Friday, April 25, 2014

The Films of 1984: The Last Starfighter


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 thirty-year old outer space epic, The Last Starfighter (1984), however, the phrase is actually a compliment.

This is especially true if one subscribes to the critical theory -- as I do -- that a movie's shape or form 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, Excalibur test that uncovers hidden greatness and heroism among certain players..

And one quality I especially admire about The Last Starfighter today is that it this Excalibur test concerns skill and ability and not blood-lines.  

Alex  Rogan makes it to outer space (and escapes his trailer park origins...) based on his own abilities, not because he has the "right" genetic heritage, or midichlorians, or what have you.  

That's a message that bears repeating today, especially when it is becoming more and more difficult to achieve success if you are not rich, or from the right family.




“Things change. Always do.  You’ll get your chance. The import thing is: when it comes, you’ve got grab it with both hands and hold on tight.”


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.




"Death is a primitive concept."


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, every image in The Last Starfighter is 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 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. 


But 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. 


Thus video games are no mere entertainment, and certainly not a waste of time.  They are, in fact, teaching 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, or, more aptly, 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 (films like Star Wars and Arthurian 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...it's actually a "primitive concept" according to Grig.  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 fires on all thrusters, it really works. It captures what few films that followed Star Wars managed to re-create: a sense or aura of unfettered fun.

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 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 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 very course of action, The Last Starfighter may not be great art, but in its own entertaining way, it's an inspiring genre film, and one worthy of a re-visit.  The film is as fresh and fun, and rousing as it was three decades ago.

2 comments:

  1. In all honesty, if this was the type of film that Steven Spielberg had been producing and directing during the period, I wouldn't have such a low opinion of the man's work. This is how it is done. Extremely top notch work from the lovable Robert Preston and Dan O'Herlihy. Death Blossom forever!!!

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  2. Yeah, this movie is about dreaming big, I also love that small town atmosphere we get from Alex's trailer park neighborhood, the neighbors are like an extended family, everybody knows everybody.

    You're right, it is an inspiring film, still re-watch it all the time, it has a great sense of adventure, I love that musical score!

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