"Starman" stands for the proposition that only Steven Spielberg can make Steven Spielberg movies. It's the kind of tepid, muzzy sci-fi heartwarmer that makes you wish E.T. had stayed home.
The story launches from an intriguing premise: What if an alien civilization actually responded to the invitation, conveyed in the Voyager 2 probe, to come visit Earth? The bearer of the RSVP, a splash of blue light, lands in Wisconsin, where he uses a lock of hair to clone himself into the deceased Scott (Jeff Bridges). Commandeering Scott's widow Jenny (Karen Allen) and her racy orange Mustang, he lights out for a crater in Arizona, where his spaceship is scheduled to pick him up for the flight home.
The Starman knows nothing about Earth except for the information included in the gold-anodized LP loaded on Voyager, and the movie has some fun with that -- Bridges does a creditable imitation of U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, and fills an awkward silence with his own version of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." "I understand 'Greetings' in 54 Planet Earth languages," he says proudly.
As he slowly picks up earthling habits and slang, this stranger becomes a vessel for satire of our strange land. He steps on the gas when the light turns yellow, avoiding an accident by a hair; he learns cuss words, which he interjects with an unerring instinct for the wrong moment; he assumes the corny cadences of the Southwest. His naivete' makes the familiar seem fresh again. But this conceit is pretty much worn out by now; in a horse race with "E.T." or "Splash" or even "The Brother From Another Planet," "Starman" is a moth-eaten nag barely out of the starting gate.
And the movie takes a dreadful turn as the alien and Jenny slowly fall in love, which they consummate in a freight car (how's that for a close encounter?). Made flesh for the first time, the Starman delights in the new urges his body feels; and when the Starman magically revives a fallen deer strapped to the hood of a hunter's car and sets it free, Jenny comes to appreciate the gentleness of this higher order of intelligence.
Allen gawks at the Starman's good deeds with wide-eyed wonderment; she's adorable enough, and nifty in her boots and faded jeans. Shorn of her "Raiders of the Lost Ark" spunk, though, Allen seems tranquilized. Bridges has his moments -- his accents are terrific, and slipping furtively down an embankment, he breaks into a hilarious Groucho walk -- but his robot-like performance starts to drone halfway through. Even in love, Bridges never gets comfortable; he's trapped in a "Hymie the cyborg" riff cribbed from Dick Gaultier.
"Starman" never explains why someone who can bring the dead to life, switch television channels by touching the screen, and melt a crowbar with a glance has to drive, hitchhike and ride the rails to get to Arizona, which is the least of the improbabilities in a script, by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon (and an uncredited Dean Riesner) in which you always hear the gears grinding. And talented action and suspense director John ("Halloween") Carpenter loses his footing on all this gush.
Of course, no movie like this would be complete without the moments when the alien asks the girl what words like "love" and "beautiful" and "goodbye" mean, to which she responds with Rod McKuenisms: "Love is where you care for somebody more than yourself." Well, I have it on good authority that love also means not having to say you're sorry. Sorry, fellas.
"Starman," now playing at area theaters, is rated PG.