The Last Starfighter
Are you 11? Is the year 1984? If so, here’s a movie you’re going to want to see. Okay, imagine this: What if those videogames you’ve been feeding quarter after quarter were actually designed to test your skills as an intergalactic warrior? A high score will get you whisked away to another planet, where you’ll save the day to the accompaniment of vaguely John Williams-like music. Sound good? Well, step right up.
To paraphrase The Big Lebowski, some movies are just the right movie for their time and place. They just fit right in there. Witness The Last Starfighter, a sweet, unabashedly corny, matinee-friendly science-fiction adventure starring Lance Guest as a trailer-park videogame prodigy, and Robert Preston as the alien who recruits him to save the day from some space-baddies. (Co-starring: a bunch of visual ideas on loan from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.) Seen via the 25th-anniversary edition, The Last Starfighter now seems as much a product of its era as a “Where’s The Beef?” T-shirt, though it holds up a little better. Directed by John Carpenter protégé Nick Castle (who played Michael Myers in the first Halloween, would later terrify audiences with films like Major Payne and Mr. Wrong, and is currently signed on as director for a 2010 Last Starfighter sequel), it’s amiably unambitious. But that doesn’t make it any less charming, as it alternates generic we-gotta-get-out-of-this-place teen angst with lasers and rubber-suited extraterrestrials. In his final film role, Preston is especially winning, offering a trans-galactic variation on his Music Man character. (Lance Guest’s hero is kind of a petulant douche, however.)
But one Starfighter element was ahead of its time. Unable to afford models for the space battles, Castle instead relied on then-new digital effects. Several interview subjects on the DVD supplements describe them as “photorealistic.” That’s a stretch, but they now look like the missing link between ’80s videogames and modern CGI, impressive more for the fact that they even existed in 1984 than the way they actually look. Did they wow audiences at the time, or did viewers simply put up with a film lapsing into animation because the story swept them along? Maybe you had to be there, but it remains a pretty entertaining place to revisit.
Key features: Two making-of docs (when one would have been fine) and a commentary from Castle and production designer Ron Cobb.