The Last Starfighter: How Well Does It Hold Up After Thirty Years?
Would you like to play a game?
There weren't many nerdy kids in the '80s who didn't love The Last Starfighter. How could we resist its charms? It was about a poor kid growing up in the middle of nowhere whose love and mastery of video games turned out to be his ticket to the stars! That's a dream come true for every kid who was much better at working a joystick than throwing a baseball, and there were a lot of us in the '80s. That was a long time ago, though, and while some films age like wine, mellowing into a fine, timeless vintage over the years, others age like milk, curdling into a putrid mess. So which is The Last Starfighter?
Back in the day, one of the big draws of the film — beyond its wish-fulfillment story — was its pioneering use of CGI effects. I remember thinking the ships and aliens were almost as good as those of Star Wars when it first came out, not quite like anything I'd ever seen before. Now, thirty years later ... well, they look like a snapshot of what was barely possible with CGI thirty years ago. In other words, they're a little dated. Curiously, though, they feel a lot less dated than some much more recent CGI in many ways. Don't get me wrong — the ships and space sequences don't match even what was possible on a PlayStation 2 launch title — but somehow it still works.
There's certainly some nostalgia at work here — I watched the movie often enough in the '80s to burn it permanently into my neural pathways — but that's not the whole story. Something about the low-res, plastic-looking ships shooting bright beams of light at each other makes for an easier suspension of disbelief than does the super-detailed, almost-real CGI now. It's like it's so obviously a special effect that your mind just goes "Okay, cool-looking spaceship" instead of picking apart every weird lighting bug or uncanny skin texture the way I find myself doing with more modern CGI. It doesn't hurt that it's not overdone, either. A good chunk of the film takes place here on Earth, and the space sequences are few and far between until the third act.
They're also intermixed with some quite solid, if unremarkable, practical effects. The aliens look good — better than your typical '80s B-movie, if not quite up to Star Wars standards. The best-looking alien of all — the lizard man Grig, who serves as our titular Starfighter's navigator — gets the most screen time, which is always a wise choice. The ships' control panels are a nice mix of esoteric analog joysticks, buttons and lights, CGI readouts and HUDS that all work together beautifully. It's funky-looking, but never looks half-assed or stupid.
On the flip side, although I never really noticed the casting before, it's a big part of the film's success. Lance Guest, as our hero Alex Rogan, is quite good, enough so that I had to look at his IMDB page to see if there was some tragic reason he hadn't gone on to a bigger career (there isn't; he's continued to work since then, just without many marquee parts). Underrated '80s could-have-been It Girl Catherine Mary Stewart co-stars as his girlfriend, turning in a solid performance in a role that was slightly underwritten. The other supporting roles feature a strong cast of veteran character actors, including Barbara Bosson (Hill Street Blues), Dan O'Herlihy (RoboCop) and Robert Preston (Oscar nominated for Victor Victoria), not to mention a bunch of other vaguely recognizable folks who acquit themselves well with the little they're given to do. Preston and O'Herlihy are especially great as, respectively, Centauri, the hustling rogue who recruits Alex, and Grig, his lizard-man navigator.
The plot itself is actually the biggest obstacle to the film's enduring appeal. It's certainly not badly written, but it's a slightly rote execution of the standard Hero's Journey trope. You have the unassuming nobody who turns out to be the Chosen One. He meets the older, slightly mysterious and untrustworthy mentor who shows him the way. He rejects his destiny once, then gets sucked back in, only to nearly reject it a second time before rallying to save the day. It's pretty familiar stuff to anyone who's ever read a fantasy novel (or hell, most any fiction and lots of mythology, for that matter) and not only does the film not throw any interesting twists into the mix, it really lays it on thick. Centauri mentions fate several times and they even directly reference Excalibur. Yeah, yeah, we get it — dude's been chosen by fate to save the world.
Still, the first two thirds of the film zips by quite enjoyably. There's a surprising amount of humor, much of it centered on the robot duplicate sent to replace Alex while he's off saving the galaxy. The dialogue and acting are both well above the mean for a film of this type, and Guest does an excellent job of selling Alex as a guy with dreams much bigger than the trailer park in which he feels trapped. Unfortunately, the third act gets pretty clunky, as the action shifts to space and we get a little too much of the scenery-chewing villains and a climactic space battle that is just thoroughly anticlimactic. There's no tension in it at all, and it's almost a relief once he kills all the bad guys and gets back to Earth to say goodbye to his friends and family, since the interpersonal stuff in the film works so much better than the space stuff.
All in all, though, watching this film isn't a bad place to find yourself. When the effects shots work but the people don't, you end up with the second and third Matrix films, or the Star Wars prequels (if you're being generous to the prequel's effects, anyway). When it's the other way around, you have a charming, mostly enjoyable movie that can still inspire kids who like video games more than sports, even thirty years later. It may not be a fine wine, but at the very worst, it's a tasty slice of cheese.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.
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