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The Last Starfighter

Our next request came from my man Joseph “NiteOwl” Sheldahl, a fellow movie blogger, a fantastic artist, and a good friend. I knew Joe would point me toward some geek classic from the ’80s or ’90s that I hadn’t seen yet, and he had a whole list ready to go. From that list, it was immediately clear that there was only one selection I could’ve gone with.

I find it rather fitting that my review of The Last Starfighter should happen as part of a birthday project, because this viewing feels like it was 27 years in the making. My family has had a VHS copy for as far back as I can remember, but I don’t think we ever watched it. Throughout my entire life, I knew that this film existed and yet I knew nothing about it. Pop culture osmosis is usually quite reliable for providing a plot synopsis or a key scene, but nothing from The Last Starfighter ever reached my ears except for so many countless times I’ve heard the title.

It’s like there’s a huge empty space in my childhood that’s the perfect size and shape of this movie, so it’s great to finally see what nostalgia I’ve been missing. And since today just happens to be the film’s 30th anniversary (pure coincidence, I swear), what better time to give it a watch?

The film wastes no time establishing Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) as a young man stuck at home because his family manages a trailer park (called the “Starlite Starbrite,” ha ha) full of people who depend on him. As much as Alex would love hanging out with his friends or leaving to go travel the world, his responsibilities keep him from going anywhere. Yet somehow, Alex still has a smoking hot girlfriend (Maggie Gordon, played by Catherine Mary Stewart) who loves him to the end of the world even though they have no chemistry.

Also, Alex is really good at an arcade game called “Starfighter,” presumably because a video game is the closest thing he may ever get to going on an adventure. Anyway, Alex is so good that he sets a new best score, which prompts everyone in the trailer park to come and…

Wait a minute.

Some guy scores over 900,000 points on a video game, which causes a whole village full of old people to drop everything and come running to cheer him on.

***

…Sorry, I think I laughed myself unconscious for a moment. Where were we?

Okay, right. The film had already established itself as a work of escapist fantasy. A guy wants to go adventuring, but his family and home keep him right where he is. Any kid can relate to such a classic setup (see also: The Wizard of Oz), and the presence of a beautiful girlfriend helps push the film even further into escapism (see also: every action/adventure movie with a male protagonist ever).

But a whole trailer park full of people who are so bereft of anything to do that some kid beating a high score is headline news to them? That is so over-the-top ridiculous that I can’t help laughing. I almost feel insulted, since the film is going so absurdly far out of its way to stroke our ego by way of Alex, a transparent stand-in for the audience. If the goal was to pander, shame on the filmmakers. If the goal was to set an unrepentantly brain-dead escapist tone for the film as a whole, Mission Fucking Accomplished.

All things considered, I’m more inclined to believe the latter. It bears mentioning that the film was directed by Nick Castle, whose only prior directing credit was for some PG-rated affair called Tag: The Assassination Game. Castle also started out as a colleague of John Carpenter (co-writing Escape from New York and playing Michael Myers himself in Halloween), and would later go on to help write Hook. Meanwhile, writer Jonathan R. Betuel made his debut with this picture, and his only other feature credit was the ill-fated Theodore Rex.

Given the talent and work histories of those involved, I’d wager that this was quite deliberately meant to be a kids’ film. One made in that awkward time when there wasn’t any middle ground between PG and R (the PG-13 rating was introduced the very month this film came out), but a kids’ film nonetheless. Also, given the sequence in which Alex first leaves Earth as a Starfighter recruit, I’m at least sure that Castle knew what he was doing. No hack could’ve delivered a buildup that masterful. To say nothing of the space fights, which are far too few for how enjoyable they are.

Speaking of which, this movie is noteworthy as one of the very first to use computer-generated effects, coming out only two years after Tron. For better or worse, the effects here have aged about as well. Yet the outdated effects work better in Tron, since that movie is supposed to look like an old retro video game. I suppose that excuse could work for Starfighter as well, since an old retro video game plays such a huge role in the premise. But since most of the CG goes toward animating the actual starships and planets that the video game was based on, sorry, I’m not buying it.

For rocket ships and space stations that are supposed to be realistic, the effects don’t really hold up. But the practical effects, makeup, and set designs all kick ass. The scope is made so much more epic because the extraterrestrial aspects were crafted with such polish. Between that and the simplistic story cribbed right from Joseph Campbell, I can completely understand why this movie captured the imagination of so many ’80s kids. Sure, this movie owes a lot to Star Wars, but what film doesn’t?

(Side note: I also find it funny that this film was released only two years before Flight of the Navigator, yet Starfighter kept its promise of a grand adventure to distant worlds with cool alien creatures while Navigator didn’t.)

Unfortunately, not all of this film is set in outer space. A lot of scenes take place on Earth, and nearly all of them suck the energy right out of the film. Sure, there are some neat moments with Beta-Alex (an android duplicate of Alex, left behind to take his place while the real Alex is out flying spacecraft), particularly during a scene in which Beta-Alex takes his own head off to perform some maintenance. Even so, I have no idea — budgetary reasons aside — why this silly action/adventure escapist film spends so much time on Earth when there’s an interstellar war we could be taking part in. Sure, the filmmakers put in some effort to try and make it all relevant to the plot, but it’s not the same. Especially when it comes to that ending, which dragged on way too long.

The Last Starfighter has absolutely no pretension of being anything other than action/adventure/sci-fi escapist fluff, and it works just fine by those standards. It’s a prime slice of ’80s family entertainment, with a neat dose of proto-CGI to provide some novelty. Plus, even if the story and characters (except for Harold Hill himself, Robert Preston, playing another fast-talking huckster in his final film role) are nothing special, a lot of effort was put into crafting this universe and it really pays off.

For a retro bit of brainless innocent fun, give it a watch.

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