The Last Starfighter - Collector's Edition DVD
Lorimar/Universal, 1984 (IMDB entry)
Reviewed by Nathan Strum
Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) feels trapped. Living in a trailer park with his mom (Barbara Bosson) and little brother Louis (Chris Hebert), he dreams of being able to escape the dead-end future that seems to await him. He has to spend his days fixing things around the park for his neighbors, instead of being able to go out with his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), whom he hopes to take with him when he leaves for college. When his student loan application is rejected, it seems his fate is sealed. His only refuge from the drudgery of everyday life is an arcade game - Starfighter - that sits outside the trailer park's general store.
When he sets a new world record on Starfighter, little does he realize that he's about to get more adventure than he ever bargained for. The video game was actually a test, planted on Earth by an alien named Centauri (Robert Preston), to find people all across the galaxy who have the necessary skills to become real Starfighters, and fight in a real war - one that will someday even threaten the Earth.
As Alex takes off with his alien navigator Grig (Dan O'Herlihy) to battle the Kodan Armada, only then does he find out the truth - all of the other Starfighters were killed, and he's the last one. Meanwhile, a robot duplicate takes Alex's place on Earth to throw off alien assassins who have come to kill him. If the robot is discovered to be a decoy, the real Alex will lose the element of surprise, and the entire Star League of Planets may fall to the Kodan and their evil emperor, Xur (Norman Snow).
The Last Starfighter is a pretty good film. It's approached as a fairly typical science fiction movie, with a lot of the characters being written and played as fairly broad caricatures. According to the director's comments, this was intentional, and it helps to quickly establish each person's role in the film. In fact, the director (Nick Castle) refers to the style as "a musical without the music".
The idea of a typical teenager being swept up into a great adventure out of humble circumstances was attributed in part to the story of the Sword in the Stone. It's a solid premise for a story, and it's translated well into the science fiction genre using a video game as the vehicle.
The performances of the film are generally solid, although the leader of the Star League (John O'Leary) is rather bland, and has very little to do except rattle off some plot exposition. Neither Emperor Xur nor his two subordinates are terribly interesting either, or very threatening. There's never a real sense of menace from the villains, which is a problem in this film.
The Kodan Aramada, which is supposed to be the big threat to galactic peace are completely inept. During the big battle scene, the lone space ship (a Gunstar) flown by Alex manages to mow down row after row of enemy ships with no apparent damage to itself. Moreover, the giant Kodan Command Ship is crippled with just a handful of shots from the Gunstar. It makes you question why anyone would ever fear the Kodan, and why the Star League would ever have needed a whole squadron of Starfighters in the first place. One seemed to do the job just fine.
The story that takes place on Earth is far more engaging than anything that's going on in space in this movie. We really don't get any sense of what the Star League is, and why we should care what happens to them. In fact, it's only when Alex's own life gets threatened that he decides to join in the fight.
The final battle scene is rather anti-climactic. There's really not much to it considering its importance in the story. Alex never seems to be in any real danger, and the enemies collapse all-too easily. First, a few shots to the command ship cause all of the enemy fighters to be rendered helpless (a plot element I'm sure I'd seen before, but can't recall exactly where), and then Alex digs out the secret Death Blossom weapon which kills everything off with one press of a button. That's a pretty cheap solution, and cheats the audience out of what they've been built-up to expect. Beyond that, the battle isn't staged very well either. Sure, it's clear enough as to what's going on, but what's going on isn't terribly exciting to watch. The filmmakers said that they intentionally went out of their way to avoid doing what Lucas and Spielberg had done. Perhaps they shouldn't have worried about it so much, and just used what worked instead.
In contrast, the trailer park scenes (an actual location not far from where I currently live) work very well. While the people there all know each other and are friendly, there is a certain sense that it would be a very easy place to get trapped in. If you weren't into living such a repetitive, restrictive lifestyle, you could find yourself feeling stifled - yet there are those in the community who find comfort in that very thing. It seems to be a very real place, even if some of the inhabitants are a bit over-the-top. Shooting at an actual location helped lend a real authenticity to those scenes.
What doesn't work are nearly all of the scenes set in outer space. The sets that are located on distant planets and space ships have a very cheap, early 80's TV sci-fi feel to them. Very much like the Buck Rogers series. They serve their purpose, but they never feel like real places - just a collection of cheap props in an otherwise empty room. The costumes also have an all-too-familiar look of low budget sci-fi movies and TV from that era, although the Starfighter suits are better than most.
The makeup is hit and miss. At times, it's excellent - most notably on the Kodan officers, Grig and the alien version of Centauri. Some of the other Starfighters (seen only briefly) look pretty good, too. The Rylons however, aren't quite as convincing. Perhaps if they didn't all have white hair, with the exact same hairline, it might have sold their look a bit better. They all had a look reminiscent of typical low-budget science fiction - looking more like actors in makeup, than aliens.
Of course, The Last Starfighter is best known for being the first film to attempt to use photo-realistic computer-generated special effects in place of traditional models. For the most part, they work pretty well. For the time, they were far ahead of anything else that had been done. But time hasn't been kind to the effects in this movie. At times, the graphics look more like something produced on a home computer, than feature film material. Perhaps that's not a fair judgment, considering when the movie was made, but it's true nonetheless. In a movie like Tron, where computer graphics were used to create pure fantasy, it's not so much of a problem. When you're trying to recreate realism, it becomes a problem.
There are a number of shots that look very good indeed. Most of the space ships (except the Command Ship) look believable enough, and distant planets and the stars work well too. Where it completely falls apart are the scenes taking place in and near an asteroid, and those showing the Star League base (sunk into the side of a mountain on Rylos). The graphics actually do a disservice to the film at these points, and it probably would have been just as well to shoot those elements using models instead. The lighting, texturing and surface detail look terrible, at times deteriorating to the point of looking like mud or slushy snow.
According to the filmmakers, the film could have actually looked a lot better, but they didn't have enough time to do what they really wanted. The computing power available just wasn't enough to get it done in time. In order to keep the film on time and budget, some effects shots had to be scaled back. Complexity and detail were reduced.
The rest of the space battles look good enough (although the lack of motion blur really hurts them at times), but they're never completely convincing, mainly due to the badly matted-in explosions. Despite the addition of computer-generated debris, the fireballs don't track with the motion of the computer models, and just look sloppily pasted on.
The sound in the film works well enough. While certainly not bad, it's nothing special, either. Again, the scenes in outer space suffer more than the ones on Earth. It's too bad something more interesting and unique couldn't have been done to enhance the sound effects used with the computer generated imagery. Perhaps a subtle blending of more electronic effects into the space ships' sounds would have pushed it to that next level, so the film sounded as unique as it looked. The music in the film (Craig Safan) is well done, although it doesn't really offer anything that sets it apart from other soundtracks of its kind.
While the movie itself may not be anything spectacular, the presentation on DVD is exceptional. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is about as good as video gets. There's also a wealth of bonus material on the disc. There's the usual assortment of production stills and trailers, but what stands out is an all-new behind the scenes documentary that combines vintage material with brand-new interviews, and offers interesting background information on the film. There's also an audio commentary by director Nick Castle and production designer Ron Cobb, but it tends to get very sparse at times, as if they're just sitting there watching the movie instead of trying to relate anecdotes about its production. The fact that they don't speak clearly at times doesn't help, either. Still, for the most part, it's a good, informative audio commentary.
The biggest problem with The Last Starfighter turned out to be timing. Although the movie was conceived when video arcades were in their prime, by the time it came out, the video game industry had collapsed and no one was interested anymore. As a result, despite Atari being credited for a Last Starfighter arcade game, none were ever made. The game was being developed, but it was cancelled as Atari began to sink along with the rest of the industry. Had the movie come out two years earlier, it could have done much better at the box office, and would have had tremendous marketing potential. Certainly this must have been in the minds of the producers at the time, since they left the film wide-open for a sequel by allowing Xur to escape, and having Alex return to space to train a new generation of Starfighters. It's probably just as well that it never happened, since most sequels only serve to diminish the legacies of the originals.
If you take away the computer graphics from The Last Starfighter, you're basically left with an enjoyable, if not terribly exciting, b-grade science fiction movie. The story is compelling enough, and the characters are likable, but when it gets out in space, it doesn't have anything fresh to offer. Still, it's solid enough to recommend, although it's the DVD extras that earn it a score of three credits, instead of just two. It's especially worth checking out if you have an interest in the history of computer graphics in movies.
Related arcade games in MacMAME
None - however the story about what happened to it can be found at the Last Starfighter FAQ.