Forty years later, this '80s charmer captures the video game experience better than its successors.
Nick Castle’s “The Last Starfighter” remains the best video game movie to date and, fittingly, hit theaters when home gaming systems had just started to become a household standard.
Lance Guest stars as Alex Rogan, a teen living in a trailer park full of demanding denizens who are constantly calling on him for repairs. His day-to-day chores keeps him from properly dating his girlfriend-in-waiting, Maggie (Catherine Mary-Stewart).
Like Alex, Maggie has allowed her comfort in living modestly to hasten her desire to move away. Alex’s plans to seek escape through college acceptance are all the hope he has, though he finds distraction elsewhere, quickly becomes an ace at the park’s new arcade game: a slick, outer space model called “Starfighter,” randomly placed in front of the convenience store.
Turns out the game was put there as a recruiting tool by extra-terrestrials who need Alex’s prowess to defeat “Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada.”
“The Last Starfighter” establishes itself as a fantasy well before the aliens’ arrival. The trailer park is flush with “wacky” but lovable kooks, all of whom lose their minds when Alex breaks the “Starfighter” high score record.
The scene (which comes early) is as bogus as those TV ads they used to air for the “E.T.” arcade game at Christmastime, but charming (in a similar way)- this is the fantasy of what being a prolific gamer looks like.
You’ve beaten the game, are on top of the world and everyone around you breaks out in a celebration.
The kids on “Stranger Things” never had it this good.
Coming two years after the ahead-of-its-time “TRON,” one year after “WarGames” and a decade before the hit and mostly miss Nintendo adaptations (“Double Dragon,” “Super Mario Brothers”), Castle’s film grasps the subject matter’s appeal.
There’s no condescending or over-explaining in its depiction of the joy of playing and immersing (literally and figuratively) in the world of video games. It’s among the reasons why this movie connects and the likes of “Tomb Raider” and “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” never got it right.
The “Starfighter” game exists in the “real world,” making the transitions from Earth to the outer space drama smoother than expected. Because Jonathan Betuel’s screenplay is presenting a video game that never existed (an Atari spinoff promised in the end credits never happened), there’s no problem in accepting the heightened reality in either setting, nor believing that the alien world lies just a million miles above Alex’s trailer park.
While Castle’s film owes a great deal to the imagination of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (as do most genre films released after 1983), it never trips over itself to establish its mythology. The world building here is ambitious but compact.
Unlike the recent “Rampage,” the premise is silly but never forced. Unlike “Street Fighter,” the “Last Starfighter” narrative keeps us interested even when the action (namely, the big space battles) aren’t the primary focus.
Some helpful exposition clearly explains how the arcade game works (it’s one of those fun shoot-em-ups with multiple joysticks, a la “Centipede”). Better still, when Alex is sitting in the Gunstar for the first time and his co-pilot Grig (played by a scene stealing, unrecognizable Dan O’ Herlihy) gives him a quick lesson on its capabilities, the visuals allow us to take in the ship’s dexterity and design.
Grig notes that Alex can only see the targeting system when staring straight ahead – we also get to see this ourselves, and it’s a simple, wonderful effect.
Digital Production’s visual effects were a breakthrough in 1984, as there’s ample, early Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), with no models utilized. Today, the space battles are both striking in their glossiness and dated in their stiff movement.
If anything, the film makes a case that the once novel, now ubiquitous use of CGI to shape stories lacks the charm, hands-on inventiveness and believability of model work. Yet, even as dozens of individual shots here don’t entirely convince because of their unnatural sheen, their limitations actually adds to the notion that we’re living in a world where video games are real.
Released during the same summer as “The Karate Kid,” “Ghostbusters,” “Gremlins,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai- Across the Eighth Dimension,” Castle’s film is unquestionably ripe for rediscovery in our age of insanely persistent ’80s nostalgia.
While rated PG, this could have benefited from the then-forthcoming PG-13 rating (there are some disturbing creature effects, namely a graphic shot of an alien getting his brain melted). The scenes set in the alien ships and on Rylos, with somewhat clumsy fish-out-of-water jokes and Alex’s interactions with alien creatures, feel especially like something out of Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” TV series.
Ironically, Castle later directed an episode of that series.
The tone here isn’t all that different than “Back to the Future,” complete with a “Star Car” that resembles the time traveling Delorean in more ways than one (though Alex Rogan is more sympathetic and visibly broke than Marty McFly ever was).
Helping things enormously is Craig Safan’s hearty theme music (some of which he cleverly recycled a year later for “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins”) and a tone that allows comedy to naturally seep into the far out premise.
While “The Last Starfighter” borrows heavily from the first “Star Wars: A New Hope” (the “Starlite Starbrite” trailer park is the Tatooine that Alex is stuck in) the look and feel of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and shares a similar gimmick with “TRON,” it’s actually a closer relative to the Emilio Estevez-starring, “Bishop of Battle” vignette, from the 1983 horror anthology film, “Nightmares.”
In that movie, Estevez’s J.J. Cooney has an unhealthy obsession with playing video games (mostly because he’s so great at winning them) and finds his passion for defeating the ultimate arcade game a literal battle of life and death.
Cooney is like an edgier, far more unhinged Alex Rogan though, unlike Rogan, he never gets any of the adults in his life to appreciate his abilities at gamesmanship.
Oddly enough, for a movie that has a legacy in its breakthrough special effects, “The Last Starfighter” succeeds the most through the quality of its performances. Guest is a squeaky-clean all-American type (think Tate Donovan) but he’s amusing and droll in a way that invites complimentary comparison to John Cusack.
He’s actually much better at playing the robot clone “Beta Unit” of Alex than he is at being the real Rogan – this creepy subplot actually works, because the comedy of an android standing in for this kid with the hot girlfriend finds the right tone, complete with weird jokes about untapped sexual encounters.
The late, great Robert Preston is fantastic as Centauri and gives the movie a real jolt whenever he appears. Yes, Preston is doing a variation on his Professor Harold Hill role from “The Music Man,” but he spins it with the kind of giddy playfulness that Dean Stockwell exuded on “Quantum Leap.”
At this point in his career, Preston was best known to young audiences for his supporting parts in Blake Edwards comedies. Centauri was his swan song and a notably iconic character to devotees of nerdy 80’s cult cinema.
Stewart has an uphill battle here, establishing one of cinema’s most absurdly patient love interests, then, in her final moments, makes credible her decision to give in to one the most peer-pressured, high maintenance requests ever made of an earthling.
Stewart (who, fittingly, played a gamer herself in “Night of the Comet,” released the same year a mere four months later) makes all of this seem plausible. She has a presence that evokes warmth and intelligence, even when he character doesn’t.
Castle established a journeyman career as a director, with a couple of hits and some well remembered cult favorites like this one. His best film, “The Boy Who Could Fly” (1986) shares the wannabee-Spielberg look and tone of “The Last Starfighter,” though that film offered far richer characterizations and layers to its screenplay. Here, the story moves quickly and gets to its premise right off the bat but rarely stops for character moments.
Aficionados of video game movies may prefer the likes of “Mortal Kombat, “Resident Evil,” “Silent Hill” or Spielberg’s own failed, trying-too-hard-to-recapture-his-former-glory “Ready Player One.” If anything, those movies and most other video game flicks are overly calculated in their efforts to mimic the appeal of their predecessor.
“Doom” even went so far as to mirror the first-person shooter motif of its game and wound up looking silly for replicating a visual that only made fans want to stop watching that terrible movie, go home and boot up another round of the game.
“Scott Pilgrim Vs The World” is another top notch example of this subgenre, though it’s closer to an art house spin on a conventional love story (a sort of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” for the Hot Topic shopper set) than something akin to “Warcraft.”
The love story in “The Last Starfighter” lacks drama and immediacy, as “Maggs” (as Alex calls her) is devoted, loyal, fond of his video game fixation and eager to move past first base. She’s either the most idealized girlfriend character of that movie decade or an utter fantasy created by a male screenwriter.
The final shot, of Alex’s little brother, Louis, perched at the “Starfighter” arcade game as the Gunstar soars above him, is a glorious nod to the dream that the film evokes – that our gaming will create an extension of ourselves, provide an immersion into a fantasy world but create a bridge that connects the chasm between the real and the unreal. Louis looks up, sees his brother flying overhead, cries out “Wow!” and… keeps on playing.
“The Last Starfighter” evokes a dream of gaming with a refreshing simplicity and directness: you can enter your game, win and have it matter in the “real” world. This isn’t gaming as escapism but a true existence.
Alex Rogan is able to achieve his destiny, push past the obstacles in front of him, find his true identity and become all he was meant to be…he learned this from a video game and become not merely a player but a vital piece of the game.
If movies allow us to see our dreams and live vicariously through the deeds of others, then gaming also scratches that itch within the imagination, of unlocking stories and strategies within the game that we absorb as an ongoing narrative. This kind if direct hit to the cerebral cortex is present in “The Last Starfighter” but absent in most other video game movies, which tend to emphasize visual sensation but lose the essence of what their purpose is.
Video game movies are still an ongoing art form to master but “The Last Starfighter,” although an early example of this ever-evolving subgenre, grasps the wonder of gaming and the thrill of a game coming to life.
Rogan’s “everyman” qualities are just right, as we’re able to put ourselves in his shoes, live the adventure and beat the game, presented through a lean, clearly stated narrative. That’s the best notion of what a video game movie could provide and all the reason why this one, forty years later, continues to soar past the others.