Why The Last Starfighter deserves more love
A modest box office success in 1984, but has time faded The Last Starfighter’s lustre? Certainly not, argues Timon…
“Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada.” – Centauri
For many of us, the 80s is filled with a plethora of ‘classic childhood movies’, films we watched countless times on rainy afternoons, quoted till our parents yelled at us and to this day, have a special place in our hearts and on our geeky t-shirts.
In fact, you can’t talk to a 25 to 30-year-old about The Goonies, Ghostbusters, The Neverending Story and Flight Of The Navigator without having a nostalgia fest, but among all these films there is one that may not have been truly embraced by 80s film fans as much as it deserves to be: The Last Starfighter.
For those who saw and grew up with The Last Starfighter, the plot is pure teenage male fantasy. Alex Rogan (Lance Guest who went on to the heady heights of Jaws: The Revenge) is a 17-year-old who lives in a trailer park and who has dreams of escaping his dull life, which mainly sees him fixing electrical faults and plumbing issues. However, when he’s not doing chores and dreaming of a life beyond the trailer park, he plays Starfighter, the park’s sole arcade machine.
What he doesn’t know, though, is that the computer game is actually a recruitment device, placed around the galaxy by the Rylan Star League in a bid to find hotshot pilots to defeat the evil Ko-Dan Armada.
Now, for a young kid growing up with a love of computer games, watching this film is the ultimate wish fulfilment. Your computer gaming skills are not only recognised as being amazing, but are needed to save the galaxy. On top of that, there is the nerd nirvana of the hero having a hot girlfriend, who not only doesn’t seem to mind his addiction to computer games, but positively encourages him to break the high score.
It says something about the film that one of its most memorable scenes sees the entire trailer park turn out to cheer Alex on as he breaks the record on the Starfighter game, making it simultaneously ludicrous and uplifting all at the same time.
Even the girlfriend is eyeing him with the kind of look that indicates this epic feat is going to get him laid tonight. The whole scene is so fantastically over the top, it makes it look like Alex breaking the high score is the closest the inhabitants have come to excitement in the past decade.
The Last Starfighter isn’t really about the sad sacks in the trailer park. It’s about Alex and his desire to escape his mundane existence. For him, going to community college would be escape enough, but instead, he’s taken to the other side of the known galaxy to fight in a war he never even knew existed.
Enter the Yoda-like figure that every young man needs in order to fulfil his destiny. In this case, it’s Robert Preston’s Centauri. However, unlike mentors of your traditional sci-fi films, Centauri isn’t a warrior or a spiritual guide. He’s a businessman. He’s in it for the money and by fulfilling his Starfighter quota with Alex he’s gets to receive his ‘finder’s fee’ from the Star League. In fact, he goes so far as to lie to Alex in order to get him to go with him.
Obi-Wan never did that, but then Obi-Wan never had a flying saloon car, either.
Essentially drafted into the war and faced with the realisation he may be the last hope the galaxy has (especially when all the other Starfighters are killed in a sneak attack), Alex must decide whether to embrace his destiny or not.
Of course, he opts to face the Ko-Dan Armada, who are headed by the villainous Xur, who is only missing a moustache to twirl to convince the audience he is completely evil.
While the make-up wouldn’t look out of place in the cheapest Star Trek or Doctor Who episode, it is Xur’s pure bastardness that makes him so easy to hate. Not only has he turned against his own Kodan brethren but, in a surprisingly dark scene, he melts the head of a Star League spy.
It’s these odd flashes of darkness that ironically seem out of place in the film, especially when most of the plot and danger is played for laughs, be it Alex’s little brother obsessing over his Playboy collection or the crucial inspiring speech moment:
“Did Chris Columbus stay home? No. What if the Wright Brothers thought that only birds should fly? And did Galoka think that the Ulus were too ugly to save?”
Hell, even the death of all the other Starfighters is treated lightly:
“You mean they’re dead?” asks a horrified Rogan, to which the reptilian Grig replies, “Death is a primitive concept. I prefer to think of them as battling evil, in another dimension.”
It also helps that the cast are clearly having fun in the film, whether it’s Lance Guest’s bemused Alex or Dan O’Herlilhy’s Grig, the “gung-ho iguana” that Alex is teamed up with.
Now, yes, it admittedly sounds a bit cheesy, but the film isn’t just for kids, and growing up you can appreciate more and more from it.
There’s Alex’s initial shock, surprise and confusion at being confronted with aliens, spaceships and universal translators, his girlfriend’s clashes with the ‘Beta unit’ (a replica of himself put on Earth by Centauri while Alex is away to simultaneously not alarm his family and be a decoy to potential bounty hunters), and classic lines such as “May the luck of the Seven Pillars of Booloo be with you at all times!”
The Last Starfighter was also quite groundbreaking for its time. Released in 1984 (two years after Tron), it was one of the first films to have CGI effects. Granted, the effects would today not even be acceptable as pre-vis material, but back then they were all generated on a Cray X-MP computer and were considered state of the art.
Of course, in this post-Avatar age, they are likely to be ridiculed by many, but for those who grew up with the film, they’re endearing and comforting, much like the polystyrene rocks on Star Trek.
And then there’s the score. When making Back To The Future, Robert Zemeckis famously said to Alan Silvestri to make the score as “grand as possible” to make up for the film’s small scale. That is precisely what Craig Safan did with The Last Starfighter. The film starts with an immediately rousing score that is more epic and uplifting than it has any right to be and with such an opening, it is hard not to be swept up in the adventure.
Here are a few seconds’ worth:
Hollywood appears to agree that it’s an adventure worth revisiting, as there are rumours of a Tron Legacy-style reboot/sequel simply called Starfighter. It’s already had an incarnation as a side-scrolling videogame and was even adapted as an off-Broadway musical.
The legend of The Last Starfighter may be a mystery to some, but for the rest of us, its longevity and appeal means that many will want to be recruited into the Star League for years to come.