Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

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"I look like Scott so you do not get jumpy, a little bit."

There are some filmmakers whose work cries out for a high definition presentation. John Carpenter is certainly one of these, and so far, I've seen Halloween on Blu-ray and The Thing on HD-DVD. Despite a bit of overzealous DNR on the former, the detail, color saturation and depth of the picture show off the brilliant use of the anamorphic Panavision frame that Carpenter and Dean Cundey created. I was therefore quite excited when both Big Trouble In Little China and Starman were being released on Blu-ray.

This film didn't do very well in its initial release, receiving mixed notices and sinking quietly at the box office. It was, however, one of the first cases of a movie finding its audience through what were originally thought of as ancillary markets, namely home video and cable television. On the commentary track recorded, Carpenter and star Kurt Russell describe the process of making it as being one of the most fun in all five of their collaborations, and that spirit is evident in the film itself, which is woolly, wild and extremely entertaining.

In hindsight, it is easy to see how ahead of its time the movie is. Reviewers were probably baffled by a comedy with that much action in which the star wasn't the hero, and it probably didn't help that Twentieth Century Fox didn't know how to promote the movie; cable ads did a much better job of selling the movie as a comedy than as an adventure film. Russell's performance as a big, dumb American who, despite his bravado, is fairly useless through most of the movie is a hoot, and the cast of veteran Asian performers, centering around the stalwart Dennis Dunn (the actual hero of the film), the diabolical James Hong and the irascible Victor Wong give this quirky film a strange sort of verisimilitude. Many of Richard Edlund's special effects are quite arresting, particularly a Beholder-like creation, as is John J. Lloyd's funky production design (think Enter the Dragon meets Miami Vice).

The movie never takes itself too seriously, which is just fine because it is clear that it was intended as a fast-paced, escapist lark. Russell mentions that a valid criticism of the film is that it never really conveys much of a sense of danger for its leads, but that very lack of seriousness is one of the movie's greatest advantages. The Blu-ray also contains almost all of the special features that the initial 2 DVD set contained, even adding an isolated score track (although the articles on the effects are missing); most importantly it looks and sounds great, a distinct improvement over the (rather good) DVD presentation, with the accurate picture showing the explosive color palette to grand advantage.

Starman was a huge revelation for me. The Blu-ray presentation was not only the first time I'd seen the film in about twenty years, but also the first time I'd seen it in its original 'scope aspect ratio since seeing it in its original theatrical release in 1984. My memory of the movie was quite fuzzy, and the common reviewer comment "E.T. with sex appeal" is off-putting. It is also quite inaccurate, not only because the Starman project predated E.T., but also because while Spielberg's film is an admittedly effective wish-fulfillment fantasy, Carpenter's is a very adult rumination on relationships and humanity in general.

This is a much quieter film than Carpenter is known for, and despite some violent incidents, the movie maintains a very low-key tone, concentrating on the performances of its two leads. Jeff Bridges was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of an alien explorer discovering not only Earth, but the intricacies of having a human body and experiences. One of the things that struck me most was the intelligence and kindness that he is able to convey despite his unfamiliarity with his physical form, particularly in his earlier scenes in which he must struggle to communicate despite a limited vocabulary. Karen Allen is excellent as Jenny Hayden, the widow of the man whose body he has cloned, who must not only come to terms with the alien that has entered her life, but the still-painful memories of her husband. The core of the film is the relationship between these two and how each demonstrate their perspectives to one another, which is sometimes wonderful, sometimes horrible, often painful but always honest.

The movie blends several genres, including romance, the road trip and science fiction, treating each with great respect (indeed, I would say this qualifies as one of the few hard science fiction films out there). It also has a good sense of humor centering around the Starman's observations on human behavior, sometimes arising in surprising places (e.g. the Starman's first orgasm). Central to the premise of the film is that people are full of contradictions: the big one is that the Starman is invited to Earth but shot at as soon as he arrives, but it is also true of how Jenny feels about the identity of the Starman's human form, a wonderful metaphor for how one can have mixed feelings even about those one loves otherwise unconditionally. The Starman is indeed disgusted by much of what we do, but he is also fascinated by many aspects of ourselves that we take for granted. If there is a disappointment in this film, it is that the government reaction to the arrival of the Starman is boringly predictable, although that is somewhat offset by an amiable performance by Charles Martin Smith as a scientist working for the military who immediately figures out what's really going on and has to make choices about which face of humanity he chooses to show the Starman.

The Blu-ray presentation is excellent. There aren't any special features, which is really disappointing, especially for a John Carpenter film which have traditionally been very good on that front since the laserdisc days, but the picture is sharp and detailed, with a consistent level of grain that was part of Donald M. Morgan's cinematography (and is consistent with the 'realistic' portrayal of Americana) and the Dolby TrueHD track is as rich and dimensional as the magnetic 6-track Dolby Stereo elements allow.
Tags: cinema, high def, john carpenter, science fiction
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