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1977's Star Wars was a huge shot in the arm for the movie industry. Theaters filled with patrons seeing it for the 4th, 5th and 6th time; TV news reports used any excuse to talk about the phenomenon and run the same press clips of spaceships zipping about. Hollywood rediscovered merchandising tie-ins as the Kenner Toy Company cleaned up big-time with a galaxy of affordable character action figures. George Lucas, everyone realized, was making more money from ancillary products than he was through his contract with Fox. When the town discovered that Lucas owned the sequel rights, they realized that he'd likely never again be seen at studio doors asking for anything.
That success didn't launch dozens of copycat productions ... the resources needed were considered too advanced and too expensive. But the field of special effects literally exploded -- even the notoriously cheap Roger Corman invested in a fairly impressive facility to do model shots for space movies. Corman's greatest asset, of course, was talent -- a young filmmaker in Corman's art department would become the biggest success story of the 1990s.
The Last Starfighter is the closest Hollywood came to duplicating the Lucas franchise. It comes from 1984, the year after the final chapter of the Star Wars series. Clearly wanting to appeal to family audiences, the film adapts E.T.'s domestic setting to "bring Luke Skywalker down to Earth": fatherless teen, gee-whiz younger brother. As in the Lucas film only our hero possesses the Right Stuff to save the universe. Instead of a politically complex galactic Empire, young Alex Rogan fights a Buck Rogers-style Evil Empire more in keeping with the Reagan era. He even yells "Yahoo!" after blowing up a major enemy objective.
In the run-down but idyllic Star Brite trailer park, the college dreams of Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) evaporate when his loan app is turned down. Enter Centauri (Robert Preston, in full Music Man mode), an ebullient intergalactic talent scout who recruits Alex to help defend a benevolent space league from an Evil Armada intent on enslaving the universe. Centauri leaves a look-alike robot called Beta Alex to take Alex's place while he zooms off to the stars to do battle, aided by his helpful lizard-man navigator-sidekick Grig (Dan O'Herlihy). Alex bumps helmets with three or four kooky aliens, recycled from the Tattooine Cantina, but never makes personal contact with any of the villains. Meanwhile, back at the Star Brite, Beta Alex confuses Alex's girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) while dodging the alien assassins who think he's the real Alex.
The Last Starfighter is an okay but very generic adventure tale that doesn't strain the brain cells. It's more than a few sophistication points below the level of something like The Karate Kid. The characters are stock but the acting is in earnest. Lance Guest and Mary Catherine Stewart work as best they can with teen roles that play like something from a 50s TV show, but with heavy petting. Alex Rogan has a tired waitress mother (Barbara Bosson of Hill Street Blues) and the standard-issue "soulful" black advisor (Vernon Washington); he and Maggie have perfect skin, perfect teeth and styled hair. In fact, everything in the movie looks like it just came out of the laundry.
The story concept recycles the Star Wars fantasy, presenting young male daydreams of combat glory and success with the coolest girl in the neighborhood. Like Luke Skywalker, Alex Rogan has nothing to earn or learn; he's already an Ace of Space thanks to his proficiency with a space-fighting video game. Talk about things people don't need to get excited about: the whole community cheers Alex when he breaks the record on the arcade game. But low achieving teens are thus assured that their time-wasting habits are really terrific activities that will propel them to cosmic celebrity. By this measure, Olympic glory can be achieved by eating potato chips and drinking beer. 1
The only thing that separates Starfighter from Luke Skywalker (and a millennium's worth of fairy tale princes) is that Alex doesn't turn out to be related to interstellar nobility. Hey, guys who grow up in rural trailer parks do not discover that they're secret heirs to the galaxy. Many feel too intimidated to move to the nearest big city.
Yet it's still an Alex-centric universe. The good guys on the planet Rylos couldn't make it without this untested teen from America's heartland, for whom the Starfighter game is really a simulator trainer for actual space combat. The video arcade machine is pretty much the same thing as This Island Earth's Interociter, and Centauri even calls it Alex's "entry test" to qualify for admission to the space fighter squadron. Alex goes from the arcade straight to the cockpit -- there's nothing relevant to be learned in between. How many American teens secretly fantasized returning from space wearing their cool starfighter gear, and impressing the girl next door?
Although few will be impressed now, the special effects of The Last Starfighter were very interesting when new. Disney's Tron was just a couple of years old and most of Starfighter's space effects are all-digital composites. The angular spaceships designed by Ron Cobb are constructed completely as Computer Generated Imagery. The vehicles lack texture and subtlety in appearance and motion, but for maneuverability they're far more flexible than Industrial Light and Magic's photochemical-optical work. The reign of motion control photography would last fewer than fifteen years. Scores of highly trained, highly specialized effects cameramen and optical experts would be quickly supplanted by kids at computer workstations, snapping their fingers waiting for that next key frame to render.
The Last Starfighter's space ships tumble and gyrate while the camera flashes around them; star backgrounds streak and blur. The kinetic eye candy is undeniably there. Shots routinely carry a dozen elements with nary a matte line or a bad density match. Young viewers eager for cockpit thrills accepted this look without protest. Today the visuals resemble the temp wire-frame passes used to create digital storyboards. Without advanced texture mapping, the surfaces of planets and landscapes are very primitive indeed, like something from a 1990 Nintendo game.
A puerile fantasy, The Last Starfighter does have some compensations. Director Nick Castle was John Carpenter's film school partner and writer of several of his films; his direction is serviceable and his compositions often very attractive. Robert Preston is charming as the huckster who tricks Alex into accompanying him to the next galaxy, and we're very impressed by Dan O'Herlihy's acting in his lizard-man makeup. Being cooped up in that rubber headpiece would surely exhaust a 20-year-old, so we hope that O'Herlihy (the "Old Man" from RoboCop) had a good time. Catherine Mary Stewart (The Night of the Comet is stuck with a lot of dopey smiles to play the role of "the girlfriend" but retains her dignity. Alex's little brother reads Playboy and says, "shit" a couple of times, to help the film avoid the dreaded "G" rating. Lance Guest looks fine in his dual roles, but "Beta Alex" is there mostly to provide a few more jokes and have some reason to cut back to events back home. Nothing particularly memorable is made of the possibilities of the android substitute's romance with Maggie, so a teenaged I Married a Monster from Outer Space never comes to mind.
The IMDB lists a proposed sequel to The Last Starfighter called Starfighter from the same writer and director, tentatively planned for 2010.
Universal's Blu-ray of The Last Starfighter is a beauty, looking bright and clean throughout. We can tell when digital effects such as the hologram-like "Zar" head are combined with live action footage, as those shots have ordinary dirt flaws like conventional opticals. Along with Tron, The Last Starfighter has significant historical significance as a pioneering CGI film.
A long docu on the making of the film hails from 1999. Hosted by Lance Guest, it has good interview input from Digital Productions people. We learn that DP had to develop most of its own software; views of the shop show the digital artists working on primitive MS-DOS machines. 2 A new HD docu Heroes of the Screen gathers all the key production and technical personnel for a 25th anniversary re-cap. Director Nick Castle and writer Jonathan Beutel contribute a full-length commentary that's worth a listen, mainly to hear the stories of the production coping with new technology. Doing CGI effects was a long shot in 1983, and not everyone was certain that the film could be completed on schedule.
Also on board are some image galleries, an alternate ending and a theatrical teaser & trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Starfighter Blu-ray rates:
1. Actually, thousands of fans did make something constructive from the video game culture: brilliant young computer programmers found major careers in gaming technology, a discipline that's led to many advances in computer graphics and design.
2. In 1985 I was able to visit Digital Productions, the company that engineered the effects for The Last Starfighter. Their large Culver City digs held a Cray computer, one of those monsters that took up an entire large room. All behind glass, it looked like a vision from the future; they told me it was the biggest processor array not in military hands. An early DP assignment was the morphing of the planet Jupiter for 2010, and a popular Mick Jagger music video. I've been told that the computing power of that enormous Cray is now available in any powerful desktop box.
Digital Productions had a guaranteed ticket to the future five years before ILM, but fate intervened when the company was bought out by an unstable consortium and died for lack of funding. The careers of a lot of good people were scuttled in the process. So much for the "blessings" of corporate wheeling and dealing.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the
2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.