The Last Starfighter
It’s the summer blockbuster time again and movie buffs are inundated with films that budgets in the hundreds of million with expectations on those investments potentially in the billions. I freely admit I enjoy them but there comes a point when a pallet cleanser is required, something to provide a respite from such mind-blowing special effects. I have found one means of achieving this goal. I search through my collection for something that in its time was considered cutting edge special effects and revisit it. Naturally, modern CGI graphic are entirely beyond anything just a few years ago but for this exercise I went back thirty years to one of the earliest movies that was dominantly dependent on the then nascent use of computer graphics; ‘The Last Starfighter’. Released in 1984, just two years after the computer age’s first true CGI film, ‘Tron’, ‘The Last Starfighter’ proved to fans, filmmakers and the studio that this will be significantly crucial to the future of cinema. Both of these movies demonstrated that effects only imaginable could now be readily incorporated into a movie. More importantly, while there were certainly several scenes that resulted in a tangible delight flowing over the audience; these films were not merely vehicles to show off the amazing gimmickry of CGI, they proved they could be a valuable tool to provide the filmmaker in his artistic expression and storytelling. Going back to this movie was reliving a vital piece of our cultural history and something many modern aficionados may not be aware of. Not only does this film return us to the period of video game arcades but the story hold up after three decades remaining an entertaining movie.
Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is a typical American teenage boy. He resides in a trailer park with his mother, Jane (Barbara Bosson) and his younger brother, Louis (Chris Hebert). For Alex there are two things that make his life worthwhile: his girlfriend, Maggie Gordon (Catherine Mary Stewart) going to the video arcade to play his favorite game, Starfighter. The game was typical of those found in the early 80s, a first-person game for the play Amanda Starfighter in order to protect the frontier from their mortal enemies, Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. Not only has he put in many hours playing the game but he has a natural knack for winning replaced about the top of the leaderboard with the highest score ever. He said that he accomplished his treatment that Alex is approached by the games inventor, Centauri (Robert Preston). Centauri wants to talk to Alex about an opportunity so Alex accepts a ride with him. No sooner gets into the car then it turns into a spaceship carried him away from the planet Earth.
They arrived at the planet, Rylos, the home base of the defending frontier forces. As Centauri explains to Alex, the game has been playing was designed to be an accurate simulation reveals Starfighter in a battle mission. By attaining the highest score, Alex has demonstrated that he has ‘The Gift’, the necessary mindset and reflexes to be a successful combat pilot. In order not to raise suspicion during Alex’s absence Centauri has left a duplicate, Beta Alex, to take his place. Unfortunately Beta is not quite adept as passing as a teenage boy. Rylos Alex is told the truth about the game he has been playing for so long. The Frontier is actually a ring of satellites that protects the planet from the conquering forces of the Ko-Dan Empire. Alex is expected to pilot a specific combat vehicle called the Gunstar. A trader within the Rylan Star League has betrayed a weakness in the defense field making it possible for Ko-Dan to attack the plans with impunity. Once the evil overlord of the Empire, Xur (Norman Snow) discovers it executed and traded in his midst announces that that once Rylos's moon is in eclipse the Ko-Dan Armada will begin their invasion. Overwhelmed, Alex asks Centauri to return him back to earth. Is given a communicator in case changes his mind. Once back on earth Alex finds his life is much more complicated face of the odd behavior of Beta. Alex calls Centauri demanding that the duplicate be retrieved immediately. Back on space Rylos this Starfighters off infiltrated by saboteur eliminating most of the fleet and killing all but one of the personnel, navigator named, Grig (Dan O'Herlihy), the reptilian humanoid befriended Alex.
When the intergalactic action focuses on the trailer park Alex has to reconsider his position. When Centauri comes to retrieve Beta, an assassin, dispatch by Xur attempts to kill Alex and his double. Centauri thwarts the attempt by shooting with the assassins arm. Centauri explains to Alex that the only rate his family can remain safe this for him to help defeat evil Empire as a Starfighter. The assassin still has control over his severed limb and shoots at Alex once again his life is saved by Centauri at the cost of being mortally himself. With his life ebbing away Centauri manages to bring Alex back to the planet. Once there he completes his training with Grig. Preparations are underway all-out battle the Empire forces.
I realize that fans of space movies generational to remove from this would be quick to note how primitive the special effects are by contemporary standards. Please keep in mind that this movie was the first to do or special effects, except for makeup and explosions on a computer. In order to accomplish this they needed the computing power of a Cray X-MP supercomputer. At the time this was the fastest computer known. In 1980s dollars it would cost $1 million. The work that was done designing the programs, the interfaces in the graphic output was an unprecedented task but without it most of your favorite movies would not have been possible. When my wife and I saw this in the theater we were both amazed at how spectacular the effects came across. You could sense the curvature of the vehicles without feeling it was a result of several artistic rendering. Light seem to naturally glistening the hulls, how the computer animation was remarkably smooth. Thinking back to the old serials you watch during Saturday matinees could not help but to be awestruck. We have come from watching the crude model over spaceship sliding along almost obvious strength to sparkle in his aft to what was before our eyes, something that could make us believe it was a spaceship. Any who are unimpressed by this film should remember that the people watching the same film and being inspired. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and others began their youthful love affair with movies and special effects enthralled by films such as this.
As for the story, one of the reasons why it sounds so familiar is that it does utilize archetypes and plot devices that have been part of storytelling throughout time. Alex is the prototypical young hero as academically described so well in the scholarly treatment, ‘The Power of Myth’, by Joseph Campbell. George Lucas has publicly cited this book is highly influential to his Star Wars saga. An unassuming young boy must leave home where he encounters a wise mentor places them on the path to becoming a hero. This is also why the story has remained entertaining for so long Nicole is based on classic themes that are deeply embedded in the storytelling of our species. Sadly, along with being a technological first this movie was a last film in a long and illustrious career. This was the last film for actor Robert Preston. In a career spanning over 70 films his talent was such that you could play any character that was required mischievous con man, hero or villain he was the epitome of being an entertainment. Few would argue that his most famous role was as Harold Hill in the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, ‘The Music Man’. Mr. Preston reprised his role on stage for this film. For many of us who have enjoyed his timeless oeuvre, it answers tinge of sadness this otherwise joyfully entertaining movie.