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The Last Satrfighter
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984)

Starring: Lance Guest, Dan O'Herlihy, Catherine Mary Stewart, Robert Preston, Barbara Bosson, Norman Snow

Written By: Jonathan R. Betuel

Directed By: Nick Castle

The Short Version

If you ever spent time in front of a box arcade machine, this movie is for you.

This is the first movie to go all-CGI with its effects.

Try not to hold that against it.

Even for that bit of sophistication, this flick’s about the simple joys of saving the world.

The Last Starfighter is a fun bit of nostalgia for grown-ups, and just plain fun for little humans on the way there.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEEZ WHIZ.

Yes, it’s processed beyond belief, but even if you know better, it’s still really tasty anyway.  It also tends to bring back memories of being a kid with a slightly less sophisticated palette.


Pairs Well With...

MILLER LITE.

“Less Filling!  Tastes Great!”  That was Lite’s commercial back in the simple days of 1984, and it fits this flick well.  No, Lite is not one of the beers you see sold at the film’s trailer park, but I couldn’t recommend those in good conscience.

“Greetings, Starfighter!  You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada!”


Whether or not they’ll admit it as adults, at some point, any kids who spent any length of time in an arcade had the same dream, even if just in passing.  As the bright lights flashed, the 8-bit graphics rolled past, and the C-sharp notes let them know that they’d made it to the next stage without having to spend another preciously saved quarter, those kids would sometimes think to themselves: “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I could somehow make a living out of playing this stuff?”  And then the next wave of aliens would arrive, and the button mashing and joystick juking would commence once more.

The games have changed, and the box arcades that take a quarter a hit have largely given way to home consoles that are happy to draw a monthly fee from a bank account sight unseen, but the dream still happens.  Some people have even managed to make it real in some way.  After all, the market has exploded over the past two and half decades, and many of the people who started out as little kids playing box arcade games are now concept creators, graphic designers, soundtrack musicians, paid testers, and so on.  While many more of the kids next to them went on to become accountants and car salesmen and movie critics and the like, these guys got to have their childhood fantasies come true. 

“Pretty cool,” I imagine them thinking today.

But unless they became astronauts (which to be fair also would have required a lot of math and physics study between games), none of them got to turn those gaming skills into a career flying spaceships, and even those few astronauts can’t say that they ever turned their ability to handle a joystick and mash buttons into something that helped them to single handedly save the universe from an alien armada of doom.

That is the childhood fantasy that The Last Starfighter was made to fulfill, if only in another part of the imagination over the course of a hundred-ish minutes on a movie screen.

Come on, kid.  Drop in a quarter…

Our story begins at a trailer park out in Middle O’ Nowhere, California.  Alex Rogan (Lance Guest, Jaws: The Revenge) is the son of the trailer park’s manager, but he dreams of bigger things than just being the young man everyone asks to help fix things when they break.  He doesn’t want to go to the local community college that seems to be the destination of most of his friends; he wants to go to school somewhere else so that he can ultimately live somewhere else.  Meanwhile, as he awaits word on the loan that stands between him and that school out of town, he relieves his stress by playing the box arcade game that stands outside the trailer park’s office: a game called “Starfighter.”

One night, he ends up on a hot streak, and suddenly, he seems on the verge of breaking the record and beating the game.  As the whole trailer park comes around to watch, he succeeds, and unbeknownst to him, he’s the only person on Earth who ever has.  Someone else knows, however.  That someone calls himself Centauri (Robert Preston, The Music Man), and the next night, he pulls up to the trailer park looking for Alex.  It seems that he has a proposition – and a surprise – for him.  What’s the surprise?  Only the small detail that “Starfighter” isn’t just a game, but a test, and by beating the test, Alex has proven himself worthy to be recruited as a real Starfighter pilot who is desperately needed to defend against the imminent approach of the Ko-Dan Armada!

Surprise, Alex!  The game was real…

I find it interesting that that first movie to break the barrier and render all of its non-makeup effects (save explosions) on a computer is in fact not a special effects driven movie.  Oh, for certain, The Last Starfighter relies heavily on those effects and indeed could not tell its story without them, but the effects do not drive the picture.  The characters do, and there’s a major distinction to be drawn there.  At the end of the day, the “Boy and His Spaceship” movie is more about the boy than the spaceship.

So let’s start with the part about the boy, and the people he knows.

If you’re looking for any truly original characters in The Last Starfighter, you won’t find them.  On the other hand, you don’t need to, either; the archetypes drive the story just fine, thank to a script that knows how to use them properly without belaboring the point on any of them.  Our hero, Alex, is the typical off the shelf young man who’s coming of age and needs somewhere to go with his life; a nice guy who wants to be a hero but feels trapped by circumstance.  Everybody knows an Alex at some point, and Lance Guest is a perfect choice for the role.  He’s got the “nice boy” look, and he’s also got exactly the approach needed to make the role work.  Alex isn’t a bold hero; he has to grow into it.  Guest plays both sides of the seesaw perfectly, starting off on the “aw shucks” side without being too much of a milquetoast, and then bringing forth the resolve of the hero without losing the fundamental charm that made him so likable in the first place.  He also takes on his dual role challenge of playing both Alex and his simulacrum “Beta Unit” and nails it, providing exactly the right amount of subtle differences between the two to allow the comic aspect to work without being farcical about it.  Very nicely done indeed.

It’s also worth noting that Director Nick Castle does an excellent job in giving the audience a glimpse of Alex’s potential as a hero early on, in the most unlikely of circumstances.  The scene is simple, and by all rights shouldn’t be exciting at all despite its importance to the plot, and yet, Castle bestows it with something magical that manages to convey many different things at once.  It is the scene in which Alex breaks the record on the “Starfighter” video game.  At its core, it’s just a young man winning a video game.  Two and a half decades on, there are more than enough YouTube videos out there to prove that it’s pretty boring stuff if you’re not the person doing it.  And yet, Castle makes the moment exciting, creating an electric atmosphere around Alex that not only speaks to his neighbors, but to the audience, as well.  Indeed, the fact that almost the entire population of the trailer park rushes up to watch when they hear that Alex is at the final stage of the game also tells the audience volumes about his world without having to say a word.  It tells the audience how sleepy the trailer park really is, and yet how close-knit the community is, as well; they take joy in the accomplishments of their own, whatever those accomplishments may be.  It also shows that, as the center of the night’s attention, Alex is in his own way a hero at that very moment, doing what no one else could do, even if it is just winning a game.  It makes the leap to what happens next that much easier to take, and in its presentation, Nick Castle presents a moment of directorial genius.

He knows the dream, and he gets it, and even if just for a few seconds, he shares it with all who care to see.

Returning to Alex’s fellow trailer park denizens (and as you may have noticed by now, this is no Jerry Springer trailer park, thanks), our next archetype comes in the form of The Girlfriend, who in The Last Starfighter goes by the name of Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart, Night of the Comet).   This is the very definition of a “supporting” role; she’s there less to be a character unto herself as she is to give the hero something to live for aside from himself, and to support the comic misunderstanding of the Beta Unit.  If it sounds pretty thankless, it’s not, thanks to Catherine Mary Stewart.  She plays the sweetheart without being silly about it, and in a role that really doesn’t demand much depth of character, she provides it anyway.  There’s a difference between the Hollywood Girl Next Door and the Real Girl Next Door, and Stewart plays the Real Girl Next Door, making the perfect complement to Lance Guest’s own Nice Boy.

Rounding out the major players at the trailer park is the character with the most potential to torpedo the whole thing: Louis (Chris Hebert, Invaders From Mars), the little kid brother.  If anything can ruin a good adventure movie, it’s a small child… and yet, this one doesn’t, even though he’s also got the dangerous assignment of being the naughtiest person in the movie.  He’s ten years old at the time, and yet he’s the only character who actually swears.  Not only that, but he’s got a collection of Playboy magazines under his mattress.  By all rights, this should backfire horrifically, but again, under the careful direction of Nick Castle, it’s actually funny.  (Particularly the quick scene where Louis is going through his mag stack and mumbles “Where the hell is June?”, which is funnier than it has any right to be.)  The secret here is that it’s never overdone.  If Louis only pulled his act once, it would seem out of place; too much, and it would be annoying.  As it stands, though?  Nicely balanced, and a rare accomplishment.

Stepping out into space, we round out the main cast with our two main aliens: the recruiter, Centauri, and Alex’s eventual navigator, Grig (Dan O’Herlihy, RoboCop 2).  Each is boisterous in his own way: one is the game show host, and the other is your buddy the coach.  The success of both characters is a testament to the talents of their respective players.  As Centauri, Preston gets to revisit the fast talking style that made him memorable in The Music Man, and it’s easy to see how his character can charm his way through anything despite being an obvious huckster.  Meanwhile, O’Herlihy gets to play the Voice of Encouragement, which he does to marvelous effect.  His cheerful portrayal is infectious, and the fact that he can be so expressive through that kind of heavy makeup – full latex and scales – is a testament to his skill.  One can’t help but smile when Grig talks.

And yet somewhere amidst all of these feel-good people, someone managed to pioneer a new era in special effects.

Computer generated effects had been used in films for several years by the time that The Last Starfighter went into production (beginning with a small shot in Westworld), but never before had a film committed all of its chips to the process.  That barrier was finally broken by this movie.  If it didn’t involve makeup or an explosion, every single visual effects shot in the film was done on a Cray supercomputer.  (These were the badass machines of the time, and there weren’t very many of them.)  No models, no miniatures, no in-camera exposure tricks: just pixels.  What is the norm today was a revolution at the time, and while many of us may look back and lament, The Last Starfighter is just too good-hearted a film to become a target of blame.  Besides, as already demonstrated, the effects support the story, and not, as so often happens now, the other way around.  By today’s standards (and let’s face it, even to 1984 vintage eyes), most of the effects are remarkably obvious for what they are, and don’t beat model making by a longshot in most cases.  And yet, a few of these early shots are still better than some of what gets put up on screens today, and in any case, the very nature of The Last Starfighter as the story of a video game that turns out to be test for reality allows the video game nature of the effects to work here in a way that they wouldn’t in most other films.  (Though ironically, an accurate recreation of the video game couldn’t be made at the time; no box arcade or cartridge of the day could handle the complexity of the graphics.)  At the end of the day, the sequences end up seeming simple and the action relatively short, but there’s still something magical there.  Perhaps it’s an innocence that doesn’t yet realize that it’s been lost.  Or maybe it’s still the wonder of the young man who suddenly gets to live in his favorite arcade game.

One more bit of trivia before I go, because trivia is fun.  Much has been made of the fact that so many of the people involved in the making of The Last Starfighter have some connection to one or more of the various incarnations of “Star Trek,” but there’s another venerable franchise to which this film has connections as well: namely, the Halloween series, with one major contributor to The Last Starfighter being involved in each of the three films that had been made up to the point of this one’s release.  Working backwards, Dan O’Herlihy, who plays the navigator, Grig, in this movie, played the villain in Halloween III: Season of the Witch.  Lance Guest, our hero, played the paramdeic with a hopeless crush on Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween II.  And, saving the best for last, Nick Castle, who directed The Last Starfighter, also happens to be the first man to don the white mask of The Shape, playing the role of the masked Michael Myers in the original Halloween.  Like I said: trivia is fun.  But now, back to our regularly scheduled movie review!

It’s odd to think that a film that was so cutting edge on the day of its release is commonly looked upon as a “B movie” now.  That, The Last Starfighter definitely is not.  Rather, it’s a light adventure flick with a heart, and one that for just a moment takes a common dream of the youth of its day and makes it feel not so silly thanks to the power of movies.

Bottom line, The Last Starfighter is a vastly underappreciated film that deserves another viewing.  If you grew up in the era of the box arcade, you’ll feel the nostalgia, and even if you didn’t, the dream is still easy enough to understand.  Is the movie flawed?  Certainly in more ways than I’d care to count, but in the end, it doesn’t matter.  Sometimes it’s okay to put away the sophistication and just sit back and smile at a simple story about a young man and his dream to save the universe, and maybe even admit that for at least a few seconds in your life, whoever you may be, you’ve wished that you were in his place.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


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