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Entries in Last Starfighter/The [1984] (1)

Thursday
Mar032011

The Last Starfighter (1984) Home Video Review

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Nick Castle’s The Last Starfighter is a daring, original movie about a poor kid who dreams about leaving behind his life of family chores to chase his destiny beyond the stars.  One day, he’s recruited by an old man and becomes an intergalactic fighter pilot in a war against a ruthless alien overlord who plans to conquer the universe at the behest of his master, an evil emperor.

Look, it was the early 80s, and everyone and their mother was cashing in on the Star Wars craze.  What sets The Last Starfighter apart, besides its brazen homages (a nasty alien gets its arm lopped off; the rebels' stronghold is blown up; the resistance fleet is made of inter-stellar races who fly what are essentially horizontally compacted X-wing fighters), is its effectiveness in replicating what made Star Wars special--while tweaking that series' conventions just enough to deliver the occasional surprise.

Lance Guest stars as Alex Rogan, the aforementioned kid who doubts he'll ever be more than the handyman for his mom's trailer court.  He complains--rightfully so--that he can't go to Silver Lake with his girlfriend, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) because he has to restore a neighbor's electricity.  His only escape is through a video game called Starfighter, in which he blasts alien ships to save the galaxy.  Alex beats the game one evening, and in a moment that could only happen in the saccharine Spielberg Era, everyone in the trailer court rushes out to celebrate.

It turns out the Starfighter machine is actually a recruiting tool for the Rylans, a peaceful alien race looking to snatch up high-scoring champions from across the universe.  They need help fending off Xur (Norman Snow), the turncoat Rylan face of the Ko-Dan empire.  A kooky old man named Centauri (Robert Preston) shows up in a flying car (whose design you may think was stolen from Back to the Future, but Castle and co. got there first).  He whisks Alex off to Rylos, leaving behind a "Beta" version that has all of Alex's physical traits but none of his social acumen.

On Rylos, Alex freaks out at the prospect of his video game coming to life and he demands to go home (the unwelcome presence of a Xur hologram during a strategy meeting--in which the tyrant melts a Rylan spy's face into a steaming, bloody mound--does little for his confidence).  While Centauri reluctantly escorts his charge back to Earth, Xur launches an attack on Rylos and wipes out the entire Rylan fleet.

No points for guessing that word of the assault reaches Alex and Centauri, and our conflicted hero decides to stand up for the decimated Rylans as pilot of...the last starfighter.  From here, the film diverges into an "A" story where Alex and his lizard-man navigator Grig (Dan O'Herlihy) train for battle and face down Ko-Dan warships, and a "B" story where Beta Alex tries to blend in while fending off Ko-Dan bounty hunters and Maggie's sexual advances.

Guest shows great versatility playing dual roles.  Alex is a hopeful, whiny innocent, while Beta Alex is a robot who doesn't understand why people are so stupid; screenwriter Jonathan R. Betuel makes the ingenious decision to place Luke Skywalker and C-3PO into the same body and let all the drama and comedy that implies play out.  Both versions of Alex are given room to both be embarrassed and to exhibit great heroism, and Guest does such a great job of selling the duality that I swear the actor looks different in each role.

Speaking of looking different, how about those early-80s special effects, eh?  I'm farily confident that two things will prevent anyone under the age of twenty from watching--much less appreciating--The Last Starfighter: one is the cheese, which we've covered, and the other is the primitive CG that we as an audience are meant to believe represent physical objects in our shared reality.  I admit, it was hard to buy into some of the space battles because I've been spoiled by decades of continuously improving special effects.

But I appreciate the visual effects team's advances in computer modeling and animation.  Their work here is a few steps up from Tron, with more detailed models and varied lighting effects on moving surfaces--though the extended scene where Alex and Grig hide their ship inside an asteroid to evade enemy fighters reveals some truly sad rock environments.  To the filmmakers' credit, there's not a lot of interaction between actors and CG animation: unlike a lot of modern technological show ponies, The Last Starfighter seems to know that one must sometimes draw lines in order to keep the illusion alive (I was tickled to see one piece of "wild, futuristic technology", in a scene where Grig pulls out a credit-card-sized device that cycles through pictures of his family--it looks and functions like an iPhone).

One caveat is the practical makeup.  It's distracting because it's inconsistent.  On one hand, you have Grig and Ko-Dan bigwig Lord Kril (Dan Mason); their alien skins are so finely crafted and flexible that I instantly bought into the reality of their characters.  I also loved the design; especially Kril's, which looks like a sinister organic mudslide.  And the Grig makeup gets so deep into the areas around O'Herlihy's eyes that the actor looks perpetually on the verge of tears (or stoned--either of which is understandable).

On the other hand, the background aliens look like hastily developed prop masks; which is fine, for background aliens.  But when Alex steps on the rubbery tentacle of a testy squid-monster/starfighter-pilot, the creature yells and gestures wildly with pink Muppet-throw-pillow hands.  I understand wanting to spend one's effects bullets in the most important areas, but some of these aliens are really low-rent.

I've spent a good deal of this review writing about what didn't work about The Last Starfighter and comparing it to Star Wars.  As a critic, it's my responsibility to point out things that occur to me--positive and negative--while watching a movie, so that you'll have some idea of what to expect (and, if you disagree with me, where I'm coming from).  It's true that all these thoughts occurred to me while watching the movie, but they didn't make their way to the surface until after it was over; for almost an hour and forty-five minutes, I was seven years old again, going on a fantastic space adventure and re-learning lessons about believing in oneself and the power of friendship.  If this film was indeed a cash-in, it was the most earnest, effective one I've ever seen.

Nugget of Awesomeness:  For you horror fans out there, here's a little piece of trivia I like to call "Six Degrees of Michael Myers":  One of Nick Castle's earliest claims to fame was playing The Shape in John Carpenter's Halloween (he also appeared uncredited as the alien in Carpenter's Dark Star).   Three years later, Lance Guest starred as Jimmy in Halloween 2, and two years after that, Dan O'Herlihy played the evil mask maker Conal Cochran in Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

Did You Catch That?  In the beginning of Craig Safan's beautiful, John-Williams-esque score, I swear I heard the tinkling of video game coins.