The Last Starfighter
Originally published in 2010 at Forces of Geek
The Last Starfighter features an absolutely brilliant and irresistible hook: Aliens use arcade games to recruit Earthlings to fight in an intergalactic battle against a tyrannical oppressor. This is nothing shy of genius. It also goes a long way toward explaining why this agreeable but otherwise unremarkable little film has been remembered with such fondness by so many viewers since its 1984 release.
Teenaged Alex (Lance Guest) lives with his overworked single mom (Barbara Bosson) and his odious younger brother in a trailer park somewhere in the desert. Alex considers his existence unsatisfactory in many ways, but don’t be too quick to pity him: He’s comforted by his smoking-hot and boundlessly supportive girlfriend, Maggie, who is played by the awesome Catherine Mary Stewart; it’s to The Last Starfighter’s detriment that Maggie is never allowed to run amuck with an assault rifle, a la Stewart’s zombie-fighting heroine in the cult classic Night of the Comet.
(In case Stewart doesn’t provide sufficient geek cachet on her own, sharp-eyed viewers can catch a glimpse of a wee Wil Wheaton cavorting about the trailer park in a dialogue-free role as one of Alex’s brother’s little friends.)
Alex looks to the sky and dreams, in sort of a nebulous way, of leaving the trailer park and doing something remarkable with his life. Much of The Last Starfighter adheres to the skeletal structure of the first Star Wars film, and the similarities are present from the start: Tatooine was almost certainly the trailer park of that galaxy far, far away, and there’s more than a whiff of Mark Hamill about the wholesome and affable Guest. Rest assured I mean this with affection: Alex makes for a sympathetic and likeable Everyman protagonist.
Shortly after Alex breaks the high score on an arcade game called Starfighter, he receives a visit from an intergalactic huckster named Centauri (Robert Preston, doing a knowing riff on his iconic performance as Harold Hill in The Music Man). Before Alex can ask too many questions, Centauri bustles him off to the distant planet of Rylos, where, Alex learns, he must use his arcade-honed piloting skills to defend the Frontier against the evil invading forces of the Ko-Dan Empire, which is led by Xur, the treasonous and power-mad son of the leader of the Starfighters.
(Hey, whenever you see the word “Starfighter,” go ahead and mentally substitute “Jedi.” It’s easier that way).
As soon as Alex figures out he’s entirely likely to, like, get killed in the battle, he balks. At Alex’s insistence, Centauri reluctantly returns him to the trailer park. Alex’s absence hasn’t been missed: Centauri left behind a shape-shifting android named Beta, who promptly assumed Alex’s form, identity, and status as the object of Maggie’s affections.
Upon arriving back on Earth, Alex and Centauri are ambushed by an alien assassin from the Ko-Dan Empire, who mortally wounds Centauri. Realizing the alien menace will soon focus its attentions upon Earth, Alex returns to Rylos, only to discover the Starfighter base has been wiped out in a surprise attack.
Alex teams up with the only other surviving recruit, a mild-mannered, scale-covered alien named Grig (Dan O’Herlihy), to fight against the Ko-Dan. Most of the entire second half is sucked up by the ensuing space battle. The Last Starfighter was one of the first films to extensively use computer-generated imagery for the special effects, which is not an unmixed blessing. No, of course the special effects haven’t held up well—in fact, they look plenty awful from the vantage point of today—but there’s no sense in mocking the filmmakers for not being a quarter of a century ahead of the curve. In 1984, those effects were cutting-edge. Technology marches on, and sooner than we think, audiences will be looking back and giggling at us for ever rhapsodizing about the dazzling realism of Avatar’s alien world.
More to the point, this part of the film—which, alas, lasts for a very long time—is not terribly riveting. As a viewer, nothing makes my attention drift faster than a prolonged space battle or a lengthy car chase. Not everyone shares this opinion, of course; there are those who will point to the classic chase scene in The French Connection, or the chariot race in Ben-Hur, or, hell, even the pod-racing scene in The Phantom Menace as the pinnacle of filmic achievement. Speaking only for myself, however, watching Alex attack the Ko-Dan Empire is akin peeking over someone’s shoulder while he plays a video game. It soon becomes unbearable. As a small mercy, the space battle is intercut with some lively scenes set back on Earth, where Beta, still disguised as Alex, fends off: a) more alien attacks, and b) Maggie’s advances.
The Last Starfighter is a movie sorely in need of a decent antagonist. At the risk of beating the Star Wars comparisons into the ground, I’ll just point out that Darth Vader’s hands-on nature helped turn him into one of the most effective and evocative villains in film history. In the first film, Vader defeats Obi-Wan in one-on-one combat, then hops in a TIE fighter to take on those pesky rebel fighters himself. He doesn’t delegate to his minions—he goes in there and gets the job done. Compare this to Xur, who remains tamely out of harm’s way for the entire movie. There’s potential buried somewhere in the character—the idea of a son turning against his father and almost causing the downfall of a galaxy certainly has the proper epic ring to it—but keeping him distanced from the action limits his effectiveness as a villain. If, say, Alex and Grig had landed on Xur’s mothership and had battled him in person, it might have added a much-needed personal dimension to their conflict.
(It, er, also might’ve tipped the scale from “loosely inspired by the Star Wars mythos” to “shameless Star Wars rip-off,” so maybe that wasn’t the best off-the-cuff example.)
Rumors persist about a possible upcoming sequel, which would reunite Lance Guest with director Nick Castle and screenwriter Jonathan R. Betuel. Under most circumstances, I find much-delayed sequels and/or remakes unnecessary and unwanted; in this one instance, however, it doesn’t sound like a terrible idea. The original film left plenty of room for exploration and expansion of the Starfighter universe. Plus, this would provide a great opportunity to bring those special effects into the new millennium.
The one element that gives me pause, however, is the arcade-game conceit. Arcade games are a bygone relic of the 1980s, but at the same time, they’re integral to the film’s mythology to an extent that home gaming consoles could never replace. There’s something about the tactile sensation of standing at an upright cabinet arcade game and staring at a monitor the size of a windshield that lends credibility to the preposterous idea that maybe, just maybe, this could be an alien society’s method of finding that one special human who could be their salvation. More than any other element, this is why The Last Starfighter has endured.