“Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.”
Last year for about five months, I wrote a weekly post for Fogs Movie Reviews, under the title “Movies I Want Everyone to See“. I had a lot of fun doing so, but the site folded and I was left with a list of films I still wanted to talk about and had not yet had the chance. “The Last Starfighter” is one of those movies. It has a great concept, groundbreaking special effects, a wonderful script and a cast that includes a couple of old school actors, hamming it up and having a great time. Lucky for me this movie came out in 1984, at this particular time. I now get to cross it off of my list of movies I want to do a post on and have not, and it is a great palate cleanser for the three losers that preceded it on this project.
I have a very vivid memory of the first time I saw this. It was actually a week before it opened in a sneak preview screening that followed a return visit to the Enterprise and “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock“. In the 1980s, a lot of films gave out promotional pinback buttons with artwork from the poster or the movie. I have three or four from this screening in a box in the garage from that sneak preview. Depending on whether you classify some fantasy films as science fiction, nearly two dozen of the films I saw in 1984 would fit the category. Clearly I was something of a geek. Yet even as nerdy as all that sci-fi might be, I was not a gamer. Arcade games held no fascination for me. I had friends who mastered Space Invaders, The Legend of Zelda and Tron, but I usually just watched because I did not have enough time or motivation to attempt to get good at any of them. I understood the way that people got hooked on a game and how competitive they could be. So the premise of “The Last Starfighter” was easy for me to get, even though I was not burning through my life savings one quarter at a time.
In the film, our hero Alex Rogan, is one of those competitors who takes pride in mastering the ins and outs of the arcade game of his choice. In Alex’s case, the game he is addicted to is Starfighter. In the small foothill trailer park he lives in, all the residents get a kick out of the fact that Alex has conquered the game and holds the record for the highest score. In a quiet little place like the Starlight, Starbright Trailer court, it is not hard to imagine a group of people in pre-internet days, taking a couple of minutes to watch and cheer on a local hero. Of course the premise of the movie is that the game is far more than an arcade pastime. Starfighter is really a recruiting tool for the Star League, a group of planets seeking the best suited pilots for their fleet of armed gunships. The Star League is under siege from a brutal expansionist empire and has been betrayed by one of their own, Xur, who has delusions of ruling the league by being placed in that position by his Ko-dan allies. The Starfighter game notifies the creator of the game, a recruiter named Centauri, who soon approaches with an amazing offer for Alex.
One of the biggest treats found in “The Last Starfighter” is the presence of Robert Preston in the role of Centauri. Classic film fans will know who he is immediately, but if you are not well versed in films that came out before thirty years ago, let me suggest a few places to catch up with Robert Preston. He plays one of three brothers in Beau Geste, a classic adventure film from the greatest of all movie years, 1939. The other brothers were Gary Cooper and Ray Milland (who is the star of “The Lost Weekend“, my blogathon entry from last month). He was nominated for an Academy Award for the musical comedy “Victor/Victoria” in 1982. Preston however was known as a Broadway actor. He won the Tony Award for Best actor in a musical, and then was cast in the film version of that musical, and as a result is best remembered as Professor Harold Hill, the con artist selling dreams of a town band in “The Music Man”. As Centauri, he channels the personality of Professor Hill into an alien who is also out to make a buck and does so by cutting corners and talking fast. The role on the script page is not anywhere as grand as it turns out to be on film because Preston imbues his character with energy and humor that all comes from understanding what the role really is. His larger than life way of taking over a conversation matches the character perfectly. Although he did a couple of TV projects after this movie, “The Last Starfighter” turned out to be his last theatrical film, he died in 1987.
All of Preston’s scenes are played with the young star of the film Lance Guest. Young (at the time) Mr. Guest had another old pro that he shared scenes with, Dan O’Herlihy. In 1955, he was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy for his role in the Mexican production of Robinson Crusoe, directed by Luis Bunuel. He starred in dozens of films and television programs over the years. He is unrecognizable in his role as Grig, the navigator of Alex’s “gunstar” spaceship. Modern audiences will know him from his role as “the Old Man” the head of Omni Consumer Products in the Robocop films from the eighties (or fans of the cult favorite “Twin Peaks” will know him as Andrew Packard). As Grig, he has most of the best lines in the movie. He provides comedy and heart in the traditional role of the older mentor to the young hero. He plays the character big and has an infectious laugh and smile that make him one of the least intimidating alien warriors you are likely to see in a movie. You would expect the make up to be a hindrance to his performance but O’Herlihy never lets it hide the warmth in his eyes or the jovial nature of Grig in the face of overwhelming odds.
“The Last Starfighter” is a videogame based movie without a video game. That is not it’s primary claim to fame however. This movie was the first to utilize computer generated sets and objects instead of models and optical mattes for it’s visual effects. No one complains more than I do about the over use of CGI in movies now a days, but this was the beginning of the whole concept and it was daring and creative. Today if a movie gets accused of looking like a videogame, it is a criticism, but in 1984 we were on the cusp of a visual effects revolution and this movie may well have been the tipping point that pushed us over the edge. Take a look at some of the background shots and notice how dramatically sharp they are and that they are clearly computer renderings.ILM had done beautiful work like this in the Star Wars films, but not using computers to create the images, mostly to manipulate the models in the optical effects. Maybe what has happened since is that George Lucas went back and saw this and decided that the floating matte work was not as cool and he had to redigitalize everything. I’d hate to think that “Starfighter” is responsible for Greedo shooting first but it well could be. The combination of sets and computer generated objects is what helps sell the illusion of space battles in this movie. Here is the “gunstar” fighter that Alex and Grig use to fight off the Ko-dan armada. There is also a practical interior that the actors occupy and landing gear that are mixed with the computer work when the vehicle is on the ground on Rylos and on Earth. When Centauri is on Earth, his vehicle looks suspiciously like a Delorean, and this is a year before “Back to the Future” came out. When Alex gets in and the car starts being chased by the police for speeding, we are looking at an actual prop that existed on the set, but when it takes off, the computer takes over and adds exhaust ports and fuel stabilizing gear and we see a space ship flying to the Alien world of Rylos. I always appreciated the joke that the name of the planet that was recruiting Alex is also the California personalized plate on the car Centauri drives. It is not a perfect transition but it was effective enough to accept in 1984. Because of time considerations, many images were simplified and as time as gone on it is far more noticeable that the computer graphics are somewhat primitive. If you look at CGI characters in movies and realize how much detail went into making them photo real, you will be a little embarrassed by the lack of effort to make the planetoid that Alex and Grig hide in realistic. The action is fine but the surroundings look like they were from a very early videogame.
Leaving the technical stuff aside, the story is a good one. At one point Centauri is accused of using the “Excalibur” dodge to get recruits. It sets up the idea that maybe Centauri has visited Earth before, many years ago and that the Star League is making plans for the planet to eventually join. Alex of course is on the brink of adulthood and faced with a future that is limited by his circumstances. The trailer park, rural setting, and economic pressures he is under, all conspire to help make the decision to join the Star League. Before that happens however, for a story like this to be interesting, there has to be some self doubt and some personal conflict. Alex has a girlfriend, Maggie. She is played by Catherine Mary Stuart, an actress who will return to this project in November. Alex wants to help save the universe but he also needs time to think. The makers of the film came up with the idea of a Beta unit, a simuloid human that will replace Alex while he is away. This creates some humor on Earth to cut back to as the war on the other side of the galaxy is unfolding. Both Maggie and Alex’s little brother Louis are confronted with confusing questions raised by the Beta Alex’s behavior. When Alex first turns down the position as “Starfighter”, he returns to Earth and discovers the beta unit. The beta is also a decoy for Ko-dan assassins who are bent on wiping out any remaining “Starfighters” before the armada begins it’s invasion. This and the desire to save Maggie and the rest of the planet from a future under the Ko-dan rule, finally tips the balance that makes Alex reconsider.
It’s all really standard space adventure stuff but well told with some terrific characters. The people at the trailer park, Xur and the Ko-Dans, Maggie and Louis are all given small pieces of material that they tear into with relish. The tone of the film is Spielberg optimistic but it is different enough that it does not come off as a rip-off of other projects (even though it is a cross between Star Wars and E.T.) I love the final shot of the movie where hero worshiping Louis, takes control of the “Starfighter” game and shouts defiantly as, he too tries to join the Star League. They are both gone now, but Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy are the two characters that keep this picture cracking. I would have loved to have a little more interaction between their two characters but the scenes that they do share are still a lot of fun. By the way, I prefer not to think of them as dead. “Death is a primitive concept. I prefer to think of them as battling evil in another dimension.”