Summer of the 80’s: The Last Star-fighter

Summer of the 80′s is a weekly column that will run until the end of August in which I watch a movie released during the summer movie season of the 1980′s that I’ve never seen before.  Every Friday, I’ll write about an 80′s movie that came out on the same day, or near the same day, that correlates with the post here on the site.  So follow me as I travel back in time to discover my lost summer at the movies.

About the movie

The Last Starfighter was released on July 13, 1984 by Universal Pictures.  It was directed by Nick Castle, who directed such films as Dennis the Menace and Major Payne, however in some circles, he may be more well known for playing The Shape (aka Michael Myers) in John Carpenter’s Halloween.  The screenplay was written by Jonathan R. Betuel (Theodore Rex).  The film stars Lance Guest, Catherine Mary Stewart, Dan O’Herlihy and Robert Preston.  The PG-rated film’s budget is estimated at $15 million and went on to gross a total of $28.7 million domestically.  It is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Tagline

He didn’t find his dreams… his dreams found him.

My thoughts

The first thing I noticed about The Last Starfighter was the Amblin-esque feel to it, at least for the parts of the movie that take place on Earth.  There is even a shot in the film of a comet flying by in the night sky, a trademark of Steven Spielberg’s.  The Amblin feel and the great score from Craig Safan really helped start the movie off right and paved the way for an enjoyable time.  The Last Starfighter is a bit more on the shallow side than some of the Amblin films of the 80s but its cheesiness is an element that helped give the film its character.

Alex (Lance Guest) lives in a trailer park community called Starlite Starbrite.  He’s unhappy with where he’s at in life and hopes to escape the trappings of his community, with his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) in tow.  When he’s denied a loan that he needed to leave town and go to college, he becomes even more frustrated at not being able to realize his dreams of being something more than just a simple handyman.  Alex frequents an arcade game in his trailer park called Starfighter.  He beats a record and becomes the highest scoring player of the arcade game. Unbeknownst to him, the Starfighter game is actually a misplaced alien simulation testing unit and a man named Centauri shows up and takes Alex away to another planet called Rylos.  Centauri tells Alex that the game is used to find people with “the gift” to become Starfighter pilots for the Frontier.  Alex can’t believe the world of the video game is actually real and must come to terms with himself before realizing his fateful place in the universe as a Starfighter.

The thing that is unique about The Last Starfighter is that, like Tron, it was one of the first films in history to extensively use CG to create its visual effects.  Due to the fact that the technology was in its infancy, the CG in the film doesn’t hold up well against the CG of today.  It basically looks like CG that hasn’t been fully rendered with texture and with minimal lighting effects.  That being said, it actually does look pretty good and holds up pretty well on blu-ray considering the limitations of the technology.  Unlike bad CG of today, these early visual effects have a charm to them that make them enjoyable to watch.  Not all the visual effects are created through a computer though, every spaceship explosion in the film is a practical explosion despite the spaceships themselves being CG creations.  I found this to be kind of amusing and have to agree with the decision to do so as I doubt that they could have created a CG explosion that would be as cool looking as a real one.

There were quite a few practical makeup effects as well.  Centauri, being an alien disguised as a human, has a few moments where he takes off or puts on his human face revealing an alien fact underneath.  There is a really cool looking practical effect of the Beta unit (which is basically Alex’s robotic stand-in while he’s in space) before it has fully rendered its skin to look like Alex.  It has a creepy quality to it that I found pretty cool and has translucent skin that you can see blinking lights underneath showing its robotic nature.  There are also some fun practical alien designs when Alex sees the Starfighter recruits, none of which are human.  Then of course, there is the reptilian alien Grig, who befriends Alex and is his Starfighter pilot.  The make-up effects on Grig reminded me a lot of the work done in Planet of the Apes where the mouth doesn’t fully move except to show that the mouth of the actor is moving underneath.

The story itself isn’t the most fleshed out and Alex’s path to becoming a Starfighter seems fairly quick.  He takes out a single ship at first before encountering a slew of ships that he defeats and then is on his way to becoming a Starfighter legend and trainer of future Starfighters.  It just feels like things in the story happen a little too fast after slowly getting Alex into space and accustomed to the idea of being a Starfighter.  It’s not a major issue and didn’t hinder my enjoyment but it was just something that I found to be noticeable.

The Last Starfighter is a mix of a sci-fi B-movie with Amblin-esque traits.  There were a few times, during the space scenes, that I felt reminded of one of my favorite movies, Joe Dante’s Explorers, specifically the cheesy drive-in movie that is featured in Explorers a couple times.  The Last Starfighter is, ultimately, a fun little sci-fi flick that won’t astound you with its great depth, but has enough heart and love for the sci-fi genre that it is an easy movie to recommend.

Trivia

Although Wil Wheaton’s speaking scenes were cut, he can be seen in two scenes – running around the trailer park early in the film (wearing a red football jersey), and in the final scene, where he is obscured, standing behind Louis (wearing a blue jacket, possibly over the red jersey).

The alien script seen on the computer screens in the movie is actually Hebrew with some variations.

The “Star Car” that Centauri drives is based on the DeLorean automobile, including its gull wing doors and its stainless steel construction.  It was later used in Back To The Future II as a parked car in the 2015 future setting.

The translator given Alex on Rylos is the circuit board of a digital watch.

This was Robert Preston’s last movie appearance.

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2 Comments on “Summer of the 80’s: The Last Star-fighter”

  1. nanashistudios July 24, 2012 at 4:37 am #

    This is a great movie not only in terms of the historical aspect with the CG but in how emotional it was, even for a cheesy space flick. The score along with the relationship between Alex and Maggie is great. I remember when I was a kid and that part where he is in the asteroid and activates the “death blossom” on the Gunstar. That was indeed epic for an impressionable 6 year old boy to watch. This and Enemy Mine were two of my favorites.

  2. Richard W Scott July 13, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    A fun flick that I watch every three or four years.

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