The Pros and Cons of Looking Back: Close-Up on John Carpenter’s "Christine" and "Starman"

Nostalgia both haunts and sweetens in the first two films John Carpenter made after "The Thing".
Duncan Gray

Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. John Carpenter's Christine (1983) is showing May 4 - June 3 and Starman (1984) is showing May 5 - June 4, 2017 in the United Kingdom.


Was it too dark? Too bleak? Too gory? Did it have the misfortune of opening when American moviegoers were flocking to E.T.? Either way, when John Carpenter's The Thing landed in the summer of 1982, with an apocalyptic cliffhanger and the most surreally grotesque, tactile, gooey monster effects you never realized could be put on film, it fizzled. "It was hated," Carpenter later recalled at a screening in Los Angeles. "Hated by fans. I lost a job. People hated me. They thought I was this horrible, violent—" He trailed off and joked, "And I was." The audience laughed, because by now The Thing's exalted place in movie geek culture is secure: an exquisitely paranoid horror classic and arguably the crown jewel of Carpenter's golden age, when even his most minor works were touched with inspiration.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) through They Live (1988) still make up one of the great runs that any "genre director" has ever gone on, in part because they expose the limitations of the term. That is, if you're in the mood for a sci-fi action movie or straight-up horror, Escape From New York (1981) or Prince of Darkness (1987) will certainly fit the bill; Carpenter has too much respect for the verities to clinically dissect a genre the way that, say, Robert Altman or Steven Soderbergh would. But note the way that Carpenter's movies look, move, and often leap towards downright bizarre endings, and you'll see that the appeal of his "genre films" is that their personality is hardly generic. His trademarks quickly became clear: an unwavering devotion to CinemaScope; sparse synth scores, often composed by Carpenter himself; anti-authority sympathies; lean, unpretentious plotting; and a way of fondly connecting genre figures of the past—Howard Hawks, H.P. Lovecraft—to the daydreams and nightmares of American cinema as it segued from Watergate to Reagan doldrums.


If Christine (1983) has a somewhat uncertain place in his classic period, that may be because it came at an uncertain time. The Thing, put out by Universal, had been Carpenter's first film at a major studio and his first chance with a Spielberg-sized budget. After it flopped, he parted ways with Universal and resurfaced at Columbia. Christine would be his follow-up and his second big studio film. It was based on a novel by Stephen King, and shot so fast on the heels of the book's release that when the book came out in spring, the movie would be in theaters by Christmas. From Carpenter, the film gets its nocturnal atmosphere, including eerie synth music and attentive widescreen compositions. From King, the film gets a framework and a villain: a 1958 Plymouth from hell, nicknamed "Christine," fetishized, demonic, possessed, indestructible, and slowly able to infect its owner with delusions of retrograde masculine power. At least, that's what happens to poor Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), a bullied, bespectacled, overly-mothered teenaged geek circa 1980 who buys Christine, melds with it (her?), and uses the car to live out his most frustrated revenge fantasies.

Is the film more Carpenter's, King's, both, or neither? It has the feel of a Carpenter picture, and it either downplays or jettisons many of the details King used to flesh out his monster. But it shares as much DNA with other King adaptations like Carrie (high school hell turned supernatural) and The Shining (a haunted structure bringing out the darkest impulses of the man inside it) as it does with Carpenter's early, stripped-down "campfire story" horror movies like Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980). Carpenter himself has expressed a level of disinterest in the material, speaking of it not as a personal film but as a way of getting his career back on track. To his credit, disinterest doesn't show. The photography and editing of Christine are as handsomely put together as any of Carpenter's 80s horror flicks, and the set-pieces can stand proud: Christine magically repairing itself as Arnie watches with an evil smirk; a battle royale with a bulldozer; and the iconic image of Christine wreathed in flames, streaking through the night in search of a victim.

Amidst all this, and when humans occupy the screen, Christine’s most interesting thread is how it unrolls as a strange shadow play of pop culture archetypes. The film may breeze through the mythology of King's killer car, treating it largely as a way to set the mood. But everything you need to know for the film is right there in the opening prologue, as the camera pans over Christine with an almost satirically obvious music cue of "Bad to the Bone," asking just how many cultural legends and pretensions of outlaw pride have ever been poured into the all-American automobile. This idea extends to Arnie himself, who, as played by Keith Gordon, exists in the film only as a series of caricatures. At the beginning, everything about his nerdiness is exaggerated: oversized glasses, bug-eyed expressions, ill-fitting clothes, and skittish, awkward manners. Even Anthony Michael Hall never looked so much like the classical version of a geek; indeed, a cagier point of reference would be Jerry Lewis.

Top: Rebel without a Cause. Bottom: Christine

So there is a clever irony to the idea that, to escape the image he hates, Arnie swaps one anachronistic caricature for another, the 50s geek for the 50s bad boy. He slicks his hair. He gives terse, snotty replies. He takes the school’s good-girl for a make-out session at the drive-in. He wears a popped-collar red jacket that looks suspiciously like James Dean's in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and a confrontation with his parents contains a few not-so-subtle visual echoes of Nicholas Ray's angst classic. "They just don't want me to grow up," Arnie says at one point. But on the scale of maturity, the jump from teen geek to teen greaser is a lateral move at best, and Arnie's tough guy poses feel obsessive but never natural. You need only compare Gordon to John Stockwell's performance as Arnie's best friend—or, for that matter, to the more grounded geek-in-a-horror-movie that Gordon had played for Brian De Palma in Dressed to Kill (1980)—to see how much Gordon and Carpenter spend the film playing Arnie as a cartoon. And the extent to which Christine is compelling as drama, and not just an exercise in 1980s horror aesthetics, is the extent to which you can look at Gordon's eyes and sense a real teenager buried somewhere underneath the posturing, smothered before he can get out. The tragedy of the story, like a gender-flipped version of Carrie, is that King's protagonist doesn't realize how once you leave high school, none of it will matter one goddamned bit.

Carpenter's career is nothing if not a series of case studies in how, when, and whether to take his material seriously, and there's a certain question mark over whether Christine actually aspires to real tragedy in this idea. For my money, it's more a 1950s B-movie souped up with 1980s style: a demolition derby where the cars can regenerate and get smashed again, where the most emotional death is mainly a jump-scare, and where the survivors stand together to deliver a final lesson on what it all might mean. (The town is safe again—but for how long?). Carpenter said that he didn't find the concept of Christine particularly frightening, and I'd wager that it doesn't have much to jolt your nerves and even less to keep you up at night. But look at Christine's first murder, and note how the idea of a haunted car that kills people while its radio plays Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" can so easily be more parodic than menacing. Christine is a dark movie meant to leave you smiling. Carpenter fans can debate whether it's minor or underrated; I've heard from partisans on both sides. But the final showdown, in which Christine's last stand comes to the tune of "Rock and Roll is Here to Stay," exemplifies a technical acumen and tart sensibility to treasure.


As odd as it may sound, the use of pre-Beatles pop music forms the clearest bridge between Christine and the film that followed it: 1984's Starman, an extraterrestrial romance and one of Carpenter's best films. The opening scene introduces us to Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), a grieving young widow watching home movies of herself and her recently departed husband (Jeff Bridges). She stares as the two of them, in happier days caught on glorious Super 8mm, sit in a grassy field and sing the Everly Brothers' "All I Have to Do is Dream." It is a canny choice of a song, their giggly duet instantly establishing an adult puppy love better than dialogue ever could. And it's fair to say that if you find such a vintage, classic pop song appealing—if you can shine to its wistful, jangly arrangements instead of writing it off as mass-produced schmaltz—then Starman is a movie for you. The song is never played again, but its "I love you so" and "dream, dream, dream" spirit hangs over the entire film. For after Jenny turns off the home movie and falls asleep, a benevolent alien entity enters her home, floats through her living room, and appears in the resurrected shape of her lost love.

Like The Thing and the summer of 1982, the history of Starman is bound up with E.T. In the early 80s, both projects were briefly in development at Columbia simultaneously, and proving the old William Goldman dictum that "nobody knows anything" about predicting Hollywood success, Columbia decided to pass on E.T. and bet on Starman instead. As E.T. became a mammoth hit, Starman stayed stuck in purgatory, passed from director to director until it ended up with Carpenter. The movies still share inescapable similarities. Both are about an alien who gets stranded on Earth and befriends a lonely human. In both, the human has to help them get back to their ship, with the government in pursuit. And both films end on close-ups of the protagonist staring up at the sky as the ship takes off, having grown from the encounter.

If nothing else, this makes it a fine (and entertaining) look at how two movies can have so many plot points in common and still diverge. The Starman that emerged would be a strange genre brew, part adventure, part love story, part comedy, and part road movie, as Karen Allen's Jenny is whisked across the United States by Jeff Bridges's alien. The concept was a sci-fi version of Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934); another good comparison is the second half of The 39 Steps (1935), where a heroine unwillingly stuck with a fugitive starts to fall for him. The Starman will learn the upsides of human life, and through him—not only a genetic clone of her dead husband, but dressed exactly like his Super 8 ghost—she's given a second chance at a proper goodbye.

It was studio film number three for Carpenter, and at first he might seem an odd choice. The Carpenter brand, his name nearly always appended to the title, is primarily associated with the action and horror ends of the sci-fi/fantasy spectrum. You can see his stamp at work in the dystopias of Escape From New York and Assault on Precinct 13, the detached swagger of his action heroes, and the idea of pure, relentless evil that recurs again and again in his horror films. But cynicism and evil are pointedly rejected by Starman, and detachment is far from the film's goal. It is rare that Carpenter ever devotes so much time to characters simply getting to know one another, and rarer still that a Carpenter film contains any kind of meaningful romance. Even the musical score for Starman, composed by Jack Nitzsche, is a departure, its synthesizers awash in a lush, melodious space-age hum instead of twitchy anxiety or futuristic cool.

Part of Columbia's rationale for developing Starman over E.T. is that Starman was more "for grown-ups." And the idea of "grown-up” issues, and how they appear in the finished film, deserve a moment's consideration, especially since Starman proudly approaches them with the innocence of a babe in the woods. The irony is that if The Thing was too grim, violent, and humorless to catch on at the box office, then Starman, which was a modest success at the time, faces the opposite challenge. Instead of being intensely dark, it is intensely open-hearted: it asks the viewer to look at hokum as both a valid aesthetic choice and a vessel for serious, worldly emotion. Or, to put it another way, it asks us to take even its corniest moments at face value, without falling back on any irony at all. And it is worth noting, with a degree of ruefulness, that by 2017, Starman's hurdle for the audience has probably become bigger than The Thing’s.

Yet it is a joy to find that Starman feels just at home in Carpenter's world as The Thing and even more than Christine, despite being an outlier for a “master of horror.” Carpenter, who wanted the script refocused to play down the FX sequences, sounded eager to try another kind of movie. "When I was going to film school...I knew in my heart I could do anything," Carpenter was quoted during the press junket. "Musicals, gangster movies, westerns, love stories...the only question was: would they offer me those kinds of projects?" The cuddliness of Starman is not quite like anything Carpenter had directed before, and it allows him to approach his running themes and commitment to comic book material from a different angle.

"Do you seriously expect me to tell the President," Starman's government baddie says at one point, "that an alien has landed, assumed the identity of a dead house painter from Madison, Wisconsin, and is presently out tooling the countryside in a hopped-up 1977 Mustang?" The line is met with a grin, but neither the house painter nor the '77 Mustang surprise me; Carpenter's films are repeatedly drawn to the American working class. His debut, Dark Star (1974), is about an interstellar demolition crew hung out to dry by the government back home. The hero of They Live is a construction worker. The hero of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) is a truck driver. At the Antarctic research base of The Thing, the main protagonist isn't any of the scientists, but their plainspoken helicopter pilot. What makes Starman so valuable is that this disregard for authority, so often a subtext or a "fuck you" attitude in his post-Nixon action movies, instead finds its expression in wall-to-wall warmth.

And so "the road" deserves a screen credit of its own. Starman is a lovingly sketched ride through the American heartland, down highways and backroads, passed old filling stations and steakhouses, hitching lifts in the back of pickup trucks and spending the night at motels where black and white westerns play on TV. There are certainly a few jerks along the way—"bozos," as Jenny calls them. But there is something endearing about the way the film photographs even its briefest side characters and kitschiest Americana, which is enough to mark the Capra influence as more than just the skeleton of a romcom road trip. A fine example of the film's good humor comes when Karen Allen, in a moment of crisis, stands up in a roadside diner and announces, "I need a ride west, fast," and a nameless hot-rodder instantly gets up from his meal and eagerly obliges. He has no reason, no ulterior motive, and almost no lines—he's just there and happy to help, as are the cook who gives the Starman a lift, the waitress who aids Jenny in a planned escape, and a stranger at a motel who knocks on their door and offers to create a distraction so the two of them can dodge the cops. Starman's approach to its bit players is both a delightful charm and a fine thesis statement: go out into middle America and pick a person out of a hat, and chances are you'll get a good one. As Jenny tells Starman, "For a primitive species, we have our points."

There is, of course, nothing remotely rare about populism in American cinema. D.W. Griffith's films are populist. So are Michael Bay's. But if Griffith is a moralizer and Bay merely crass, Starman is a film too relaxed and modest for judgement or polemics: it simply and fervently espouses faith in people, and movies that manage to convey that idea so earnestly are all too rare indeed. All of which makes 2017, a year when populism's dark side is taking its revenge on the western world, a bittersweet time to dig into Starman. There is something inherently naive about its worldview, just as there is something inherently silly about any movie that stars Jeff Bridges as a hyper-evolved alien who has to ask what love is. But the film wouldn't work without its starry-eyed optimism, just as it wouldn't work if Karen Allen weren't so committed to her character's sense of loss, or if Jeff Bridges—all jerky, birdlike motions—didn't look like he's having so much fun pretending he's new at inhabiting a human body. Like a comic book, or an Everly Brothers song, Starman is guileless to a fault and at least partly show business; it just needs to win you over into its naivety, if only for a little while. The formula is basic, but only the purest of its practitioners can pull it off. I’ve seen retrospective reviews that label the film a masterpiece. I disagree, not only on the basis of the film's own bumps on the road, but because I suspect a word like "masterpiece" is something that Starman, were it sentient itself, would want nothing to do with.

What happened to Carpenter then? His next studio film, the goofy kung-fu homage Big Trouble in Little China, was another box office flop—never mind that it's terrific fun—leading Carpenter to move back to low-budget projects and writing his own scripts for the rest of the 1980s. By the end of the 1990s, he looked like a filmmaker who'd had the world move out from underneath him. In the 21st century, he's scarcely made any movies at all. By now, he's retreated from directing, focused on music instead, and taken his place as an elder statesman and congenial interview subject. We never got to see many A-list projects, and very few films unburdened by flaws. But even as sequels, prequels, and remakes sprout from his past—there's talk of a new Starman, so be warned—his body of work still feels winningly insular, awaiting discovery and re-evaluation by each successive wave of geeks who secretly have a head start on what's cool. It almost seems greedy to ask for more.

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