Millions of light-years ago, a great frontier was constructed in the universe to protect the star League of Planets from its enemy, the evil KO-DAN. But now a defector has given the key to the frontier to the KO-DAN, and Starfighters from throughout the galaxy are needed to defend the peace. One recruiter, the alien scalawag Centauri, visits Earth to fill his quota of recruits and finds Alex, an 18-year-old Earthling with an extraordinary talent for video game wizardry. Alex is quickly propelled into the regions of outer space to join others from planets throughout the Star League to fight a war to save the universe.
The Last Starfighter 7.25
eyelights: its breezy pace. its Spielberg-esque vibe.
eyesores: its ephemeral excitement.
“Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.”
‘The Last Starfighter’ is 1984 science fiction adventure film about a teenager who is selected to save the universe after he breaks the record on a Starfighter video game – a game that was designed as a training and recruiting device by an alien named Centauri. It was a solid hit, grossing nearly 30 million at the time.
What makes the picture appealing is its down-to-earth (!), Spielberg-esque setting, light humour, space ship battles, creature designs and special effects – which were mostly made with CGI (‘The Last Starfighter’ is one of the first pictures to use computer graphics for its special effects, along with ‘Tron’).
It’s one of those minor eighties classics that keeps resurfacing in various media to this day (including multiple video games and, of all things, a musical!). It is also always championed by someone – usually someone who grew up on it. To say that it was well-received understates the impact it seems to have had.
Interestingly enough, even though I would have been its target audience at the time, I didn’t see it until a good fifteen years after its release. I don’t remember if I was disinterested, if I simply missed it, or if it perhaps didn’t play in my neck of the woods. But I seem to recall that it wasn’t on my radar much.
When I finally did see it, and only really because I was cramming most of the films at the video store where I worked (so that I could better serve my customers, naturally), I was actually pleasantly surprised. However, I quickly forgot much of the picture soon after seeing it, leaving only a vague recollection of it.
But I knew I had enjoyed it, so I figured that I might as well give it another shot. I eventually picked up the Collector’s Edition DVD, after years of consideration, and swiftly put it… on my shelf. But, after watching ‘The Thing‘, another ’80s sci-fi cult classic, I decided that it might be time to finally get to it.
Amusingly enough, another 15 years later, a similar thing has happened:
Although I was very pleased with ‘The Last Starfighter’, particularly with its tone, setting and visual style, which reminded me of early Spielberg films, I find that it leaves no strong impression – very few scenes get grafted on your mind and little of it elicits enough excitement to want to watch it again.
The Last Starfighter’s insta-hit checklist
- Bland, but effortlessly relatable lead character – CHECK
- Très cute -but otherwise generic- girlfriend – CHECK
- Kid brother whose curiosity peppers the picture – CHECK
- Single mom who means well but is overworked – CHECK
- Trendy gadget that protagonist actively uses and is key to the plot – CHECK
- Quirky alien ambassador for the protagonist – CHECK
- Unusual but cool alien vehicle – CHECK
- Multiple weird-looking alien races – CHECK
- Top-of-the-line special effects – CHECK
- High-flying space battles – CHECK
- Fate of the galaxy in the protagonist’s hands – CHECK
- Learning experience for the protagonist – CHECK
- Happy ending for all but the baddies – CHECK
- Action – CHECK
- Adventure – CHECK
- Whimsical humour – CHECK
- Romance – CHECK
- Vibrant action-adventure motion picture score – CHECK
What’s there not to like?
Director Nick Castle (who not only co-wrote ‘Escape From New York’ with John Carpenter, he was an actor in two of his movies – most notably as the original Michael Myers. Seriously!) and writer Jonathan R. Betuel put together a paint-by-numbers picture, but they did it arguably well – they obviously studied the era’s popular sci-fi cinema.
Some of my favourite moments were when Alex returns to find that a double had taken his place while he is away. There’s this scene when his kid brother wakes up while Alex and the Beta Unit are arguing. Later, there’s a scene when the brother wakes up to find the Beta Unit has removed his head to fix it. These were amusing, and not overdone.
But the filmmakers did overlook some details along the way. The worst of it was when Alex arrives at the base: a chip is attached to his lapel so that he can communicate with all the various species there. Brilliant idea, except that the aliens all moved their mouths as though they were speaking English. Obviously, they should have been overdubbed.
That’s my biggest gripe in the whole picture, though, if you can imagine that!
I can’t really explain it: the writing isn’t stellar but it’s decent enough, the performances are solid for this type of film and ‘The Last Starfighter’ is so perfectly-paced that, by the end, I was surprised that it was ending so soon – I couldn’t believe that 90 minutes had flown by so quickly. And yet my enthusiasm is muted.
Perhaps it’s the fact that ‘The Last Starfighter’ has a B-movie quality to it. It’s pretty good, but not great: the cast is endearing but not memorable, the humour is good, but sometimes corny, the action looks great, but isn’t especially exciting (in fact, the finale felt like a try-out to me), and the creature designs are a mixed bag.
Still, there are a few cool characters, gadgets, vehicles, effects, …etc. along the way.
The CGI effects are by far the most surprising thing about this picture, because, although they are very polygonal at times, they actually look rather good and merge with the rest of the picture better than some of today’s CGI. So much so that I wasn’t even sure that it was CGI at first; I thought it was traditional animation made to look like CGI.
It’s part of what puts the picture a notch above an early ‘Battlestar Galactica’ episode – which, it must be noted, was an expensive production at the time. It’s nestled right there between ‘Galactica’ and Spielberg productions like ‘E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’ or ‘Poltergeist’ – with small touches of ‘Star Wars’ thrown in to pepper things.
Its weaknesses aren’t life-changing, so why aren’t I more fond of ‘The Last Starfighter’? Perhaps if I had seen it at the time it would have cemented itself in my heart and mind like ‘Ghostbusters‘ and ‘Back to the Future‘ did. Or perhaps it doesn’t stir my imagination in the way that it does for other people (the picture certainly has fans!).
Admittedly, the premise is brilliant: it taps into the dreamer side of us that takes gambles, hoping that a sudden turn of events will offer us a greater future. I understand why other people like ‘The Last Starfighter’ as much as they do. I’m bewildered by why I don’t. Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of ’80s cinema.
It’s a product of its time, but it’s quality product.
Date of viewing: Jan 17, 2015