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Not one of the current spate of fantasy epics achieves classic stature, but a few have considerable charm, originality and wit. The best is Starman, John Carpenter's yuppie update of the 1950s gem The Day the Earth Stood Still. In that dim black-and-white past, Michael Rennie was deposited by a spaceship on the grounds of the Washington Monument to bring a message of peace and brotherhood to a cold war world. Needless to say, the authorities were unheeding, and Rennie had to perform an impressive feat of cosmic science to convince the Earthlings of his power. His legendary incantation still rings through inner space: "Gort--klaatu barada nikto." Unfortunately, only an attractive widow (Patricia Neal) and her child (father was absent) believed that he was good as well as omnipotent, and in the end, he took off for a star unknown, to wait for Earth to come to its senses. And we were advised in another Carpenter pre-make, The Thing, "Keep watching the skies."

Now all that attention has paid off. Superbeings have received an invitation from Kurt Waldheim (via the Voyager space probe) to visit Earth, and they have sent Jeff Bridges with their own message of good will. Bridges doesn't start out as Bridges; initially he's a great ball of fire that can take any form he chooses. But having only the cassettes and videotapes on the Voyager to learn from, he lands in Northern Michigan, singing "Satisfaction" and sounding like Kurt Waldheim and Carl Sagan, which must not be very appealing to Karen Allen, who plays the young widow he finds alone in her cabin in the woods.

But Bridges is no stone, despite the absence of a romantic tradition on his astral plane (could it be Vulcan?). Soon enough he is transformed into a lover from another planet, and the intergalactic couple set off across Western America only a few jumps ahead of the same unheeding authorities we left in the earlier cold war. At that point, the space movie becomes a road movie, but with miraculous turns: the Starman can raise the dead, heal wounds, bend metal from a distance and generally perform like Uri Geller and the Messiah. He is also fantastic in the sack, and before he ascends to the heavens in a dazzling epiphany, he leaves his Earthlady with a mutant bun in the oven.

All this is accomplished with a prominent tongue in the cheek. Carpenter takes his technology no more seriously than his romance, but he condescends to neither. He has come a long way since Halloween, and in Starman he displays considerable subtlety, irony and taste. Carpenter uses his special effects sparingly and plays them well against intimate details. And he can't resist comic twists on classic turns. As humans always ask of extraterrestrial visitors, Karen Allen wants her alien boyfriend to point out his distant niche in the universe. But Bridges isn't sure: that star there . . . no, there. In any case, you can be sure that Starbaby will be watching the skies when he grows up and that more visitations are in the cards.

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Author:Kopkind, Andrew
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Jan 26, 1985
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