This Body Has a Terrible Emptiness: On Starman

illustration by Marc Aspinall

If you’ve never seen John Carpenter’s Starman (1984), you might wince at me telling you it’s like if E.T. could fuck. 

You might even look at me sideways once I start describing exactly what goes down in the abandoned train car during the movie’s emotional climax, which is all about Jenny Hayden’s (Karen Allen) climax, and how it made me cry. Finally, you might question—if you haven’t already—the parameters of my taste once I proclaim loudly and without a shred of irony that Starman is one of the sexiest movies ever made. 

Starman represents something of a thematic pivot for Carpenter, who was better known at the time as the movie monster maestro behind The Thing (1982), The Fog (1980), and Halloween (1978). A much more lowkey affair—which still isn’t saying much—Starman is inarguably Carpenter’s softest, most romantic picture. While Carpenter still indulges in the occasionally grand set piece explosion, Starman does not attempt to scare us as much as it asks us to consider the underrated erotic dimensions of extraterrestrial life. Of course, this might be scary to the uninitiated, but those of us (me) who grew up fantasizing about Gantu from Lilo & Stitch will not need to be convinced. There’s something inherently enticing about a humanoid lifeform who is, in fact, not human at all. Right?

However, like all quirked-up movies that still want you to take them seriously, Starman isn’t solely concerned with the logistics of alien sex; it is also a movie about human grief. 

Karen Allen plays a widow named Jenny, who spends her time watching old home movies starring her recently deceased landscaping husband Scott (Jeff Bridges) in the empty wooden nest of their living room. You can tell she’s at the center of her despair by the way she pours wine into an already half-full glass. You can tell she’s stuck in rock bottom by the way she mutters “don’t do this to yourself” as she continues to flagellate over a tragedy she cannot change. Allen’s eyes translate the weight of a marriage we’re never privy to, the crushing vastness of a love snuffed out too quickly. We don’t need the honeymooning details of their youth to understand the breadth of Jenny’s loss. It’s there in her surprisingly apathetic reaction to being kidnapped by an alien with the face and body of her dead husband. It’s there in her half-hearted attempts to escape him, which are always thwarted and never attempted again. Most of all, it’s there in Jenny’s overwhelming hunger for—and belief in—a fleeting moment of pretend where it really is her husband standing there, waiting for her, to touch her, to love her once more. 

Of course, the film has its share of sci-fi genre trappings and annoying subplots about government cover-ups and conspiracy. A running motif in the film is the presence of the Voyager 2 space probe and the vinyl records it contained to teach would-be aliens about Earth’s inhabitants. It’s through the contents of these discs that alien Scott learned a basic understanding of the English language, enough to converse robotically with Jenny as she drives them to the alien’s pickup spot. Over the course of their three-day journey, alien Scott’s clipped speech dissolves into a close approximation of humanness. By the time he leaves for his home planet, it’s easy to forget he was an alien at all to begin with, despite him having borrowed Scott’s DNA for cover. 

But the slow start to their tenuous relationship is defined by this lack of communication. For instance, alien Scott cannot wrap his head around the concept of human hunger, and at one point, Jenny has to define fear to him at the same time she’s experiencing perhaps the most terrifying moment of her life. And yet, as the journey continues, and the fear begins to settle, Jenny and alien Scott brush against a common ground that blooms not from speech, but touch. Where language fails, flesh eventually finds a way to translate what mere words cannot. In this sense, Jenny and alien Scott’s relationship transcends the meager tutorials of Voyager 2’s early attempts at Duolingo. It is through skin-to-skin experience that alien Scott is able to understand and untangle the many conflicting emotions—fear, lust, amusement, anger, love—that Jenny steps into, sometimes all at once.  

Grief is a difficult, slippery emotion to describe. Sometimes it is loud, ferocious—a choreography of doubled-over spasms that won’t cease or quiet. Other times, grief emerges as rupture, a sudden tear in an otherwise regular day that thrusts the self momentarily out of one’s own life. Or sometimes, grief fades in like a slow drip echoing out across a long, empty hallway. All this to say: the portrait of grief one paints for themselves might never resemble the painting of another, and so precisely documenting the moments grief enters and dissipates can seem like a lesson in perpetual failure. 

Onscreen, though, grief becomes easier to read in the swollen canals that form just beneath the eyes from having cried too hard and too long. One can note grief in the absence of expression, a calm, passive acceptance towards any cruelty or threat. Unbroken silence between characters occupying the same space can speak volumes about distance, about disassociation, about lack. In Starman, expressions of grief continuously interrupt—and overshadow—the otherwise dazzling genre-specific ornamentations, ranging from telekinetic fires to destructive alien technologies that resemble marbles. Allen’s face, a remarkable canvas that grounds otherworldly happenings at every turn, refuses to loosen, to release.

This is why I appreciate the film’s willingness to play things straight. In lesser hands, Starman could have easily become a campy will-they/won’t-they sex romp à la that one Katy Perry song. But with Carpenter’s steady direction, and the all-in commitment of his lead actors, the film uses its admittedly titillating premise to disarm the viewer expecting hollow, horny thrills. At its heart, the film is about pushing through the deep fog of grief into some other, unknowable terrain that supposedly exists on the other side. Jenny’s character is introduced to us in the throes of that heavy, burdensome mourning period. At one point, she begrudgingly requests that alien Scott shoot her rather than continue to suspend her in a state of unknowing once he forces her—at gunpoint—to drive him to a seemingly random location. 

Though Jenny never truly believes that the alien wearing her husband’s skin is the real thing, she briefly allows herself a moment to imagine what it could be like to touch him again, to use this strange avatar as a means of closure, to have the chance to say, definitively, goodbye. And of course, alien Scott uses her too. She begins as a simple means of transport to get him back to his pick-up zone but becomes a raw mess of a lesson in humanity, one that forces him to see her worth beyond the scope of her driving abilities. 

All this slow-burn ushering towards understanding builds to a stunning moment of release. Hiding out from government agents in an abandoned train car, Jenny and alien Scott move their way into each other, succumbing to a carnal desire that is both laced with genuine affection and heartbreaking lethargy. It’s one of the most beautiful sex scenes I’ve seen on film, and a welcome antithesis to those who say sex scenes are useless to the unfolding of a narrative. Without this scene, Jenny doesn’t learn how to let go, or to allow herself to feel pleasure again. And, likewise, alien Scott requires a deeply-felt, physical connection to a human in order for his true feelings to finally become legible to us as viewers. We understand that alien Scott isn’t faking his attraction to Jenny in order to get to his pick-up location. Rather, the sex scene represents a crossroads for our characters, forcing them to question where home, in all its metaphorical dressings, truly is. 

Does alien Scott remain on Earth to take care of Jenny? Or does Jenny travel with alien Scott to some unknown place unmarred by the pain she experienced on her own planet? In a way, each wants what the other has: a capacity to feel and an escape plan. 

But escape is never so easy. As alien Scott disappears into the galaxy, he tells Jenny she is with child. Here, alien Scott gifts her with a doorway, an origin point beyond her messy spot of grief. For the first time since human Scott’s death, Jenny allows herself to consider the shape of joy, and how much room she is willing to make room for it in her life. And though we are not privy to alien Scott’s journey back to his planet, his exclamation that he will never return rings slightly hollow. Like all good love stories and journeys through grief, one leaves with a sense that where we end is only the beginning.