Monday, August 31, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Last Starfighter"

It's easier to see now, with a quarter-century of perspective, what "The Last Starfighter" was: A cheaply-made sci-fi flick looking to cash in on the popularity of the "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" franchises, which were in high gear when it came out in 1984.

But I admit I have a lot of affection for this film from loving it as a kid. And after checking out a new 25th anniversary DVD edition, I can say that my ardor was not misplaced.

Yes, there's no denying that the spaceships and other special effects look positively crude compared with what we have today -- or even with films of its own era. The Gunstar never looks like more than a bit of animation spliced in between some live scenes shot in the cockpit.

But "Starfighter" was the first serious attempt to use wholly computer-generated scenes in a feature film, and for no other reason than that it deserves a place in cinematic history.

And there are other reasons as well. Although we have had a slew of movies adapted from video games -- nearly all of them awful -- "Starfighter" is one of the very few movies that is about video games, or at least uses them as a major plot point. Off the top of my head, I can't think of another one.

Alex Rogen (Lance Guest) is an average American teen living in a mobile home park somewhere in the mountains. He's a prototypical example of the hero myth: A young man searching for a purpose in life. Alex doesn't really know what he wants, other than to get out of the dead end of the Starlite Starbrite trailer park.

In the meantime, he plays video games. Specifically, the Starfighter machine that recruits players to fight for Rylos and defend the Frontier against Xur and the Kodan armada. The game's screen shots look pretty convincing for arcade games of that period, although the controls are a bit more complex than the usual joystick and two buttons one saw an awful lot of.

One night Alex breaks the game record, which prompts a hilariously unlikely outpouring of trailer home denizens who emerge in their nightgowns and PJs to cheer on Alex and congratulate his victory. Having broken a few arcade records myself, I can assure you that the only reaction this gets from adults is a derisive snort about how much money you spent.

(Seriously, no joking, I got so good at the original "Spyhunter" that I could play for more than an hour on a single quarter. It usually ended up that I just quit the game out of boredom rather than play it to conclusion.)

Anyway, lo and behold, it turns out the game is not just a game, but a recruiting test for Rylos, which really is facing a threat from the evil Xur and his Kodan allies. The game was developed by the intergalactic huckster Centauri (Robert Preston, in his final film role), who shows up himself to transport Alex to Rylos.

The plot jumps back and forth between Rylos, where Alex is dubious about the notion of becoming a Starfighter, and life back at the Starlite. A robot called a Beta has been put in Alex's place, complete with a spot-on disguise, to keep people believing he's carrying on as normal. The Beta has a few problems interacting with Maggie (the achingly cute Catherine Mary Stewart, in full '80s hair tease), who wants to go camping up at Silver Lake and get naughty underneath the bedrolls.

Alex's space mentor is Grig (Dan O'Herlihy), a reptilian alien and navigator. When all the other Starfighters are killed in a sneak attack, Alex and Grig must tackle the Kodan fleet alone.

The smooth, unblemished surfaces of the Gunstar and other ships look too artificial to be convincing -- just like a video game, in fact. But over time you stop looking at the images and concentrate on the space action, which is pretty thrilling.

According to, "Last Starfighter" director Nick Castle and screenwriter Jonathan Betuel are working on a sequel due out in 2010. They've got me as an eager recruit.

3 stars

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