Like many others, I remember seeing The Last Starfighter endlessly on cable. As a youngster, its faux-Star Wars plot and kooky creature effects were enchanting. Enchanting enough to grow in esteem from crappy b-movie to beloved crappy b-movie. I'd imagine that most of the film's reputation comes from people who haven't seen it in years. Why? Because it's really pretty awful.
Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is a young guy with hopes and dreams. Unfortunately, he lives in a trailer park and has been rejected by every single college he has applied to. Despite having a cute girlfriend, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), the only thing that seems to give him pleasure in life is an arcade game called "Starfighter." In this game, Alex plays the role of a star pilot who has to single-handedly defend the Star League against the evil Kodan empire, who are trying to invade and take over the galaxy. One night, he beats the game, getting the top score. Soon after, he's approached by a mysterious man known as Centauri (Robert Preston in his final role), who whisks Alex away to a distant planet, where Alex discovers that the game he played so well is real, and now he has to use his skills to save the entire galaxy, including everyone he loves back on Earth.
The Last Starfighter feels like the Death Star run in Star Wars stretched out to an hour and a half. The whole thing feels half-baked and amateurish. At one point in the commentary, the director says that he purposely tried to avoid doing what George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did, and it shows. Alex's plight is clearly meant to be The Hero's Journey, a la Luke Skywalker, but Alex spends most of the movie whining and complaining and saying he doesn't want anything to do with what's going on. Now, reluctance to depart from what you know and embrace change is part of this kind of story, but out of a 101 minute movie, Alex spends over an hour trying to run away from everything going on around him. At a certain point, just for the sake of moving the story forward, you have to have the main character accept his circumstances.
The film also relies heavily on computer effects, which were in their infancy in the early 80's, and don't hold up well. Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting a 1984 film to look like Transformers. But the movie doesn't even hold up against other pictures of the time, which used optical processing of live action objects, and look a lot better. On the other hand, the creature effects generally look pretty good. The scene where Alex listens to the mission briefing (which is about as direct of a rip-off of Star Wars as you can get) has some hilarious and cool make-up effects applied to the characters around him.
Aside from Robert Preston, most of the cast play things pretty straight. Preston has a lot of fun with Centauri, playing the loveable con-alien with a wink and a smile. Lance Guest actually was really good as both Alex and the Beta Unit, a robot designed to trick people on Earth into thinking that Alex never left. There are some scenes where Alex comes into direct contact with the Beta where his acting talents really shine through. Dan O'Herlihy plays the alien navigator Grig as a mix of deadly seriousness and good humor. Catherine Mary Stewart is serviceable but nothing special as Maggie. Norman Snow is ridiculous as main villain Xur. Coming off as nothing but a petulant whiner, he has no menace and is used mostly for laughs.
Probably the weakest part of the film are the space battles themselves. For one thing, the CGI effects all look terrible, as discussed above. But more than that, the biggest problem is that they aren't interesting or kinetic in any way. It's mostly just Alex sitting in a chair pressing buttons. There's no dynamic dog fighting, just Alex's ship running rings around everyone else. And don't get me started on the deus ex machina secret weapon the ship has on board. With a movie like this, the battles should have been MASSIVE. Instead, they're just puny. Anyone watching this today, hoping for a blast of 80's nostalgia and fun should check out a movie like Tron instead, where the effects work in favor of the story, not against it.
The HD DVD:
As is unfortunately too common of a practice for Universal, it looks like they've slapped another subpar transfer on a catalogue title. This VC-1 encoded 1080p 2.35:1 transfer is soft and the print used has noticeable dirt on it. The colors are not very brilliant, looking faded and bland. Detail is almost no better than the DVD, which was nothing to shout about to begin with. There's nothing but disappointment to be found here. It almost never felt like I was watching HD content.
Universal has surprisingly opted to include a Dolby True HD 5.1 mix on top of its Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track, and I cannot fathom why. It's clear they took no pains to remaster the audio any more than they did the video, and it sounds bad. Aside from the battle sequences, the surrounds barely get any use at all. When they do, it sounds more gimmicky than anything else. Dialogue is thin and the score is weak. This is one instance where a lossless track has completely gone to waste.
Universal ports over the sparse DVD extras, which themselves were laserdisc ports. None are in HD.
- Commentary by Director Nick Castle and Production Designer Ron Cobb: Castle and Cobb clearly have great love for this picture, and talk proudly of it throughout the commentary. Aside from a few times where I thought they were being a little disingenuous (no mention that the opening credits were nothing but a poor man's Superman both in design and score), the two keep things interesting enough. Cobb offers the most interesting insights about the computer effects, such as the fact that his team had created really interesting computer landscapes for the various environments, but couldn't use them because they would have taken months or years to render using the current technology of the time.
- Crossing The Frontier: This thirty minute making of documentary is hosted by star Lance Guest. Most of this is focused on the computer effects, which were certainly intense and groundbreaking for the period, even if they look like forgotten artifacts now. Guest makes things more interesting than a more faceless host would have been, and fans of the film will want to check this out.
- Lastly we get a standard definition Trailer and Teaser.
The Last Starfighter probably brings back warm memories of weekend mornings spent at home watching low quality cable broadcasts. But take off the rose-colored glasses and the film does not hold up well at all. Universal does the picture no favors by tossing it on a disc with a terrible video transfer and audio mix. The extras aren't bad, but aren't enough to make this worth buying, and there's nothing new for this release. Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.