Home > Action, Adventure, Sci Fi > The Last Starfighter (1984)

The Last Starfighter (1984)

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

Some recruitment tools are obvious: A firing range. A standardized test. A military training course. Other training tools, not so much: an arcade game cabinet in a trailer park. Alex Rogan doesn’t know this, of course. All he knows is that he wants to do something more with his life than bounce around with the same people forever. Little does he know that opportunity is about to knock.

The Last Starfighter is a science fiction adventure film directed by Nick Castle and written by John R. Betuel. It stars Lance Guest, Robert Preston, Catherine Mary Stewart, Dan O’Herlihy, and Norman Snow. In addition to Tron, this movie has the distinction of being one of the earliest films to use extensive CGI for all the special effects that were not makeup or concrete props, a decision that ultimately brought the computers they had at the time to their knees.

Alex Rogan (Guest) is an average teenager living in the secluded Star Light Star Bright trailer park with his mother and little brother. He feels trapped, working as the sole handyman for the trailer park and hoping to go to college in parts distant, but in the meantime his sole method of escape is playing Starfighter, an arcade game that has the player defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada in space battle. It says something for how little goes on in the trailer park that when he beats the current high score, it is noteworthy enough to bring everyone running to witness the event. Shortly afterwards, Alex is approached by a man identifying himself as Centauri (Preston), the creator of Starfighter, who invites Alex to take a ride with him. Alex accepts, but soon discovers that Centauri is a disguised alien who whisks him off to the distant planet of Rylos, leaving behind an android named Beta (also Guest) to impersonate the new recruit and ensure his absence goes unnoticed.

Upon arrival at Rylos, Centauri leaves Alex to discover a number of further surprises: the characters and locations depicted in the Starfighter game are real, depicting an actual war between the Rylan Star League and the Ko-Dan Armada, led by the traitor Xur, who quickly proves himself to be batshit insane in addition to hating his father, Ambassador Enduran, the commander of the Star League. The Ko-Dan Emperor has promised Xur rulership over Rylos in exchange for the secret to getting past the Frontier’s force fields – and, incidentally, if this should come to pass, Earth would (eventually) be in grave danger as well. The Starfighter game was intended as a recruitment tool to find those with the “gift”, but was actually supposed to go to Las Vegas. Alex, as the recruit with said “gift”, is expected to pilot a Gunstar alongside the rest of the Starfighters to defend the Frontier. Alex does what anyone would do under these circumstances: He has a panic attack. However, Alex will soon discover that there is no escaping his fate, and he will need to search within himself for courage befitting a Starfighter, and completely disregard the complete and utter mess the naive Beta unit is making of his social life back home.

I recently watched this movie for the first time in decades, and while the effects were relatively unimpressive by modern standards, they were light-years ahead of what anyone else had done with computers up till then. The innovation of making photorealistic CG effects rather than simple ray-traced objects (as they had done in Tron and Star Wars) allowed them to create almost the entire exterior of Rylos within a computer, much to the computer’s dismay. For much of production, the computers simply weren’t powerful enough to render the numerous spaceship effects before they were put to film, and the animators had to develop new software and invent new techniques to make the fledgling effects viable. Of course, real props had to be made for scenes where the actors had to interact with the ships, but overall the two blended well. The creature effects were otherwise traditional latex masks, offering the viewer a diverse cross-section of alien races for Alex to discover and almost get killed by (once by complete accident). In particular, Alex’s eventual co-pilot Grig was well-done, though I could only imagine how uncomfortable the reptilian latex mask had to be after a while.

Of course, all the effects and monsters in the world can’t make a good movie without good acting. As with many movies from the early 80s, the human actors had their work cut out for them, as they were the key to making the monsters and CG believeable – and in this they largely succeeded. Guest’s dual role as the bewildered Earthling teenager Alex and the bumbling android doppelganger Beta demonstrated decent diversity that leaves me a bit disappointed that he apparently hasn’t been in much since. Robert Preston’s last role as Centauri is essentially Harold Hill from The Music Man, only from outer space – a quick-talking con man who knows how to get things done, even if it means forcibly recruiting an unsuspecting video game enthusiast for an interstellar battle.

Overall, while the effects were a bit dated, they were well-done for their day and well-supported by the story and actors, the true test of a good sci fi movie – not the number of alien creatures and special effects. The Last Starfighter has all the story elements that the Star Wars trilogy had already established, and while the story is evocative both of Star Wars and The Sword in the Stone, it manages to blend everything together into an enjoyable wish-fulfillment fantasy epic.

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