“The amusing thing about this? It’s all a big mistake. That particular Starfighter game was supposed to be delivered to Vegas, not some fleaspeck trailer park in the middle of tumbleweeds and tarantulas. So it must be fate, destiny, blind chance, luck even, that brings us together. And as the poet said, the rest is history.”
1984’s The Last Starfighter might just well be the best embodiment of the wish-fulfillment fantasy for gamers everywhere. It validates the hours spent in front of video screens by rewarding one player in particular with high adventure, giant spaceships, cute girlfriends, and the opportunity to save the planet.
In this modern day Arthurian fable, Alex Rogan (Lance Guest, supposedly 17 or 18, but looking mid-20s) can’t seem to get a break. He’s stuck doing chores that kill his social life, rarely gets alone time with his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), and fails to gain entrance to a state college to escape from the Starlight Starbrite trailer park he’s trapped in.
His only solace is the general store’s lone stand-up arcade game, the Last Starfighter, which might well have the best darn graphics for a machine of its kind circa 1984. Alex manages to break the high score one night when his loan application falls through. On cue, a futuristic car pulls up, and Alex is whisked away to the stars, “Recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.”
It’s an enjoyably goofy premise with a real mythic pull, and flows like a play-by-play straight out of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces. Alex isn’t thrilled to be yanked so quickly into the adult role of hero, and scampers off back home, declining his quest opportunity. Thankfully, he wises up pretty quickly, and heads back to the stars to save Maggie, his mom, planet Earth, and hell – the universe, to boot.
None of this would work without great characters or performances, and Starfighter has these in abundance. Guest’s Alex Rogan is a likeable lead who balances his late teen angst with comic befuddlement once he reaches Rylos, and gets to shine as a hero in the cockpit of a gunstar. On the flipside, he plays doppelganger robot Beta with great comic flair, nicely complicating matters with Catherine Mary Stewart’s Maggie (particularly when he tries to get fresh with her). Mary Stewart is about as wholesome a girlfriend as they come, wears her denim short, and remains highly supportive of Alex’s obsession with videogames. We should all be so lucky.
Still, it’s the supporting characters that steal the show. Daniel O’Herlihy’s Grig is surprisingly effective, emoting underneath layers of latex as Alex’s reptilian right hand pilot, providing the role model of a grown man/father figure, as well as an endearing hoarse laugh. Robert Preston (in his final film role) is entertaining as the smooth talking Centauri outfitted in a wide-brimmed fedora. He seems to have breezed in from another movie and genre entirely (quite possibly The Music Man which he starred in back in the 60s), and oozes enthusiasm in every scene.
Starfighter is also notable for its pioneering use of CGI effects, primarily in the outer space exteriors and battle sequences. Yes, Tron came first, but Starfighter is not trying to emulate the inside of a videogame – despite being inspired by one. It instead aims for more cosmic heights, with some creative starscapes and ship designs designed to fit into the real world. Back in the 80s, these graphics were top-notch, and built on Tron’s foundation. Today, the sequences are obviously dated, but fun.
Money went other places as well, particularly the makeup effects. The Ko-Dan aliens are a nifty-looking bunch of space reptiles, especially when one of them dies and its eyes literally pop out of its head. They’re like a big-budget version of the Sea Devils from the Doctor Who episode Warriors Of The Deep, had John Nathan-Turner ever been given Hollywood coin. The filmmakers also showcase a bunch of great gross-out effects (like the one of the Rylos spy getting his head melted with a laser) that feels like something out of Re-Animator; a potential inspiration for the PG-13 rating?
One also has to give a big shout-out to Craig Safan’s rousing orchestral score. The theme is melodic and sweeping, full of both bombastic brass and yearning strings, and does much to boost the film’s romantic touch.
Starfighter is not without its faults. It’s a shame that baddies Xur and the Ko-Dan armada are a bunch of power mad dullards. For a ten year-old viewer, they’re nicely menacing, but their motivation is primarily to be cranky and shoot people. Part of the problem is that they don’t share any cinematic space with our heroes – apart from Xur’s head being projected, Wizard Of Oz-style, in one scene of exposition. A little more interaction between the lead protagonist and antagonist might have stepped up the drama. Sure, Kirk and Kahn never got any screen time together, but Khan had hubris, while Xur’s got dark circles under his eyes.
And while the basic storyline is inspired, the movie often feels like a carbon copy of several Star Wars films – Starfighter wears the title Clone Wars better than anything George Lucas ever stitched together. This is most glaringly obvious when Alex and an army of starfighters are briefed in a very obvious take on the rebels being briefed in Episode IV and VI, right down to the set, which appears to have been purchased from the Fox backlot. Xur closely resembles Empire Strikes Back’s Lobot outfitted in a dark tracksuit.
One could also quibble that the sequences involving the gunstar and the death blossom don’t improve on the space opera they’re emulating. But at the end of the day, it’s not the space battles that inspire, but the Earth-bound ones.
Thankfully, the filmmakers keep the story grounded in the southern USA as much as possible. Even Alex’s duplicate Beta (whose hair is fluffed beyond normality) gets lots of funny moments (detaching his head, failing at romance), and even a heroic one where he save the day, and consequently, the planet. The movie ends not in space, but with an extended denouement on Earth. In the end, what matters are Alex’s relationships with Maggie, as well as with his insular community of folk at the trailer park.
Is Starfighter the best example of its era and genre? Obviously not, but the movie wears its heart on its sleeve, and comes equipped not just with funky effects, but a refreshing absence of cynicism. It rarely strays from its theme about one man’s quest for independence and personal growth, and is therefore quite adult. And because it embraces videogame culture with such zeal, it feels as relevant now as it did over 25 years ago.