"The Last Starfighter" is not an easy film to review, contrary to its appearance. A relic of the mid 1980s, when put against films released a decade later, it looks laughable in the visual effects department, an area that is vital to a science fiction, adventure film. Yet despite stiff odds, the film holds up as a valid entry into the genre and furthermore as an important landmark in visual effects history.
On the surface, the film reeks of a "Star Wars" knockoff; our hero Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is your typical angst filled teen who dreams of doing something big in life, but is currently living with his mother and brother in a humdrum trailer park located in the desert. His opportunity arrives when he displays tremendous skills on a video game machine known as Starfighter. Shortly after breaking the high score, Centauri (Robert Preston), a seemingly crazy old man recruits him to assist a small collection of pilots from distant worlds to make a desperate final stand against Zur and the evil Kodan armada. Yes, it's extremely easy to chalk this up as uninspired, but like the old saying goes, "appearances can be deceiving."
While "The Last Starfighter" shares distilled similarities with the Star Wars franchise, its core is far removed from the legendary space opera masterpiece. For a film that is supposed to be about fantastic battles in space, a great deal of time is spent back on humdrum old Earth, but thanks to a thoughtful story and earnest performances, the viewer will walk away feeling satisfied at just how human a "goofy" sci-fi film can be. Rather than use the Earth setting and Alex's back story as a mere introductory piece before sending our dreaming hero off into space gung-ho, the writer and director instead choose to give Alex a very realistic reaction: fear.
In spite of all his dreams of leaving his small trailer-park world, when an actual chance to do what no other human is capable of arises, Alex learns to appreciate what he has at that point in life and in doing so, ultimately realizes he does care a great deal about his monotonous existence, so much so, he's willing to risk his life in order to try and save it. Granted the execution of these themes isn't as dramatic as I make it sound, but the characters in this film are likable and realistic, and it's easy to relate to Alex's plight.
Once Alex makes the decision to take his place as the titular hero, he along with his alien co-pilot, Grig (Dan O'Herlihy, who delivers perhaps the most memorable secondary performance of the film, all while under heavy prosthetic makeup) are catapulted into the realms of computer-generated battle. The battles that are the marketing focus of this film earn a special place in film history as being the first in film history. With this in mind, first time (and even old fans) must understand that what is no laughable, was once highly cutting edge. The ships are very basic and lack the detail of what you would find even on the most low budget television commercial, but there are moments that even to this day fooled me into thinking there was some practical model work, mainly relegated to a few shots of the hero's Gunstar craft.
To make a long story short, "The Last Starfighter" is a fun time capsule of mid 80s cinema. It's no masterpiece, but managed to have something to put a smile of the face of anyone who is willing to suspend his or her disbelief for 90 minutes. As a young kid catching the movie in reruns, I was enamored by the great battle in the final act; now 18 years later, an even bigger smile crosses my face watching Alex struggle with finding his place in the world while at the same time making sure that world has a place for his love, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart). It's a B-movie of the highest caliber.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is touted on the case to be newly digitally remastered, and while it definitely looks better than what I would imagine the original late 90s Universal release looked like, it's still far from perfect. There is some noticeable print damage, especially during the opening scenes, indicating a full restoration wasn't done. Colors are reproduced accurately but lack any real pop, and at times appear slightly faded. Finally, the overall detail level is lacking, especially when it comes to faces, which show some signs of light digital noise reduction.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital English audio track shows all the telltale signs of being a pumped up 2.0 track. The surrounds never get a great workout and in general the mix lacks life, which is most prominent during the space battles. Dialogue however is clear and evenly balanced. Spanish and French subtitles are included as are English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
The new 25th Anniversary edition adds one bonus feature, a brief retrospective featurette titled "Heroes of the Screen" which gives a great concise history of the genesis of the film as well as the production. A large number of key figures are interviewed including the writer Jonathan Betuel, director Nick Castle and principal actors Lance Guest and Catherine Mary Stewart. Nearly every party at one point mentions the same quality about the film I mentioned above, the heart and soul of the story. It was a nice reaffirmation that hard work was put into making the most of the film and keeping the non sci-fi aspects engaging for audiences.
"Crossing The Frontier: Making the Last Starfighter" is an older short featurette that covers some of the same material but has a decent focus on the computer effects. It becomes very clear that despite the now corny looking effects, no expense was spared in getting them onto the screen 25 years ago.
Director Nick Castle and production designer Rob Cobb provide a full commentary that is very insightful into the making of the film as well as entertaining.
Last but not least is an image gallery which features a large collection of production photos, advertising samples, and scenes from an alternate ending that was best cut as it was severely lacking compared to the final product and would have definitely fueled any "Star Wars" rip-off complaints.
Chances are you already know if "The Last Starfighter" is for you, but if you're still on the fence, it most assuredly deserves a rental. For fans of the film, the new retrospective featurette and transfer is likely a decent enough upgrade to warrant a purchase, but don't expect Blade Runner-esque picture quality. Recommended.