The Last Starfighter was released in the summer of 1984, which back then meant that in the winter of 1985, it was making the rounds on home video. It seemed like everyone I knew that year, 30 years ago, rented that movie for their birthday party. In the course of the year I must have seen it five times, more than any other individual film, other than Star Wars. It left an indelible impression on me from way back in the mists of time.
With the passing of years, I see the film’s flaws but I also see its strengths with more clarity. For example, I love the way The Last Starfighter begins. It had one of the classic 1970s/80s science fiction movie themes, with a full orchestra and aspirations to the grandiose. But Craig Safan’s score owes as much to Duke Ellington and John Barry as John Williams. It pulses with a syncopated rhythm that wouldn’t have been out of touch in a Yes or Deep Purple tune before giving way to the obligatory brass fanfare in the Sousa mold. But one wonderful thing is that it takes all those cliches and transcends them, seeming warm and emotional and fresh. This is space opera, after all, and certain actors (like veterans Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy) tap into that every bit as much as Safan. It’s the sort of music you remember loving as a child, and then smiling about as an adult, and that pretty much goes for the movie as a whole.
The film itself, written by first-time screenwriter Jonathan R. Betuel and directed by former actor Nick Castle (yup, he played the bad in Halloween) has a “way” into the space opera world that’s so obvious you kick yourself for not seeing it first. The idea is that the popular video game in the dusty trailer park where young Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is growing up, “Starfighter”, is actually a test, devised by a recruiter for a real “Star League”. The game’s opening fanfare and voice, confidently bellowing, “Greetings, Starfigher! You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada!” is an actual honest description of the job being advertised. The game itself seems pretty far beyond the technical capacity of a mid-1980s arcade game, which seems out of place in retrospect. But it’s a typical space “shoot ‘em up” game, with the final mission being to destroy the “mother ship”. Alex, a bored, smart kid, spends most of his time on it.
Alex Rogan himself is an interesting protagonist. The movie to which this one gets compared, Star Wars, also of course deals with a boy from a desert town who is recruited into a noble intergalactic quest. And though the deleted scenes from A New Hope that show Luke Skywalker actually at the Toshi Station (not picking up power converters, I must add) try to create the feeling of real kids in a real place, it falls flat. Not necessarily here. Alex, and his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), aren’t so innocent or naive. Their friends, sporting pickup trucks and beery nights as a matter of course, aren’t portrayed as anything but normal teenagers. In this day and age we have movies like Superbad, which pretty accurately depict the inner lives of teens, but in the eighties things were much more sanitized. The culture still wanted to believe in the Andy Griffith myth of an idyllic childhood.
Alex is too smart for the trailer park he lives in, with his hard-working single mom and his younger brother, Louis. Everyone knows this, again unlike most teen films, but they also all know that he can’t afford to go away to College. The movie opens with Alex’s student loan application getting turned down (can you imagine that happening today?). This sends him into a spiral of depression, and he works through it in front of the video game. After a record-breaking night on the game, a mysterious stranger pulls up in a fancy sports car and motions for Alex to get in. Feeling he has little to lose, he does, and the movie changes gears.
Centauri, the fast-talking charismatic huckster behind the wheel of the car, is played by the theatrical character actor Robert Preston. Known previously for films like Victor Victoria (where he was nominated for an Oscar) and The Music Man, Preston would die just a couple of years after the release of The Last Starfighter. It was his last great role, and he gives it his all, acting (or over-acting) circles around the quite capable Lance Guest and having lots of fun with his fellow veteran character actors. Centauri ropes Alex into the “most fun he’s ever had,” and “the opportunity of a lifetime!”, which Alex quickly realizes means, “the opportunity to get killed.”
The space war scenario devised by the film recycles a lot of cliches, but honestly this film does pretty much nothing but. It just recycles a lot of them, and all at once. Playing “spot the cliche” could almost be a drinking game for this film. (I take no responsibility for the consequences of those who try that out.) It would be tedious if it all wasn’t done with such heart and energy.
Rylos, the planet to be defended, is the central world of the Star League (um… Federation?). Over centuries, their culture has become completely peaceful, seeking no conflict and finding none. Their security comes from an impenetrable wall in space designed to keep out Mongolians – I mean, the Ko-Dan, pretty much your garden-variety scaly reptile guys with British accents. (Opportunities abound in their scenes for taking a cliche drink.) They have recently made a breakthrough, finding a hole in the frontier with the help of Xur, a rebel Rylan with delusions of becoming Ruler of the Galaxy. (He also has a British accent, which tells you he’s a bad guy.) (Cliche drinks can be dispensed liberally throughout his stomping and speech making.) Because Rylos is so peaceful, they lack any sort of military, but have very refined technology. What they lack is anyone with the skills, or the desire, to seize the weapons and use them to kill and destroy. Scouring the galaxy for anyone from a diverse array of League planets, they assemble a team of “Starfighters” to pilot the high-tech jet fighters known as “Gunstars”. Alex is one of the recruits.
The conceit here is that Earth is scheduled to become a member of the Star League, but hasn’t quite developed enough yet. But these are desperate times, and thus call for anyone who will answer. Once Alex figures out what the mission really is, his instinct is not to gulp and put on the helmet like a good little cliche, but instead pull out an almost Archer-like, “Noooooope” and walk away. (In Campbell terms, this is right on schedule with the hero refusing the call to action.) Centauri brings him back to the trailer park, where Alex discovers that he’s been replaced back home with a robotic version of himself, a “Beta” unit. (The novelization, as I recall, has a great bit of 80s dialogue that didn’t make the film: “I’m a robot, you know, like in that song by Styx?”) This, like the other ideas in The Last Starfighter, is not original, either, but a lesser film would make this body-double replacement the whole movie. Here, it’s just a secondary plot.
Alex has become known to the Ko-Dan, enough for them to send an alien assassin to kill him. But since he’s been replaced by Beta, the assassin is fooled. Well, until he goes badly wrong in a makeout session with Maggie, draws attention, and is shot in a way that exposes sputtering circuits in his stomach. (Cliche alert! Take a drink!) Beta, who knows exactly what’s happening, manages to kill the assassin before his message back to the Ko-Dan can be delivered. The message fragment reads, “The last starfighter….”
Alex becomes the “last” starfighter while he’s away on earth, because the Star League was finally attacked by the Ko-Dan and all the other fighters were killed. The only ship left is an experimental one, worked on by Grig, a friendly scaly alien. (Shakespearean actor Dan O’Herlihy plays Grig with as much warmth and character as he can exude through a full head mask. Which is a surprising amount: as I mentioned before, he and Preston know exactly what kind of movie they’re in, and overact in character roles as only an experienced actor can.) After discovering that it’s only a matter of time before the Ko-Dan get to earth, he makes the decision to accept his role and fight the whole armada with one ship.
It comes as no surprise that Alex’s final strategy means using an experimental weapon introduced with great caution in an earlier scene. (Take a drink, if you’re still playing along.) Alex comes back to earth in his ship after the victory, scoops up his best girl, kisses his mom on the cheek and rockets off to more adventure. (You can finish the drink on that one.)
Of all the space operas made in that heady period from 1977-1987, The Last Starfighter was one of the last, and one of the most honest, disarming and self-aware. It isn’t a blatant rip off that dissolved into insane but strangely watchable camp like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. It isn’t up to the standard set by Lucas and Spielberg at the time, either. (Although the use of CG for the special effects was pretty far ahead of its time. Many modern reviews focus entirely on that aspect, but I’m going to breeze right by it, pausing only to say that yes, it’s somewhat primitive, but it still works just fine.) Despite all the cliches, it has some strong performances and a great deal of silly, goofy heart.