In 1984, I was still reeling from the after-effects of Return of the Jedi. My mind was chocked full of dreams of the universe once more being filled by the Jedi order and huge space battles, but the knowledge that there would be no more Star Wars was troubling. I yearned for quality science fiction on the big screen, some new tale, a new hero. Sure, 1984 saw the release of some true classics like Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Conan the Destroyer, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Dune, The Neverending Story, and of course Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, all great films in their own right and truly deserved of their status in the pantheon of cinema greats, there was another film that I saw and immediately loved, one it seemed has been buried in time.
A film now relatively unknown to most under the age of 30, and merely remembered by those who saw it as “Ooohhh yeah, wow, I haven’t seen that in ages”. A film that, for some reason until recently though with little fanfare (an upcoming, yet rarely spoken of, remake is in the works), has escaped the mass pop-culture revival of the 1980’s….
The Last Starfighter.
The Last Starfighter was a film mired with difficulty from inception to release. Having just read the book, The Once and Future King, scriptwriter Jonathan Buetel was inspired to write a modern twist on Arthurian legend upon seeing a young boy playing an arcade game and mused on the thought of the video game being a sort of “sword in the stone” where upon achieving the high score, a ripple would be sent across the universe. If that premise alone weren’t lofty enough, as a film about a young man becoming a galactic hero, it somehow needed to stand out without being seen as yet another Star Wars rip-off, of which there had been many at the time, they also didn’t wish for the film to feel too “Spielberg-ian”.
One of the interesting ways it achieved this was by utilizing a nearly fully CG approach to it’s special effects that, at the time, had only been successfully used in Tron, which had the backing and marketing promises of Disney to ensure it’s success. Alas, for all intents and purposes, financially at least, it failed. In another way though…it also succeeded.
The film starts out with a tour of a nice little trailer park community nestled in some remote mountain range where you’re likely to always find a cooler filled with cold Millers, and you’ll never be hard pressed to find hair curlers. Intro: Alex Rogan (played by Lance Guest, who in my humble opinion really should have hit it big after this film) a serious sort of teen, more interested in making his way out of the world he’s stuck in, flipping burgers, polishing a pick-up, and getting drunk at the lake, than anything else. He’s got his head in the stars. Unfortunately, his feet seem to be permanently shackled to this double-wide limbo. His only escape is an arcade game stationed at the local luncheon, “Starfighter”.
After a day full of disappointment, his girlfriend left to party with the locals while he was stuck doing handyman chores around the park, he found out he was denied financial aid which would have allowed him the chance to attend a real university and get away, Alex relinquishes himself to the game in what seems his only way to feel like he’ll ever be something more than what he is. He can be a Starfighter for a few minutes and a couple quarters.
But tonight is different.
With a newfound focus, Alex is doing better than ever, he’s actually beating the game. To give you an idea of how “small” his world currently is, Alex beating Starfighter is big enough news to rouse the entire trailer park and the crowd surrounds him, cheers him on, the excitement is palpable….and then it’s gone. He beats the game, pats on the back all ’round, and everyone goes to bed, ready to face tomorrow and the monotony of it all. Everyone except Alex.
With the rush of having overcome the arcade game fading, his troubles setting back in, Alex looks to the stars, hoping, wishing for something more.
When all of a sudden……something more is exactly what he gets, and Alex is sent on a journey that will forever change him. Alex is suddenly greeted by a sly, fast-talking man named Centauri, who is the inventor of Starfighter. He created the game as a test of skill, and Alex passed with flying colors. You see, the Xur Armada has been attacking “the Frontier” and is near success, so in a last ditch effort, Centauri created these “games” and sent them around the galaxy to find skilled Starfighters to help in the fight, and Alex is their last hope.
Thus begins his journey.
So, how does this film really stand apart from any other space hero film? Well, for one it adds a second character, the “Beta Unit”, an android duplicate of Alex sent to Earth to be his stand-in while he’s gone. At the time of filming, Beta’s scenes were short and barely noticeable, but at test screenings, this “fish out of water” sub-plot and their comedic tones were so well recieved that Lance Guest was brought back in to do reshoots.
Unfortunately, Guest had just cut all his hair off and had to wear an obvious wig for these scenes. Fortunately, that only added to the feeling of Beta as a stand-alone character. The film also had a strong “coming of age” feel to it that, at this point in the 80s, had become a huge film fad. Not to mention the plot of small-town-boy-does-good, with Alex coming out of a dead-end at his trailer park kept an otherwise lofty tale very much grounded. He wasn’t some galactic space hero from another planet. He was just another down on his luck guy. So those who didn’t enjoy the film for it’s science fiction elements (like parents and significant others dragged along to viewings), found an element of heart in the film to be highly endearing which strongly contributed to the films popularity with the public, if not the critics, save one. Legendary film critic Gene Siskel included The Last Starfighter in a list of guilty pleasure films citing it as the best of the Star Wars rip-off films….of which at it’s time of release was a dwindiling genre.
An irony of The Last Starfighter was that the film prominantly utilized the popularity of arcade games, HUGE at the time, yet never had a successful video game of its own released. There was a planned release of the official arcade game, one just like in the film, however, due to the computing power necessary to reproduce the graphics from the film, the processors available at the time would have been too expensive for the market. There was an NES game released, but it was a conversion of an existing property and never really took off. An Atari computer version was made, but never released under the Last Starfighter moniker, instead it was released as Star Raiders II (which I played! Knowing then what I know now, I might have liked it more), and another version eventually released as Solaris.
There is a film-faithful freeware recreation available from Rogue Synapse, who have also built an arcade cabinet for it.
Bottom line; If you haven’t seen The Last Starfighter, I highly recommend having a movie night with some friends and sitting down for it. If you can excuse the dated FX, it’s an enjoyable space romp with fun characters and a heartwarming storyline. If you want to wait however, there has been two remakes in the works, no solid word yet on whether it will return as a TV series or film, but one way or another, we haven’t see the last of the Last Starfighter.