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The Last Starfighter

THE LAST STARFIGHTER is not a summer of 1985 release – it came out in July of ’84 – but I remember seeing it as a drive-in double feature with BACK TO THE FUTURE. I’m not sure, but I think the location of this viewing must’ve been Sno-King Drive-In Theatre, which it seems closed down a year later, its final double-bill consisting of HOWARD THE DUCK and BACK TO THE FUTURE. Same print, I bet. Anyway, I got nostalgic and decided this would make a good follow-up to yesterday’s review.

This is the sci-fi movie directed by HALLOWEEN (and also HALLOWEEN)’s The Shape himself, Nick Castle, starring HALLOWEEN II’s Lance Guest and HALLOWEEN III’s Dan O’Herlihy. Guest plays Alex Rogan, a broody teenager who lives in a trailer park and is very good at an arcade video game called Starfighter, which they have outside in the park. I don’t know if they put a tarp over it if the weather gets bad or what. That never comes up.

If you hear he lives in a trailer park you could reasonably assume there would be some kind of class themes in this story, but there’s really not. There’s no clash with the rich kids, and the park, called Starlite Starbrite, is far from a hellhole. In fact it’s a delightful place full of nice, quirky people who form a huge crowd and applaud for Alex when he beats the high score on the game. That he wants to get out of there is underlined by decorating his room with posters of Hawaii and Paris (along with the expected toy space ships and mobile of the solar system). Making it seem like a pretty cool place to live is a weird choice, but I like weird choices.

Guest is fine, but his character is almost instantly unlikable. He keeps ignoring his way-out-of-his-league girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart right before NIGHT OF THE COMET) to brood or play the game, and she’s frustratingly forgiving about it. He poutily refuses to go out with her and a pickup truck full of their friends, which would be fine if he didn’t condescendingly say it was because “I’m doing something with my life.”

After he makes that high score a mysterious dude (Robert Preston, THE MUSIC MAN, SEMI-TOUGH) shows up in a futuristic car, introducing himself as Centauri, inventor of the game, and convinces him to come for a ride. The car transforms into a spaceship and goes to the Rylan Star League space station full of different types of aliens who are also good at the game and now ready to join a real star war against those motherfuckers the Ko-Dan Empire, who are trying to get past the force field called The Frontier, as commanded by the Rylan traitor Xur (Norman Snow, MANHUNTER).

I was worried we weren’t gonna see Maggie anymore after that, but there’s a whole subplot back on earth, where Alex has been replaced by a “Beta Model” duplicate android to hide his disappearance. The robot doesn’t know how to act like a real person, so he almost gets caught by Alex’s little brother Louis (Chris Hebert, INVADERS FROM MARS), and now Maggie’s boyfriend seems like even more of a drip than before. This poor woman. The best part involving the Beta Model is when we see him still transforming into Alex and he’s a weird bug-eyed dummy inflating itself.

Alex is supposed to partner with a lizard man named Grig (Dan O’Herlihy, ROBOCOP) to fly a ship called a Gunstar. Very much not to Alex’s credit, he says he’s not interested and asks to be taken home. I know this is supposed to be the traditional rejecting of the call, but we’ve already had a first act of him being a depressing drain on everyone he knows on earth, whining about “doing something with my life” and dreaming of the stars, and now he has that opportunity and doesn’t like that either. Okay then, Goldilocks.

While he’s home, all his space pilot acquaintances except Grig get blown up. Centauri comes to pick up his Beta Model just as they’re being attacked by a Zando-Zan (you know how those Zando-Zan fuckers can be) and sacrifices himself to save Alex. More Zando-Zans will be coming, and now that it affects him, Alex finally decides to help. Later, the Beta admits his robotness to Maggie, and proves it by getting shot and having circuitry visible in the wound. And they crash a pickup truck into a space ship. Epic science fictional adventure like that.

There’s plenty to like here. The production designer is Ron Cobb, known for his design work on STAR WARS and ALIEN (not to mention the DeLorean in BACK TO THE FUTURE), so there are cool looking space suits and ships and stuff. The score by Craig Safan (FADE TO BLACK, REMO WILLIAMS, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4) reminds you how much legitimacy the old school orchestral scores could add to any movie. And most notably it’s unique as the one and only movie from that era where the space battles are done with computer animation. It doesn’t have TRON’s advantage of taking place inside a computer and being able to be more stylized, but it holds up surprisingly well.

According to my research there are 300 scenes containing 27 minutes of digital animation – a process that was so new the company that created it had the generic name “Digital Productions.” They had split off from TRON company Triple-I, in search of more computing power, and had previously worked on THE JUPITER MENACE and THE ICE PIRATES. They followed LAST STARFIGHTER with work on 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT, LABYRINTH and a Mick Jagger video, before being bought out by Toronto’s Omnibus Computer Graphics in ’86 and then closing shop in ’87.

Centauri’s vehicle, “the Starcar,” is real, though. It was built by Gene Winfield, who also made the cars in BLADE RUNNER, the 6000 SUX for ROBOCOP, and a show car called The Reactor that was used in episodes of Batman, Star Trek, Bewitched and Mission: Impossible.

I only wish the characters and mythology were as novel as the vehicles. It’s all pretty boilerplate alien space war shit, making for a movie with many dull stretches. It doesn’t help that I’m not a big fan of two of the templates it uses:

1) The space movie that only takes place in space ships and doesn’t land on any cool planets (see also WING COMMANDER).

2) The sci-fi or fantasy movie that introduces a fantastical world but is mostly about ordinary earthling teenagers in some boring ass small town (see also MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE).

I prefer the STAR WARS approach of representing the audience’s yearn for adventure by dropping them into a whole different world. But I can see what the appeal of this one is, or was: video games were new, so the gimmick of this popular, relatable activity being a recruiting tool for space adventure was exciting. These days “I know how to do it because I play video games” is an annoying cliche (see xXx), but it was much fresher then and made sense in this story.

Castle was born in Tennessee, son of a choreographer for many Hollywood musicals (including a bunch with Shirley Temple). He went to USC, where he met John Carpenter, both working on the short THE RESURRECTION OF BRONCHO BILLY in 1970, working as camera assistant and controlling the alien beach ball in DARK STAR, and co-writing ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. This was Castle’s second movie as director, following TAG: THE ASSASSINATION GAME. (Today his most recent directorial work is the 2006 DTV movie CONNOR’S WAR starring Treach of Naughty By Nature as a blind secret agent.) It’s the first screenwriting credit for Jonathan R. Betuel, who went on to write and direct MY SCIENCE PROJECT, THEODORE REX, and some episodes of Freddy’s Nightmares.

I guess we know the movie wasn’t a total airball, since it was still circulating drive-ins a year later, but it came out at a pretty inopportune time: when it opened at #3, it was below GHOSTBUSTERS and GREMLINS, both in their sixth weeks! The rest of the top ten consisted of THE KARATE KID, THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, BACHELOR PARTY, CANNONBALL RUN II, CONAN THE DESTROYER and STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK. And the next month saw the release of THE NEVERENDING STORY, PURPLE RAIN and RED DAWN, so it’s not surprising STARFIGHTER didn’t quite double its $15 million budget.

But I think there’s some nostalgia for it. Somebody made a musical. Gary Whitta (THE BOOK OF ELI, AFTER EARTH, ROGUE ONE) has tried to develop a torch-passing sequel. We’ll see about that. America’s still waiting for RETURN TO CANNONBALL RUN.

Pop culture notes:

There was a novelization by Alan Dean Foster (DARK STAR, THE THING, KRULL, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK), a comic book adaptation, a cheap ass target set, and a board game called The Last Starfighter: Tunnel Chase. The end credits promise an arcade game from Atari, but reportedly when their people saw the movie they thought, “Oh shit, this is not gonna be a hit movie,” so they ditched the game and later released the home versions under the titles Star Raiders II and Solaris (no relation to the Tarkovsky movie, unfortunately). Eventually there was a Nintendo game named after the movie, but that was a retitle of a game not based on the movie. And finally someone made an unauthorized freeware imitation of the game seen in the movie, which you’d think would be what they would’ve done in the first place.

Connections to Summer of 1985 even though it’s from 1984:

Video game high scores (specifically on Pole Position) were still important to THE GOONIES and D.A.R.Y.L.

The Beta Model scares the little brother about giving away his secret by threatening to “Tell Mom about your Playboys.” So maybe the Playboys in GOTCHA! and RAPPIN’ were a theme leftover from 1984, and that’s why they haven’t come back into play so far.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 2nd, 2020 at 9:33 am and is filed under Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “The Last Starfighter”

  1. Blast Furnace Media

    July 2nd, 2020 at 10:48 am

    I recall this being a film in which the “reluctant hero” idea is taken to the absolute extreme, so much so that our protagonist whines and complains and hesitates and backs down and doubts himself right up until the very, very, VERY end of the movie. At which point, his version of the Deathstar Run is to a) wait until the enemies close within a certain radius; b) push a button.

    It’s a fun concept, and there are a lot of cool ideas, but also kind of a frustrating watch.

  2. There is a *sort of* CANNONBALL RUN 3; 1989’s SPEED ZONE, which is sometimes called CANNONBALL FEVER. I have seen it, but not in about 20 years, so I’ll leave to the die-hard Cannies to say how faithfully it is to RUN law.

    It sounded like that READY PLAYER ONE guy’s second book was basically a LAST STARFIGHTER rip off, I believe rights were bought so we may see a more-or-less remake of this in a couple of years.

  3. I saw this when I was pretty little, like maybe 6 or 7, and I specifically remember watching it several times not understanding why I wasn’t enjoying it. I had asked to rent it because the title was THE LAST STARFIGHTER and, as a certified Little Star Wars Lad, I assumed it was gonna be, like, a movie-length Death Star trench run. I think I was still too young to understand that it was even possible to *not like* a movie, but I distinctly remember being really frustrated by the kid’s insistence on returning home from the cool spaceship he’s been taken to. I think I was trying to decode exactly why he did that (I still don’t know), since I spent roughly 90% of my waking hours imagining being a spaceship pilot at that point in my life.

  4. I saw this when I was 10. I liked the premise, and I liked space movies. But this was just ok. I remember thinking that computer graphics looked much worse than miniatures. Never bothered to watch it again.

  5. The alien assassins in this movie gave me nightmares when I was a kid. The special effects for the Gunship segments looked like an amazing video game, which was pretty appropriate.

  6. I was 12 when this landed in theaters, and I remember liking it at the time. I’d never watch it again, though. Most things you liked when you were a kid should be left behind in childhood (he says, while staring at his DVDs of CONAN and THE ROAD WARRIOR…).

  7. I suppose Galaxy Quest is all the reboot this concept really needed.

  8. I can absolutely picture this being a double feature with BACK TO THE FUTURE, though I never thought to put the two together before. They both share kind of a similar fun smartass tone and jaunty musical score.

    I rewatched this a couple years ago (on the big screen) and to me the funniest part is that the Beta Unit is such an asshole. Lance Guest is really good in the dual role, and I like the way that Beta sacrifices himself heroically without breaking his sarcastic, cynical character. A really underrated character and performance.

    Dan O’Herlihy and especially Robert Preston are also really good as Alex’s comedic mentors. Vern, I think this movie further supports your COCOON observation of 1980s pop culture being more accepting of older people. If the Marty McFly / Doc Brown relationship was less eyebrow-raising in 1985 than it seems today, how about the scene where Centauri invites teenage Alex into his car even though he’s a complete stranger?

    As a kid I thought it was a funny moment when the translation device is attached to Alex’s collar and all the alien gibberish immediately and casually switches to understandable banter. That gimmick now makes me think that maybe this movie was the 1980s’ nearest American equivalent of THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY – ordinary sarcastic Earthling gets thrown into an absurd space opera universe full of comedic characters making his life difficult. I like Grig’s weary annoyed line “Up to your old Excalibur tricks again, eh Centauri?”

    I never thought of Alex being too much of a grump. I always just accepted it as part of the flippant tone of the movie that offered sci-fi adventure while still undercutting it with irreverent comedy. To me as a kid this was one of the clearest examples of the reluctant hero / refusal of the call – I might have actually learned that trope/cliche from this movie.

    I remember reading Roger Ebert’s review where he mentions a scene where Beta and Maggie kiss and it gives her an electric shock. That confused me a little since there’s no such moment in the movie. That’s a rare instance when I realized that a film critic was reviewing a different cut of the film than what later was released.

  9. Add this to the list of “beloved cult classics that nobody in Germany gives a shit about”. I saw it once on TV, 30 years ago. Don’t remember much, other than the premise and the torture scene with the laser beam to the ear.

    Also wasn’t Guy Ritche 10 years ago attached to a new CANNONBALL RUN movie?

  10. I asked my mom to go to the video store to rent Return of the Jedi for me and my best friend who was staying the night. He hadn’t seen ROTJ yet. I was hyping it up to him. Then my mom came home with The Last Starfighter. I yelled and yelled. My mom just looked confused, “it has star in the title son, I’m sure it’ll be fine.” We watched it, liked it ok, and I later apologized to my mom for being such a dick.

  11. Your mom and moms like her are the source of The Asylum’s entire business model. As a fan of shameless B-movie hucksterism, I would like to thank her.

  12. This is weird. After seeing your BACK TO THE FUTURE review only yesterday, Vern, I checked to see if you had ever reviewed THE LAST STARFIGHTER. I loved this as a kid, and I still do, because Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy are so good, plus the Gunstar is awesome, and the music is great. And the Gunstar launch and “I’ll have it all figured out by the time we reach the Frontier” scenes are classics. In my mind only, maybe, but still…

  13. This and “Revenge of the Ninja” are the first two movies I rented from the newfangled video store, so I have fond memories of both, although “Revenge” is much more awesome.

  14. Never seen this. “Starlight Brigade” is much shorter so I will just watch that, it’s pretty good.
    P

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  15. I was 4 years old when I got to see it with my older brother – now this would be nothing extraordinary if it happened in the Free World but I lived in Estonia which at the time was occupied by Soviet Union and seeing movie like this was really mindblowing experience. I mean, it was awesome but I was already little bit familiar to normal people’ entertainment thanks to Knight Rider, Wilhelm Tell and Robin Hood which we saw unofficially from Finland TV. Soviets mostly tried to block the signal coming from Finland though.
    Before this I saw Starman and I have no idea how small cinema acquired such wonderful stuff and from where. After seeing those movies my little brain already understood that something much more cooler was happening somewhere else than in our state. And lo and behold, all this leftist bullshit which also happened to be the cruelest experiment in mankind’s history, fell 7 years later. I believe that my background lends me deep disgust about today’s younger people who claims to be neo-Marxist, communists, antifa etc because they really don’t know what they’re dealing with. Angela Davis and People’s Temple amongst the many others were as clueless as leftist are right now and in their lower minds they pictured Communism as something akin to heaven.
    Long story short, I plan to revisit Last Starfighter in coming days and try to relive my feelings again but this time in Free World, which isn’t the ideal form but certainly the best one amongst the other forms..

  16. Curt, I wonder if Ebert’s review where he thinks someone gets shocked when they kiss is really him getting this confused with Buckaroo Banzai which came out around the same time. I don’t think that’s the last time an Ebert review mentions something that never happened in the movie.

    Anyway, I think I might like this the most of anyone here – watched it a few years ago and was shocked how much it held up for me – sure, it could have used a little more action in that middle section but I love pretty much everything about it – the score, the world-building, the FX that don’t hold up at all but are really charming in that Life Aquatic kinda way. And yes, this movie was full of traumatizing scenes as a kid – the torture of the spy, the alien assassins, that guy getting his mask knocked off at the end. It’s the right mixture of delightful and scary for a kid. I also kinda love that Alex has two fun mentors in Grig and Centauri, where I feel like most movies would condense them into one character. Plus “What do we do now?” “We die” is one of my favorite final lines for a villain.

  17. Neal, the reason I think Ebert actually saw the scene is because I read movie novelizations as a kid and (as I recall) THE LAST STARFIGHTER was one of them and included the gag pretty much as Ebert described.

    I don’t think you’re alone re “What do we do?” “We die”. That might be the most quoted and best remembered part of the movie.

  18. I think Ebert is confused by the scene where Alex reaches to shake the Beta unit’s hand in the Starcar, and it sparks as he gains Alex’s, er, bio information(?).

  19. A sentimental favorite. I remember a big to-do was made about the use of computer effects at the time. Years later, I checked ot the movie again on DVD. I didn’t think they looked too bad, maybe on par with a weekly sci-fi TV program. The Gunstar remains one of my all-time favorite fictional spacecrafts. I love the extreme crane in to Mary Catherine Stewart’s character as she looks to the sky and professes her love to Alex. Most of all, I love how the fate of the evil enemy empire rests on the shoulders of a lowly space-radar operator and his ability to interpret ambiguous readings.

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