One Classic Look: Karen Allen in “Starman”

Karen Allen in John Carpenter’s “Starman”, 1984. Columbia Pictures

 

In John Carpenter’s 1984 sci-fi Starman, Jeff Bridges is a space being trying to make contact with humans, after answering a NASA message intended for aliens. Upon arrival on Earth, he takes the physical appearance of a late person, the young husband of Jenny Hayden, who still can not come to terms with her tragic loss. Unsurprisingly, the humans who have brought him to Earth become hostile and the extraterrestrial becomes a national security target.

John Carpenter considers himself a child of Hollywood who never lost his love for old Hollywood films. He also considers himself a student of Hitchcock in cinema, and he was indeed hailed as the new Hitchcock when Halloween came out in 1978. But he wanted to forge his own path and style in cinema and he just kept onward, always succeeding in breaking away a little from what was expected of him. Halloween, The Thing, Christine are all films acclaimed for raising the bar on cinematic horror, but it is truly the suspense and thriller elements that pervade them and make them classics. About Starman, Carpenter said in an interview for The Flashback Files that “I just realised at some point that they were never going to let me do a romantic comedy. I was just going to be in horror and stay there, which is fine. But I wanted to get my shot at it. And that was a perfect chance to do it. I’m very happy with how that film turned out.”

In the same interview, he also articulated the most accurate and beautiful thing about the humans’ fascination with the outer space: “Well, look, we have no idea if there are any alien life forms out there and, if there are any, how they would look like and be like. We have no idea. We’re making movies about ourselves. They’re about the dark side and good side in all of us.” And I believe this is why this science fiction story is special: the personal element, and the way the character of Jenny Hayden addresses this, the way she finds hope amidst that great pain. That says a lot not only about her character, but about human behaviour and the human species as well, the way we raise above our grief, or above hardships, or a world in crisis. There is actually a line in the film that corroborates this thought, and it’s when Jeff Bridges’ character tells Charlie Martin-Smith: “You know, what I like most about you people is that when things are at their worst, you are at your best.”

Both Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges deliver wonderful performances (and have great chemistry), a spectrum of emotions at opposite sides, beautifully, and sometimes funnily, complimenting each other. About her role, she told The Hollywood Reporter: “My preparation for the role for the most part had to do with filling in Jenny’s history with her husband. So I knew how profound it was for her to see him again in the flesh even under the strange circumstances of the story. I felt that was the element that overcame Jenny’s fear and drove the story forward for her.”

Jeff Bridges is very natural at being strange, a stranger in a strange world, and, together with Karen Allen, he managed to establish this reality we watch on screen. Of course this Starman taking the form of Jenny’s late husband (doesn’t this make perfect sense, aliens taking the physical appearance of humans, were they do land on Earth?) would wear what he wore in the film that she obsessively watches at night right before the extraterrestrial lands in her living room. Khakis, red plaid shirt with a brown leather bomber jacket on top, and a red baseball cap – that’s the ol’ American look alright. Because another great thing about the film is how well it captures the times and the place, all that vast American landscape, the cross-country ride, with its patina and texture and those roadside stops and diners. Keep off the main attractions, out of chain hotels, and an ear to the ground for local knowledge, the film seems to say, and that’s just the right way for the Starman to get acquainted with the human American race. I like the fact that this film couldn’t be reproduced today, in all its authenticity and minimalist sci-fi visual effects.

Except maybe for the costumes. Just like Jeff Bridges’ look would easily translate today, Karen Allen’s remains a classic. Blue jeans tucked in cowboy boots and her husband’s bomber jacket which the Starman leaves her after hers is stained with blood when she is shot by the policemen hunting him. Almost four decades on, this look is still very much of the times.
 

Karen Allen in John Carpenter’s “Starman”, 1984. Columbia Pictures

 
 

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