“Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada…”
The first time I watched THE LAST STARFIGHTER was on HBO in 1985. By the time the credits rolled at the end of the movie, I knew that I wanted nothing more than to be Alex Rogan—Hell, I just turned 40 and I still want to be Alex Rogan.
For those of you unfamiliar, or those of you who just need a quick brush up, the movie centers on Alex Rogan, a hopeful dreamer of a teen living in the “Starlite Starbrite” trailer park, whiling away the hours achieving the high score on an arcade game. When he becomes the best of the best, the creator of the game, an alien, shows up and reveals that the game was designed to test potential new pilots and that the story of deep space conflict is real. He gets drafted into an intergalactic war and is, of course, the last great hope of the galaxy.
In his portrayal of Alex, Lance Guest shows the frustration and wistful longing of a young man stuck in a rut, wanting to burst out and join the larger world out there (it’s reminiscent of a certain young moisture farmer wanting to escape the clutches of a bland life on Tatooine…) Guest also plays Beta, his robotic replacement that’s resigned in his role as a decoy/target for the alien assassins sent to kill Alex before he can fulfill his destiny. The late Robert Preston plays the charismatic alien inventor/con-man Centauri as an amped up version of his character in “The Music Man” and you can’t help but to be hooked in by his likable performance (this was to be the last role in a successful and varied career as he died a year after filming). A fresh faced Catherine Mary Stewart plays Maggie Gordon, Alex’s supportive girlfriend (in a very weird case of timing, Catherine played a video game-obsessed girl in “Night of the Comet”, which was made and released around the same time). Rounding out the main cast is Dan O’Herlihy as Grig, the genial alien pilot/engineer of Alex’s Gunstar (while he is covered by a SFX appliance akin to an armadillo in the movie, O’Herlihy is better recognized by 80’s pop culture audiences as The Old Man, the head of OCP in the “Robocop” series of movies).
Just like “TRON”, this movie was way ahead of its time in its groundbreaking use of CGI in place of tradition SFX. The Gunstar, ships of the Ko-Dan armada, Centauri’s transforming StarCar, and elements of Starfighter Command were all animated using a then state-of-the-art Cray X-MP supercomputer, which were the most of powerful computers in the world at the time and cost about $15 million and weighted in at 15,000 pounds. In terms of 1983/84 money, the 25 minutes of computerized generated effects cost an estimated $3 million with a film on a budget $15 million.
Gunstar doing the “Death Blossom” maneuver.
StarCar on approach.
As with everyone of my reviews, I re-watch the movies before I start writing. I couldn’t help but smile as composer Craig Safan’s bombastic and heroic score opened the movie. Even after 32 years, the movie is still well worth watching. Of course the effects are slightly dated, but not in such a way so as to distract and pull you out of the immersion of the narrative (don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see a HiDef re-release where they replace the CGI of then with the CGI of now—a man can dream). The story also still resonates well. I think that this is due to not only it being classic escapism, but the fact that it follows Joseph Campbell’s notion of the “MONOMYTH/Hero’s Journey” (George Lucas made excellent use of this when he came up with STAR WARS). At one point or another in all our lives, we’ve ALL been Alex Rogan as he struggles with his dreams, his family, his girlfriend etc.—and it’s a very universal and relatable experience. We all have our “Starlite Starbrite” that we’ve gotten away from or unfortunately still haven’t left. The movie also gives us a life lesson:
Alex Rogan: Otis, I just never have a chance to have a good time around here.
Otis: Things change. Always do. You’ll get your chance! Important thing is, when it comes, you’ve got to grab with both hands, and hold on tight!
The movie was ahead of its time with the use the plot device of video games as a recruitment tool. While arcades were far more prevalent then than they are today, the video game industry is far bigger now. It’s also a far more pervasive and immersive industry as gaming consoles and computer rigs are networked all over the world in a 24/7 massively multiple player online experience. If you’ve ever read Ernest Kline’s novel “Armada”, you’ll see that he very blatantly lifts this very idea (coincidentally, it’s funny to note that he’s sold the movie rights to the book to Universal Studios—the very studio that brought us “The Last Starfighter”)
I started this review with the original trailer for the movie. I end it now with a look at version of the trailer, re-cut into the style of today’s summer blockbusters. Watch it and tell me that you wouldn’t be looking forward to seeing this in IMAX 3D.
“THE LAST STARFIGHTER” (still) gets 5 out of 5 Gunstars.