Friday, April 16, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Starfighter (1984)

During an era in which computer-generated special effects are often over-utilized, the phrase "it looks like a video game" has frequently been deployed by film critics as a cutting insult.

In the case of Nick Castle's quarter-century-old The Last Starfighter (1984), however, the phrase is actually a compliment.

This is especially true if one subscribes to the critical theory that a movie's shape ought to reinforce and supplement the movie's content.

Here, The Last Starfighter's video-game-themed visuals and flourishes -- primarily featuring outer-space warfare -- hark back to the movie's central concept: that of an earthbound arcade video game serving as a futuristic sword-in-the-stone test that uncovers hidden greatness and heroism.
The Last Starfighter depicts the heroic journey of young Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), a man searching for meaning in his life. Alex lives in a "flea-speck" trailer court -- the Starlite-Starbrite -- along with his Mom and little brother, Lewis. He has been turned down for a college loan, and now plans to partake in "a world-wide tour to nowhere."

Alex is also in love with the gorgeous Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), a girl who seems afraid to cast her eyes and aspirations beyond the confines of their small world. "The truth is," he tells her, "you're scared of leaving the trailer park." But Alex actively desires an escape from his life of quiet desperation.

And to his surprise, he gets his wish...

When Alex achieves the new high score on an arcade game called Starfighter, he is promptly recruited by a flamboyant alien named Centauri (Robert Preston). After a lightning-fast journey to the stars, Alex must then save the peaceful planet Rylos from the invading space armada of the traitorous Zur and the barbaric Ko-Dan fleet.

At first Alex refuses to fight in this dangerous galactic confrontation, but soon he accepts his destiny as a Starfighter, and -- with the help of an Iguana-like co-pilot named Grig (Dan O'Herlihy) -- takes on "The Black Terror of the Ko-Dan" in a ship called a GunStar.

And everything --- the ship, the universe, the weaponry -- is right out of Starfighter. The game is thus revealed to be an incredibly accurate simulation and training ground rather than a mere "game;" a past-time that many don't accept as worthwhile. When Alex informs his Mother that he has achieved the high score, for instance, she blows off his achievement with a casual, "that's nice." She doesn't get it. She doesn't understand. To Alex, this is important stuff...
Along with Walt Disney's Tron (1982), The Last Starfighter is one of the earliest Hollywood productions to eschew models, miniatures, and motion-control photography for a new way.

Instead or relying on tried-and-true physical techniques, the film deploys digital representations of spaceships, planet surfaces, star-bases and the like in its various visual effects sequences. From space cars to GunStars, from the force-field of the breached Frontier to the Rylosian base, everything in The Last Starfighter is entirely computer-generated.


These CG creations indeed appear primitive and lacking-in-necessary-detail to our trained, experienced 21st century eyes, but nonetheless, they still interact meaningfully with The Last Starfighter's subject matter and core themes.

Specifically, Alex Rogan's cry of jubilation that real outer space combat is "just like the game!" is meant literally. Space battles intentionally look like golden age video game battles, and spaceship read-outs resemble the arcade game interface/console. When Alex grabs the joystick on his GunStar and blasts Ko-Dan fighters to smithereens for the first time, the audience is meant to remember and embrace Alex's experience with the arcade model; and indeed, its own experiences playing video games.

This is an important element of The Last Starfighter. The film forges a positive connection between our grounded reality -- our popular forms of entertainment such as video games -- and the intergalactic society of the stars, which the film uses explicitly as a metaphor for achieving one's dreams and goals.

Released during the aforementioned video game 's so-called Golden Age (1982-1987) -- the epoch of home systems such as the Atari 2600, Intellivision, Colecovision and Vectrex -- The Last Starfighter thus develops an idea that every gamer -- at one point or another -- has at least briefly, or perhaps subconsciously, entertained.

Simply stated, that idea is that the immersing video game platform is a gateway or training-ground that leads straight to real life adventure. The player thus imagines -- or wishes himself -- essentially, into the world of the game.

A 1983 anthology film, Nightmares offers a darker contemplation of the same wish-fulfillment notion, landing Emilio Estevez's character into a deadly contest based on a fictional video game called "The Bishop of Battle. In The Last Starfighter, Alex realizes his dream of escape (and personal importance...) via his skill in video games...and actually comes to touch the stars.

These two productions function as two sides of the same coin, and both acknowledge something brewing in the American pop culture at the dawn of video game popularity: the experiential nature of the new medium, and the manner in which some players view reflexes and talents honed in the game world as real life tools.

Any film attempting to make this point in cinematic terms should indeed utilize special effects that audiences directly associate with the visuals of early era video games. Both Nightmares and The Last Starfighter accomplish that feat. In the latter case, the visuals of a Star Trek or a Star Wars film wouldn't work as cleverly here as do the CG effects: the audience wouldn't make the leap so cleanly from game to reality without the game-like special effects to connect the realms, to connect the dreams with the achievement of the dreams.

While integrating the up-to-date video game craze of its time, The Last Starfighter also puts a mythical, classical spin on its tale. Specifically, the movie terms the Starfighter arcade game, an "Excalibur" test, alluding to the Arthurian legends of Camelot.

Or, to adopt the movie's terminology itself: "only a few were found to possess the gift." Thus a joystick jockey isn't just a simple player then, but a hero-in-waiting, a king-in-the-making. One ready to pull the sword from the stone and accept his or her true destiny as hero. This approach to heroism is also splendidly democratic: anybody with the skill and talent can become a Starfighter. Station in life -- or point of origin -- (like a trailer park) doesn't matter.

What remains so much fun about The Last Starfighter today is the manner in which it imaginatively and humorously integrates the entertainment past (film and literature) with what it views as the "future" of mass entertainment (video-games; CG effects).

This means that Robert Preston -- playing an alien named Centauri -- offers a variation on his beloved character from Morton DaCosta's classic The Music Man (1962). Like Harold Hill in that production, Centauri arrives at his destination (Starlite Starbrite Trailer Court, not River City) in a disguise of sorts. And like Harold Hill, Centauri's primary concern seems to be wealth. Of course, in the end, the scoundrel is revealed to have -- surprise! -- a heart of gold. That's true in both films.

Also, in keeping with the video game aesthetic of The Last Starfighter, Centauri's/Hill's colorful language has been updated. "You bet your asteroids," he quips at one point, and the audience just knows he's referring not to space-going rocks...but rather to Atari's 1979 arcade game, Asteroids.

And when a Ko-Dan weapon targets a vulnerable starbase, the high-tech screens inside that facility cut to a real-time image of a streaking-missile or bomb that could have been lifted right from Dave Theurer's initiative for Atari, Missile Command (1980). A weapon with a trail inches irrevocably towards its destination, an unprotected (unshielded) installation. What follows -- just as in the game - is total annihilation.

The Last Starfighter
even offers a metaphysical spin on life and death, and one also related to the tao of video games. After Centauri is believed dead, he returns to life (just in time for a happy ending). He claims to have simply been "dormant."

Of course, in video games, our avatars die and are re-born on a regular basis every time we hit the reset or start button on our consoles. In the world of The Last Starfighter, as in the world of video games, death is not a permanent state of affairs. We live to fight another day and death may just be that "unseen dimension" in which we've activated the "off" switch till the next contest, the next burst of "life" and action.

The Last Starfighter is a lot of fun, and a memorable genre film overall...if not always a great one. Watching it today, one can see how it suffers from a case of that 1980s affliction called "the cutes." Specifically, there's a lot of sub-adolescent humor involving Alex's little brother, and it's just seems goofy and unnecessary today. Of course, Lewis serves a purpose in the plot beyond the wise-cracks and young-skewing humor too. Near film's end, we see him applying himself to the Starfighter arcade game. The next generation awaits its turn...

But when The Last Starfighter works on all thrusters, it really works. Appropriately, the film's final shot is a memorable and even stirring one. The camera is aimed towards the Heavens, as Alex, Maggie and Grig return to the stars aboard the accelerating GunStar. But below the GunStar -- closer to us in the shot, at the lower left-hand corner of the frame -- stands the neon, flickering star icon/sign of the Starlite/Starbrite Trailer Park.

Like so much of the film's visuals, that neon, colored light seems a reflection of down-to-Earth technology, of the video game graphics of the day (the 1980s). The image is simple and basic -- but still a beacon in the night calling us to adventure. And oppositely, calling adventure to us.

In one closing shot, we get both our grounded reality (the reality of video games) and the dream of a better one: a rocket ship bound for adventure. It's a beautiful and valedictory image, and if you consider The Last Starfighter a film about dreaming big dreams, a meaningful one too.

Early in The Last Starfighter, Alex notes with despair that he is "only" a kid from Earth, not a starfighter. Centauri replies that "if that's what you think, that's all you'll ever be."

We can't all be heroes and starfighters, but Centauri's words remind audiences that when humans apply themselves opportunities arise. When we dream (even if we're "dreaming" video games), we imagine new possibilities. A voyage to Mars in 2030, perhaps?

A high score in life opens up all sorts of doorways. Not just to outer space, but to adventures unknown and great. And when we hear the words, "Greetings Starfighter," it's our responsibility to grab the joystick, kick in the thrusters, and go for the gusto.

In suggesting that course of action, The Last Starfighter may not be great art, but in its own entertaining way, it's certainly an inspiring genre film, and one worthy of a re-visit today.

8 comments:

  1. Wonderful review and look back, John. The game technology of the time dates it, but in a good nostalgic tone I think. I'm afraid I'm too old to have experienced the latter game platforms that you note (Donkey Kong is what I spent my quarters on at a nearby eatery during my lunch time at work, and is the extent of my gaming life I afraid). But, I could relate with this film, at this moment in time. And like you said, it's not a perfect film, but when it works... Keen point about Robert Preston's role here in comparison with THE MUSIC MAN, too. Fun review for a fun movie, JKM. Thanks for this.

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  2. This was definitely a favorite of mine in my younger days, and not just because I had a joystick in my hand at the age of 5, but also I think for the story's tone as a sort of electronic fable for the video game set.

    Not only does it speak to the human lessons of determination and working hard, but also to a very 'video game' lesson of timing. Things happen at certain intervals, even more so of games in that day and age, and success or failure hinged on your ability to anticipate or react to that pattern of events. Damage is incoming at a certain time. The hero doesn't 'lose a life' by avoiding that damage. The black and yellow button is pushed at exactly the right time, and so on.

    Fail to anticipate or react correctly and what happens? As the man in the film says "We Die." It is I think, testament to the impression this film made on me that those two words flicker through my head briefly every time I hear someone say the precursor phrase : "What do we do?"

    Great fun - and as a kid in a musical family, I loved the Robert Preston bit myself. I kept expecting him to whip out a trumpet.

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  3. I have truly wonderful memories of this film. I saw it the summer it was released on a day I was feeling down. My father said I should pick a movie and he'd take me and my niece (who is the same age as me). It was such a pick me up and I fell in love with Lance Guest! I'm still in love with Lance Guest! :) I can't think about this movie without remembering my intial reactions to seeing it that one summer day...

    I LOVE that section of Nightmares with Emilio. I caught that one on TV. Emilio was such a punk rocker! I love him too! :)

    Great review!

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  4. This movie was a mid-80s cable staple. I must have seen it 50 times when I was in elementary school (and probably another 25 since!) but it hasn't grown a bit old. Never fails to bring a big, goofy smile to my face. One of my all-time favorites. Great review!

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  5. Thank you for the comments everyone!

    LeOpard13: you got it. This is a fun movie, pure and simple. That sense of fun doesn't seem to get old, even after a quarter century.

    Woodchuckgod: I love your description of The Last Starfighter as an "electronic fable for the video game set." That's a gorgeous turn-of-phrase that I wish I had come up with! :)

    Amanda-by-Night: I think my wife, Kathryn, is also in love with Lance Guest. What was a surprise to me watching The Last Starfighter again after so many years is how funny Guest is as the Beta Unit. I had either forgotten or never knew he was so skilled with comedy. Makes me wish he'd starred in more films...

    Count Zero: This movie gives me a case of the smiles every time too!

    best,
    JKM

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  6. Y'know, this review is a potent reminder of why I enjoy reading your reviews. Your mentioning of the golden age of video games (and arcades) in the 1980s took me instantly back to my childhood and the hours (and coins) spent playing video games at the local arcade. And then THE LAST STARFIGHTER came out and it was pure manna from heaven - wish fulfillment for anyone who played video games at that time - the concept that playing a game could actually get you recruited for inter-galactic space combat! Amazing.

    I haven't watched this film in ages and I really need to pick up the special edition DVD that's out there, one of these days.

    And this film certainly helped cultivate my cinematic crush on Catherine Mary Stewart, along with NIGHT OF THE COMET. And she still looks great for that matter.

    Awesome review! I really enjoyed reading this.

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  7. Hey J.D.:

    Thank you for your kind words about this review. They are much appreciated!

    The Last Starfighter really does take you back to 1984, doesn't it? And I'm so glad you mentioned Catherine Mary Stewart...I've had a crush on her for 25 years (more than half my life!!!!)

    best,
    JKM

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  8. I saw this in 1984 as well, and it's stuck with me ever since then. All of the points are right, and I wan to see a remake (only this time, with Alex getting the game via X-Box Live or the Play Station Network!)

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