“Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-dan armada.” — Centauri
In dark and ancient times, when men were men and “sci-fi” was spelled without y’s, it could take years rather than weeks for a film to meander the inevitable route from post-production to theaters to video to six showings per week on TNT between “Law & Order” reruns. For those doomed children raised by parents without a cultivated appreciation for cable television, entertainment was ruled by the antenna, that spectacular Escher crosshatch sculpted of aluminum. Before the almighty pizza satellite dishes, the landscape of suburbia bristled with the stubble of antennae, jutting from every roof like barbed insect tongues tasting the sky. Some of us had sympathetic relatives, who used their HBO subscriptions and VCRs to feed us budding science fiction geeks a steady diet of double sided VHS tapes each loaded with up to a half dozen sci-fi films. My Uncle Mike kept me supplied, and one of the best of those mix tapes was how I watched The Last Starfighter,” nestled between Return of the Jedi, Willow, and The Princess Bride.
I explain the context because for a movie like The Last Starfighter it matters a great deal. Much of what makes it so memorable is the way that it is lodged in the brains of people who were a certain age at a certain time. It wasn’t a blockbuster toy and game seller like the entire Star Wars franchise, a glorious R-rated sci-fi/horror hybrid like Terminator, Alien or Predator, and certainly wasn’t high concept science fiction. It was one of the last great B-movies to hit the genre before their production was co-opted by the SyFy channel’s late night department.
The story resembles Star Wars in the broad strokes. Boy hates dead-end trailer park existence, laments ever leaving, a mysterious stranger takes boy to the stars to be a starfighter pilot, boy triumphs in the ensuing battle against impossible odds. The Last Starfighter nailed that relatable escapist fantasy that a stranger would swoop in, anoint you as the chosen one, and then spirit you away from a mundane life to one of adventure. That describes roughly two-thirds of all plots ever written, but The Last Starfighter does a superb job of running with that archetypical plot.
The arcade game Alex plays constantly to boil off the stress of the trailer park is in fact a honey pot designed to find natural fighter pilots. The controls are identical to those of the Gunstars flown by the Star League, the weapons and enemies in the game are simulations of those in the actual war. Obliviously, Alex is training as he plays, and when he sets the high score on the machine the inevitable mysterious stranger named Centauri takes him to the stars. Alex is reluctant at first, but eventually is convinced by his reptilian co-pilot Grig that the war will come to Earth anyway if he doesn’t join the fight. A sneak attack by a traitor decimates the Star League in Alex’s absence, and he returns to fight alone against the entire enemy armada, in a battle recognizable to anyone who ever played the one-fighter-against-a-million-aliens space shooters of the eighties. It even includes the super weapon that can be used only once that wipes out every enemy on the screen. Death blossom, not just the goth version of a bloomin’ onion.
The video game angle is not just played for laughs, it’s actually an important nuance. Alex is recruited to be a starfighter not because his dad was space Hitler, or because he stumbled across a magical MacGuffin that attaches itself to him for plot convenience. He is recruited because he’s damned good at something, even if it’s something utterly irrelevant to life or success on Earth. It echoes that cliché of geekdom in which we all think that if we were just born in a different time and place, we would become legends, that the problem isn’t us, it’s that the world places no value on our talents. All of us kids who saw this movie have spent a lifetime playing video games with a tickle in the back of our mind that this time it might be for real. It’s Ender’s Game stripped down to a space opera skeleton. The Matrix is the The Last Starfighter taken to its logical extreme: reality itself is the video game.
The special effects are surprisingly decent for the time period. It relied almost entirely on CGI, as opposed to spacecraft models as used extensively in the three Star Wars films that predate The Last Starfighter. From a film history perspective, it’s interesting just from the point of view that this was one of the first times CGI played such a large role in a film. That’s certainly not to say that the effects will hold up to 21st century standards. It’s going to be very hard for you to watch parts of this film without laughing if the first time you played video games was on a Super Nintendo after the Berlin Wall fell.
The actors hold up their end of the screen. Lance Guest playing Alex manages to be bitter and uncertain at turns without disintegrating into outright whininess. Norman Snow hams it up so thoroughly as the maniacally evil Xur that his awesomely lame steel scepter of blades might as well be made of bacon. Dan O’Herlihy brings to Grig both a childish gung-ho spirit and a measure of melancholy at the weight of their mission. Centauri, played by Robert Preston in his final role, adds that Han Solo-esque rogue quality to the film, riffing away in an almost iambic pentameter. The character’s schemes level out the film to a degree: video games as a recruitment tool is such a phenomenally lousy idea that it only makes sense that it’s a get rich quick scheme by Centauri, without the backing of the Star League.
The heart of the film really is in the side story of the android left behind on Earth to take Alex’s place, wearing his face and trying to fit in as wacky hijinks ensue. These segments could have fallen easily into the trap of generic fish-out-of-water humor, but they work because they intertwine with the deeper theme of finding your place in the world. The android makes a mess of Alex’s life, but it serves to underline just how much Alex doesn’t belong in that life. The android makes a literally perfect foil for Alex. It’s one thing to hear a dozen people telling you that you’re throwing away opportunity, it’s quite another for your own face to tell you it in your own voice.
The Last Starfighter is not a great film, but it’s a damned fun one, especially if you ever spent a summer endlessly feeding quarters into an arcade machine. It’s the poor man’s Star Wars but it has a hell of a good time while doing it.
“There’s no fleet, no Starfighters, no plan? One ship, you, me, and that’s it?” — Alex
“Exactly. Xur thinks you’re still on Earth. Classic military strategy: surprise attack.” — Grig
“It’ll be a slaughter!” — Alex
“That’s the spirit!” — Grig
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.