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Last Starfighter (Arrow), The
Alex Rogan has big dreams. Currently stuck working as the de facto handyman in the trailer park where he lives with his mom and younger brother, he intends to go to an out-of-state college with his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and leave small-town life behind. As it turns out, a great opportunity does land in his lap, but it's not from the bank processing his loan application, but a mysterious man who calls himself Centauri (Robert Preston). As it turns out, Alex's favorite pasttime, playing the Starfighter arcade machine in the trailer park picnic area, is actually a sly recruiting tool that Centauri is using to try and find anyone with enough skill to join the battle against the Ko-Dan Armada. At first, Alex is reluctant, but with the encouragement of his unflaggingly optimistic alien co-pilot Grig (Dan O'Herlihy), he finds himself flying into battle as the last hope for the heroic Rylans.
The Last Starfighter is one of those films that seems to exist near the outer fringes of '80s nostalgia, in the same stratosphere as Tron (also about a video game that becomes real, abeit in a much different way), or Flash Gordon (another space adventure). Those looking for it can find evidence of its imprint on popular culture, with the movie receiving shout-outs on similarly cult-audience shows like "Community" and the "Clerks" animated series, as well as (for better or worse...I'd argue worse) Ernie Cline's novels Ready Player One and Armada. Having underperformed in theaters, it lacks the merchandise and ancillary products that might've brought it a bit more into the mainstream -- even the Atari video game advertised in the credits, an obvious tie-in if there ever was one, never actually materialized. All of this is mostly interesting in the sense that the elements that make Last Starfighter fun are not especially obscure: this is pretty straightforward popcorn entertainment that all kinds of audiences should enjoy.
Several key players in Starfighter's success are alumni from the Halloween franchise. Director Nick Castle played Michael Myers in parts of the 1978 original, and he was visiting John Carpenter in the editing bay for Halloween II when he first heard about Lance Guest, who broke into film acting with that film and would end up being cast as Alex Rogan. Later, the ensemble would also acquire Dan O'Herlihy, who played the villain in Halloween III. Although this common thread probably didn't add to their comfort, given they all worked on different entries, all three men, along with Catherine Mary Stewart and Robert Preston, are the heart of Starfighter, which remains rooted in performances and character even as the film moves into special effects territory. Guest and Stewart have a fun romantic/comic chemistry, and O'Herlihy and Preston bring a theatricality to their roles that both nail the tone of the film, which is lighthearted and comic without being silly.
When the film came out in 1984, the special effects sequences in the film were cutting edge. Seen today, there's no question that some of the models, which have no texture or detail, are distinctly primitive, but Castle has an excellent grip on where and when to deploy the early CGI. Shots are timed to be quick enough and lit with enough sophistication that a good chunk of the movie holds up even when the computer graphics are easy to identify. The film also has plenty of practical effects, including Grig's lizard-like makeup, as well as a host of other alien creatures, and a couple of comedy sequences with the Beta Unit (a robot that looks and sounds like Alex, at least in theory) that Centauri leaves on Earth while he takes Alex up to the base where the Starfighters are being briefed. While some of these gags are easy to spot, in terms of the flow of the film, Castle makes the blending of these effects feel effortless. The entire package is also greatly enhanced by Craig Safan's music, which is not just memorable and thrilling, but feels like it carves out its own unique identity next to things like Star Wars and Back to the Future.
If this critical appraisal of Starfighter seems a little light, that's probably because Starfighter itself is light -- and that's not a complaint. The film might not reach the action or adventure peaks of the decade's biggest movies, but there is a consistency and joy to this little movie that makes it a winner. So much of the pleasure of Starfighter is right on the surface, in the interactions between Alex and Grig, or Alex and Centauri, or Alex and Maggie, or Maggie and the Beta Unit. The film ends in a way that strongly suggests some kind of sequel or follow-up chronicling Alex's further Starfighter adventures. There's no question a sequel could be fun, but maybe the fact that one hasn't materialized is yet another reflection of The Last Starfighter's modest pleasures.
Arrow's first printing of The Last Starfighter isn't classified as one of their limited editions, but it's gorgeous enough to be worthy of the label. An excellent new piece of artwork by Matt Ferguson graces the front of both the sleeve and the velvety foil slipcover, with great shiny highlights that appear to light up the ship diagrams surrounding a silhouette of Alex at the arcade console. The title itself (and the Starfighter emblems on the spine) has a glossy finish that makes it stand out against the more matte-like finish of the rest of the slip. Best of all, the slip only uses a small piece of the box copy on the back, so that the exterior and interior are not identical (as well as leaving room for more of Ferguson's design). The special features and credits appear on the rear of the sleeve, and the art can be reversed to display one of the film's original theatrical posters (note: it's not the same poster that graced the front of Universal's Collector's Edition DVD). Inside the case, there are three inserts: a promotional card advertising their streaming service on one side, and an upcoming release on the other (mine was for David Lynch's Dune), a fold-out reversible poster featuring the same two pieces of art as the reversible sleeve, and sizable booklet, featuring an essay by Amanda Reyes, and a 1984 OMNI Magazine article by Greg Bear, about the special effects. Arrow is arguably the best boutique out there in terms of the physical package, and The Last Starfighter is one of their most beautiful standard editions.
The Video and Audio
Look, I don't mean to be unnecessarily rude about an entirely different disc, but Universal's 2009 Blu-ray is, short of the original release of Tremors, possibly the worst-looking Blu-ray I have ever viewed, and exemplifies the flaws their catalog releases were known for -- ugly edge enhancement and detail-destroying digital noise reduction. For this new edition, Arrow has commissioned a brand new 4K master, and the results are like night and day. Most importantly, a natural grain field has finally been restored to the image, giving it a wonderfully organic appearance. In fact, the film grain is so pleasing to the eye that it actually helps with the film's early CGI, which often looks more convincing than expected. Colors are generally very nice (although perhaps a little more subdued than I might've anticipated going in), and depth is quite impressive. The default track on this disc is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which is a pretty lively mix with plenty of futuristic sound effects and Craig Safan's excellent score to chew on, although it's a little front-loaded. As I no longer own the Universal disc (I know, big surprise), I can't say for sure whether or not this is the same mix that appeared on that disc, but in either case, it sounds very good. I also sampled the 4.1 track, promoted on the packaging, which was originally created for the film's 70mm blowup, but to my ears, differences were pretty minor. Last but not least, a DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo mix is also included, as well as optional English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Arrow has enlisted Ballyhoo to produce several new video extras for this release. It's worth noting upfront that the disc was clearly produced during the pandemic, so, with the exception of the final interview, all were conducted remotely, with the first two conducted via video call, and the others as audio only. Video quality of these interviews is a mixed bag, so the featurettes are built around the audio from the interview laid over clips from the film, with the participants infrequently appearing on the right side of the screen in black-and-white.
"Maggie's Memories: Revisiting The Last Starfighter" (9:28) features Catherine Mary Stewart, who talks about landing the role, her relationship to arcade games and how that fed into the movie's popularity, the fun of filming the scenes with "Beta Unit" Alex, working on an effects film and seeing the finished results. "Into the Starscape: Composing The Last Starfighter" (12:20) gives Craig Safan the opportunity to break down his approach to the movie's score, which is all built around a single theme rather than individual themes for each character, devising a different approach than John Williams for the space sequences, and his satisfaction with the overall experience. "Incredible Odds: Writing The Last Starfighter" (9:27) speaks to screenwriter Jonathan Betuel, who discusses his life when he wrote the film, how it ended up with Lorimar, his relationship with Nick Castle, the ideas and themes he wanted to get into the film, the looming shadow of Star Wars, and the possibility of expanding on the Starfighter story. "Interstellar Hit-Beast: Creating the Special Effects" (10:14) provides visual effects supervisor Kevin Pike, who speaks at length about various practical effects created for the movie, from everyday things like the neon lights at the trailer park to more futuristic things like Alex's rotating gunner chair. This is followed by "Excalibur Test: Inside Digital Productions" (7:46), in which the aforementioned Greg Bear of OMNI Magazine looks back at the company that created the film's groundbreaking CGI. Bear recalls his visit to the company (bringing along Ray Bradbury, in an attempt to impress the employees!), discussing the mood in the wake of Tron's underwhelming box office performance, the possibilities that Digital Productions was talking about the time, and the kind of footage he was shown during his visit. New video extras wrap up with "Greetings Starfighter! Inside the Arcade Game" (7:24), where arcade game collector Estil Vance describes reconstructing the game made for the film, which is advertised as coming from Atari in the film's credits but never actually materialized. After collecting several arcade games, he decided he wanted to create some of the fictional games from films that were never made into real arcade machines, starting with Tron's "Space Paranoids," before eventually tackling "Starfighter." It's a fun little feature, although of course it would probably be more fun to play the game itself. Video extras conclude with archival documentaries from Universal's 1999 DVD ("Crossing the Frontier," 32:01) and their 2009 Blu-ray ("Heroes of the Screen," 24:18). An image gallery from the 1999 DVD has also been preserved.
Finally, there are three audio commentaries on tap. The first, with director Nick Castle and production designer Ron Cobb, is also a port from the 1999 DVD. The first brand-new track features actor Lance Guest and his son Jackson Guest. This is a charming father-son experience that mixes some interesting anecdotes with the enjoyable vibe of listening to the pair interact and razz one another. Sound is a little strange sometimes, as the Guests recorded it in their home, but it never detracts from the experience even when their voices shift and warp a bit. Last but not least, there is a track with Mike White of the Projection Booth podcast. Going into this track, I wondered how much value a third track could offer, especially from someone not involved with the production, but White proves himself to be a fine commentator, delivering a fact-filled chat that's more akin to the work of a film historian than a fan (which, for the record, is not a sleight against fan tracks, just a difference of expectations).
An original theatrical trailer and a theatrical teaser trailer for The Last Starfighter are also included.
The Last Starfighter is a charming, straightforward space adventure that holds up with its 35th anniversary already in the rearview mirror. Fans who have lived with Universal's substandard A/V presentation get a massive upgrade and more with this new Arrow edition, which is packed to the rafters with a ton of new extras as well as two generations of archival material. Very highly recommended -- I doubt there's any room for improvement on standard Blu-ray disc.
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