The Last Starfighter (1984)

Today a loan desktop (or laptop) PC or Mac is what is needed to create awesome (or so we're supposed to believe) computer graphics in place of the models used for decades in science fiction and fantasy films.  Imagine trying to do the same thing when your only option is to get time on a workstation for a Cray supercomputer.

Well, The Last Starfighter managed just that, with most of the space battles, ships and effects computer generated.  It was a technical revolution in 1984 and, unlike now, seemed to save the producers of the movie money.  There are still a number of models and technical effects used, but part of the joy of watching this film is seeing what those images looked like back then.  In truth, much of it looks like about the graphic level of Grand Theft Auto 4, with 3-D polygon renderings that flatten and blur when you get close.  Not so impressive for movie-making now, but unbelievably advanced for the time.

Keep in mind that a large part of the plot revolves around the fact that the titular game in the movie could not have been reproduced on any home systems at the time, and would have been cutting edge graphics in an arcade.

Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) lives and works in a rural California trailer park with his mom Jane (Barbara Bosson) and younger brother Louis (Chris Hebert).  When not fixing up the place for the tenants or romancing his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), he spends his time playing an arcade game called Starfighter that is sitting out in front of the community's general store.  One night, depressed about not getting a loan for college and contemplating his fate, he achieves a perfect score while at first halfway not paying attention.  Not only does it cause a sensation within the trailer park, but also sends a signal to the man who made the game - Centauri (Robert Preston). 

Centauri lures Alex into his space car and leaves behind a "Beta Unit" to take Alex's place.   Alex quickly discovers that Centauri is an alien as he is swept away to the planet Rylos and is informed that game was a test to find and recruit Starfighters to, as in the game, defend the peaceful worlds of the galaxy against the Ko-Dan Armada, who are attempting to breach the Frontier, an energy shield set up to protect the planets that are aligned.  The son of the leader of Rylos, Xur (Norman Snow), has turned traitor and given technology to the Ko-Dan Empire so that they may breach the Frontier, with the promise that Xur will become the ruler of this part of the galaxy.

It turns out, however, that Alex really wants nothing to do with dying for a planet or a cause that he does not believe himself involved in.  Centauri himself is reprimanded for bringing in someone from a planet that should not be involved, while Alex's navigator Grig (Dan O'Herlihy) and Centauri both voice disappointment in Alex himself.  Centauri brings Alex back to earth, leaving him a way to contact in case Alex changes his mind.  He does once his community is attacked by a Zando-Zan, an assassin sent to kill him, and he realizes how the war may affect him and Earth.

Centauri arrives just in time but is mortally wounded by the Zando-Zan.  Still, he manages to get Alex back to Rylos, to find that the Starfighter base has been destroyed by a meteor attack and that the Ko-Dans, led by Lord Kril (Dan Mason), have made their way through the Frontier and are advancing on Rylos.  Grig survived the attack and, in the last Gunstar available, together they must destroy an entire army on their own.

Yes, this movie owes quite a bit to Spielberg and Lucas.  There are themes from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Star Wars running through this.  Also, the laughable effects tend to be some of the simpler ones, like a few of the rubber suits worn by the other Starfighters.  Still, say what you will, the movie has a specific charm and delivers the fun it promises.  A good part of that is watching the Beta Alex trying to cope with dealing with Alex's life, including human relationships. 

While Lance Guest plays the hero, the most memorable performances are Robert Preston's last acting role as Centauri, Dan O'Herlihy as the unquestionably alien Grig (who still manages to find much in common with Alex) and Dan Mason as Lord Kril.  While Xur is ambitious, foppish and cowardly, Kril maintains a certain dignity about him throughout despite technically being a bad guy.  He also has the best line in the entire movie.

One thing must be said about some of the physics presented here, which also makes this film unique.  Yes, there is still sound in space for dramatic effect, but many of the space battles seem closer to what you would experience in such a situation.  The Gunstar involves a navigator to actually fly the ship, while the Starfighter himself works the weapons without being distracted.  Everything is done through computers rather than visual navigation.  Part of the strategy itself is to disable the ability of the Ko-Dan command ship to remotely control their fighters' navigation, thus handicapping the single-fighter units so that they are forced to fly visually and work their weapons at the same time - leading to disastrous results.  The only true dogfighting maneuvers take place near an asteroid where there are significant visual cues. 

Also, the Death Blossom maneuver that Grig programs is one of the closest things to real space combat that I have seen in a movie.  That is, until the Ko-Dan command ship crashes into a moon.  That is probably the worst computer effect in the whole thing.

There is plenty of cheese here, as well as intentional humor, great space battles and performances throughout.  Add to that the fact that it feels like someone took the time to put some thought into this film rather than just churning out a knockoff (which it has been accused of being), and you have one of the best science fiction films of the 1980s. 

The Last Starfighter (1984)
Time: 101 minutes
Starring: Lance Guest, Robert Preston, Dan O'Herlihy, Norman Snow, Dan Mason, Catherine Mary Stewart
Director: Nick Castle

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