THE LAST STARFIGHTER has a bit of a strange cinematic legacy. A mash-up between Spielberg-lite space opera and your typical John Hughes teen drama, it’s a film that couldn’t be more of it’s era – especially considering that the plot is centred around arcade video games. Despite this geek-trifecta (could our aesthetic really be described any more succinctly than sci-fi/video games/John Hughes?), THE LAST STARFIGHTER doesn’t even get the privilege of living on in infamy – and that’s because Nick Castle’s 1984 film, despite some of it’s cheesier moments, doesn’t quite qualify as camp. THE LAST STARFIGHTER is a legitimately good movie.
I think what holds public perception of the film back, more than anything, is the incredible debt the film owes to STAR WARS and, to a lesser extent, Disney’s TRON. There’s no denying THE LAST STARFIGHTER could have existed without those two films – something director Nick Castle and designer Ron Cobb regretably spend almost the entirety of the 25th anniversary DVD commentary doing – but this is where the world of film criticism and the our enjoyment of a film become a tricky thing. After all, there’s no denying the debt Godard owes to Jean-Pierre Melville, or Tarantino to De Palma or (500) DAYS OF SUMMER to ANNIE HALL or on and on ad infinitum. Yet all of these movies have been allowed to live as a part of some sort of cinematic legacy; critics and audiences enjoy the visual or thematic references to past films in these movies, yet THE LAST STARFIGHTER is written off as a cheap, knock-off.
I think it’s difficult to remember, what with so many aspects of the film’s mythology being so ingrained into our culture (and indeed, seeing the film being built into an entire entertainment empire) just how perfect the original STAR WARS is as a sci-fi/fantasy film. I feel ridiculous defending a film as massive as STAR WARS, but after countless novels, comics and video games, a prequel series and an endless amount of reappraisals, I often find myself doing so. STAR WARS has become so huge that topics originally only discussed in the medium of fanzines and among the fellow faithful have spread like wildfire through the popular culture – that the film is just a shameless rip-off of some Kurosawa movie, that Lucas ruined countless children’s lives with the creation of Jar-Jar Binks, that the original trilogy was ‘saved’ by Irvin Kershner, a true artist wrestling against the villainous and controlling George Lucas. These are stories as melodramatic as the trilogy itself, and I think they cloud how perfectly the 1977 STAR WARS achieved what Lucas wanted it to; to recreate the excitement, on a much grander scale, of watching a Buck Rogers serial when you’re eight years old.
It’s impossible to divorce yourself from the decades of changes in cultural attitudes and technological advances that are, obviously, going to make us see the STAR WARS phenomenon differently. But if you think about what really was special about the first film, it helps to place THE LAST STARFIGHTER in a larger context. Because, yes, THE LAST STARFIGHTER owes a lot Lucas’ massively successful trilogy – but it’s far more than a STAR WARS clone.
You really can sum up the crucial and monumental difference between STAR WARS and THE LAST STARFIGHTER with one image – Alex Rogan (played by Lance Guest), in the woods of the trailer park community where his family lives, trying to silence his longing for a more educated and fulfilling life by constantly playing a STARFIGHTER arcade console. Luke Skywalker was more or less a blank slate of an adventure hero, something young boys and girls could cipher into, whose eyes they could see the galaxy through. “Take a regular teenage boy and put him in a heroic situation in a space opera.” as Castle describes it. Yes, both Luke and Alex are simple-minded working class boys who yearn for more, both play the part of ‘chosen ones’ in an intergalactic threat, but Alex is decidedly more human.
Alex is more human because he doesn’t actually achieve a lot of the things he wants to. Alex feels like a real American teenager because he spends more time wanting than he does doing; he wants to get into university, but when his grades aren’t high enough to send him anywhere but the local community college with the rest of his friends, he storms off to play video games. In a hysterically dated review, Roger Ebert mocks Alex’s love of video games – “Are the games educational? Sure, if you want to grow up to be a professional video game player. ” (kind of ironic, coming from somebody who discusses movies for a living!) Regardless, it’s true – Alex does lack ambition.
And that’s the fun of seeing Alex being hailed as the saviour of the universe. As it turns out, Ebert was wrong – all those hours spent playing video games did add up to something. Turns out the STARFIGHTER machines were planted across the planet – despite the galaxy’s refusal to involve itself with Earth’s engagements due to our lack of civility and advancement, a true sci-fi staple – meant to discover which human had the greatest piloting skills and the greatest chance at defeating the Ko-Dan Armada.
This may be starting to sound pretty ridiculous, but the movie has a real wit to it. Beloved character actors wander in and out of the movie – Dan O’Herlihy as the reptilian navigator and cosmic tour guide to Alex is charmingly festive and jovial, and Robert Preston playing a sci-fi version of the Music Man is unforgettably over the top. There’s nothing to equal Darth Vader in terms of villainy, but the film more than makes up for it with sharp-edged and ridiculous humour. So as to not arouse suspicion during his absence, the Centauri (the aforementioned Preston, inventor of the STARFIGHTER arcade game and recruiter of Alex) leaves a robot duplicate of our hero on Earth while he’s away – an android that goes by Beta. These result in some of the most joyous moments of the film – as graduation looms and Alex’s girlfriend Maggie desperate to lose her virginity before college begins, Beta is left scrambling to try and understand human sexual relations. It’s like a vaudevillian mad-cap romp in the middle of a typical space opera – Castle balances the exciting action and adventure sequences with these surreal Almodovarian romps, and it really keeps the momentum of the film going.
The rare time THE LAST STARFIGHTER is mentioned in any kind of cinematic discussion, it’s normally in reference to it’s computer effects. One of the earliest films to rely heavily on CGI (basically the second after TRON), much of the digital imagery in THE LAST STARFIGHTER still holds up. Yes, the models and explosions appear more like something you’d see in an early video game than the massively detailed complexities we’re used to seeing now, but it’s fitting for the movie – Alex is a gamer turned hero, and THE LAST STARFIGHTER is a video game turned film.
Naturally, Alex saves the world from certain evil and is reunited with his friends and family. In fact, the ending may be my favourite thing about the entire picture. Originally intended to end with a lavish award ceremony (which would only have cemented the STAR WARS comparison even deeper), instead we see Alex choosing to combine his lavish fantasy world and his real one. He brings his spaceship down to his trailer park, introducing his mother, girlfriend and neighbours to his new alien pals. Again, Castle from the commentary – “This whole section is so corny, but fun. Introducing your alien friend to your folks.” Castle seems a little ashamed, 25 years later, that his film features far less of the ‘down endings’ of the STAR WARS franchise. However, that’s kind of what I like about THE LAST STARFIGHTER – though there’s no ignoring the elements that are there, it’s a little bit more than another film about a ‘chosen one’, a hero destined to save our doomed world. Alex is a bit of a slacker, a bit more interested in daydreaming and gaming than coming up with any concrete plans for his life. It seems fitting, then, that the film should end with him finding a balance between these two worlds. Alex can park his spaceship right next to his Mom’s trailer and head to those community college courses come fall. That’s what’s so refreshing about Alex, and about THE LAST STARFIGHTER as a film – it’s a space opera that doesn’t lose sight of it’s humanity, and it’s a whole lot more than a STAR WARS clone.