The A-Z of Geek Cinema: L is for the Last Starfighter
“Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-dan Armada.”
1984’s The Last Starfighter was a movie out of time. The first movie to use CGI exclusively for its special effects (obviously excluding make up & explosions), it presaged all of today’s blockbuster action films, with its space battles entirely animated on a Cray -MP supercomputer. (The fact that similar graphics became common place two console cycles ago can be safely ignored as “time’s arrow points forward, I believe.) It also is concerned with the at the time fairly recent fad of “video games” (specifically arcade cabinets.) On the other hand, it was a classic story, very much of the Star Wars mold, following the Joseph Campbell arc almost to the letter: boy festers in obscurity, recruited by a “wizard”, through hardships & lessons becomes the hero and leader. The tensions between old and new make this a unique film both of its time, ahead of it, and behind it.
These triple tensions would threaten to pull apart most films, but The Last Starfighter has the advantage of being also hilarious, heartfelt, and fun, in equal measures, and it manages to overcome its (pretty blatant) origins as “uhhhh… Star Wars with them damn video games the kids love! FILM IT!” A lot of this can be laid at the feet of the cast, lead by Lance Guest, as both Alex & his duplicate Beta, and Robert Preston, in his final filmed role as Centauri, the creator of the titular game and recruiter for the Rylan Star League. Preston especially brings the warmth and humor of his screen presence to great effect, channeling a bit of his “Harold Hill” huckster character from The Music Man.
The thing about The Last Starfighter is that it’s been parodied and referenced ad nauseam, but it’s basic premise is a kid’s dream (and to a lesser extent, a parent’s as well). All the hours spent playing Halo or Batman: Arkham City or [insert favorite game here] weren’t wasted, you see? It was training! Now you get to actually BE Master Chief/Batman/Gordon Freeman/Ezio/whoever. It takes the player identification most game designers aim for and takes it to its logical conclusion: the player literally becomes the hero. This is another way the film was ahead of its time. Video games, especially first person/player immersion ones, have become much more ubiquitous now, in a way that the filmmakers probably couldn’t have presaged at all. Imagine a Last Starfighter-style film now, using Halo as a template. It practically writes itself. Starring Sam Worthington, in theaters this June.
Anyway, it’s a fun film, with some heart, some laughs, some action, and a lot of interesting (albeit dated) special effects. I’m surprised there hasn’t been remake talks, though there’s been off-and-on rumors of sequels. There was even an off-Broadway musical adaptation, which I am VERY interested in seeing. Though the one thing there wasn’t was an official video game adaptation. (There was a couple home PC/Atari ones worked on, but one was changed at the last minute into a sequel to Star Raiders, and the other became Solaris.) There is currently a freeware version of the game from the film available online, produced by Rogue Synapse. Check it out. But be careful: you may be the next person recruited to fight Xur and the Ko-dan Armada!