The Last Starfighter (1984)
Directed by Nick Castle
- Lance Guest as Alex Rogan
- Robert Preston as Centauri
- Dan O’Herlihy as Grig
- Catherine Marie Stewart as Maggie
Alex Rogan, a teenager in Middle-O-Nowhere, California, spends the summer after graduating high school doing odd jobs around the trailer park where he lives, and playing way too much of an arcade game called Starfighter. After beating the game’s high score in a marathon all-night play session, Alex is visited by a man named Centauri. Centauri turns out to be an alien, who tells him that the video game is actually a recruitment tool for the real interplanetary Star League, which is about to come under attack by the forces of Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. Alex’s skills are desperately needed, and Centauri takes him into space to become the Star League’s newest gunner.
So, this was one of my favorite movies growing up. I probably watched it more between the ages of eight and thirteen than I did Star Wars (thirteen specifically because that’s when the Star Wars Trilogy was rereleased as a VHS box set, and I got it for Christmas). Which is kinda fitting, as I think this is the best of all of the Star Wars ripoffs that came out in the wake of that movie’s total domination of the box office. The fact that it also featured that other great 80s obsession, arcade games, was just an added bonus. However, I don’t believe that I’ve seen it since we watched it at Sci-Fi House in college, a good 15+ years ago. It wasn’t available on DVD for a really long time, and it just got put in a box with the other old VHS tapes and forgotten about.
Which is actually kind of a shame, because for the most part it’s still pretty fun. Granted, the premise is totally ridiculous. “Hey kid, you got the high score on a video game, so we’re going to give you the keys to a heavily armed starship with zero additional training! Have fun!” A video game which, by the way, has been sitting completely unsupervised outside a trailer park for who knows how long. Alex was shown to have a knowledge of wiring and electricity early in the film. Who knows what sort of mods he’s been putting in that thing? I’m just saying that the Ender’s Game meets Atari plot sounds like something the writer of Ready Player One would have come up with.
Anyway, the movie’s big claim to fame is that it was the first movie to have the majority of its effects be created through the then-new use of CGI. Tron had introduced general audiences to the concept a few years earlier, but most of that movie had still been done practically, with models and in-camera effects. The Last Starfighter, on the other hand, dove into the still-nascent medium with both feet. As a child, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t consciously know the difference in effects styles, and didn’t realize that some things weren’t practical effects. I was interested to see how well they’d hold up to a more practiced eye.
I can report that they both held up really well, and simultaneously not well at all. For modern audiences without any knowledge of the history of effects, they look really, really bad. Like Russian bootleg ripoff DVD bad. However, by 1984 standards, they were at the cutting edge of what was available, and several individual shots still hold up quite well. It helps that a majority of the CG shots are in space on a dark background, without much visually to compare them to.
The practical effects that they do have are a mixed bag. While some of the aliens look right out of a Halloween mask shop, the makeup job on O’Herlihy’s Grig (the pilot of the ship that Alex is a gunner for) is quite excellent. There’s also a flying car that looks like a cross between a DeLorean and the Pontiac Vibe that I drove for a decade, a year before Back to the Future came out and made the vehicle more than just a failed experiment.
Other than the effects, the movie was, as mentioned earlier, pretty much a direct Star Wars ripoff, down to the white-haired, bearded guy explaining what’s going on to a group of pilots using big screens. The trailer park scenes, filmed somewhere in the vicinity of Soledad Canyon, recall the canyons of Tatooine, and Alex has the exact same initial conflict as Luke Skywalker: a late-teens kid, stuck in the middle of nowhere, who desperately wants to leave town to go to school but is held back by family and circumstances. He even gets to lead a desperate attack on a much larger spaceship at the end of the film, an attack in which the enemy commander perishes but the black-clad villain escapes.
The movie is saved, however, by Robert Preston, here in full Harold Hill mode as Centauri, the alien con man who recruits Alex. Now, I’m positive that I had no idea who Robert Preston was, or that he was riffing off of his Music Man character, when I was watching this movie as a kid. But I do now, and I actually think I like him more now because of it. He seems to be the only one in on the joke of the movie, and helps it to keep from getting bogged down in space opera seriousness. I also loved the relationship between Alex’s kid brother and the replicant brought in to replace Alex while he’s in space. I’d have loved a spinoff with that robot, Mork & Mindy-style.
Overall, it’s not a great movie by objective standards. The dialogue is pretty bad, and some of the plotting strains credulity, even before they get into space (seriously, the residents of this trailer park can’t be THAT desperate for entertainment that every single one of them would come to watch a kid beat a video game). But there’s some solid performances, effects that were amazing for the time and are still interesting as an artifact of film history, and the score is quite good, reminding me of a lot of the Kirk-era Star Trek movie scores.
Nostalgia Rating: A
Rewatch Rating: C+