It was actually launched before Voyager 1, but Voyager 2 moves slower and was passed by Voyager 1.

It is an extended mission that has been going on now for more than 37 years.

Each Voyager carried with it a gold–plated audio–visual disc. The idea was that, if the probe was found by an intelligent life form somewhere, that life form could see images and hear voice recordings and music from earth on that disc.

That, essentially, was the starting point of John Carpenter's "Starman," a movie starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen that made its debut 30 years ago today.

Unfortunately, "Starman" was largely overlooked when it was showing on the big screen. It cost $24 million to make and took in less than $29 million at the box office, which wasn't really in the same ballpark with the top–grossing films of 1985. That really is too bad because I thought it was a literate, clever and thoroughly plausible story.

Bridges was Starman, one of those intelligent life forms I was talking about. Someone from his civilization came across the probe, found the disc and heard a clear invitation for visitors to come to earth in peace. Apparently, it was decided to send a probe to earth, on which Starman (in whatever form he took — initially, he just appeared to be a blue ball) was riding, acting as some kind of advance scout.

"He, or it, has traveled to Earth in response to the invitation from Voyager," film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "but of course the Air Force treats the spacecraft as a possible invader and shoots missiles at it." Starman's vessel crashed in Wisconsin, near the home of Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), a young widow.

He made his way to her home, where she had been drinking and reminiscing about her late husband before passing out. While she slept, Starman the blue ball entered the home and found all the mementos she had spread out in the living room, including a lock of her husband's hair.

Starman used the hair to clone a body for himself, then he used one of several smaller balls he carried with him (each of which seemed to have the power to do remarkable things) to contact his people. He informed them that his vessel had crashed and the terrain was hostile. He arranged to rendezvous with his people at a landing site in Arizona in three days' time.

Jenny had been awakened, and she witnessed him transmitting his message.

Starman managed to coerce Jenny into taking him to Arizona. At first, she tried to figure out ways to be stopped — or to get away from the Starman. But, at the same time, she was mesmerized. He looked so much like Scott — and he sounded like Scott.

She was torn.

After Jenny saw him revive a dead deer with another of his small balls, the movie became something of a bonding experience between the two. Starman had a rudimentary knowledge of English from the disc, and he learned how to communicate more effectively in the language.

Jenny taught him that humans weren't as uniformly primitive as he first believed.

However, one of humanity's more savage elements, the U.S. Army, was pursuing them with the intention of having a vivisectionist slice up the alien. A scientist from SETI (Charles Martin Smith) was with them, and he played an important role in allowing Starman and Jenny to escape.

Before he did so, he had some questions for Starman.

"Have people from your world been here before?" he wanted to know.

"Before, yes," Starman replied. "We are interested in your species."

"You mean you're some kind of anthropologist?" the scientist asked. "Is that what you're doing here? Just checking us out?"

"You are a strange species," Starman said. "Not like any other. And you'd be surprised how many there are. Intelligent but savage. Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you?"

The scientist nodded, and then Starman delivered perhaps the best line of the movie.

"You are at your very best when things are worst."

I thought Bridges had another great line when, as he and Jenny were riding in a railroad boxcar, she asked him to describe the planet from which he came.

"It is beautiful," he replied. "Not like this, but it is beautiful. There is only one language, one law, one people. There is no war, no hunger. The strong do not victimize the helpless. We are very civilized, but we have lost something, I think. You are all so much alive, all so different."

And that really is humanity's great conundrum, isn't it? Well, it's one of them. We like to say that we value diversity, but humans are naturally suspicious of those who are different from themselves in some way. I guess it is a defense mechanism, honed by centuries of evolution.

Many people do not want to be like that and honestly despise that trait in themselves, but it remains a part of human nature — an ugly part, yes, but a part, nonetheless.

In his preparation to play Starman, I've heard that Bridges studied birds and their movements. His reasoning was that an alien would not have human characteristics and, finding himself in a human body, would act with animal instincts. I thought it was effective — and explained many things I did not know before I saw the movie.

It was effective enough that Bridges received an Oscar nomination, but he lost to F. Murray Abraham ("Amadeus"). It was the movie's only Oscar nomination.