[Cinema Sunday] ‘The Last Starfighter’ – Space Opera Extraordinaire

The Last Starfighter
“Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.” – Cenaturi

What person doesn’t enjoy a good space adventure? Soaring through the far reaches of the great expanses, helming a vessel of unbelievable measure and going on all sorts of daring adventures. These are the things that dreams can be made of, the stuff of wishes and fantasies brought to life.

For some people, it’s a part of daily life. And for others, it’s the chance to be more than what they ever thought they possibly could be. Such is the case with this 1984 space opera delight The Last Starfighter.

Directed by Nick Castle (actor/director famed for playing Michael Myers in Halloween), with script by Jonathan R. Betuel, has a rich and fascinating backstory to how it exactly came about. Sadly, there isn’t much in the way of printed material to prime the pump for history.

But this intrepid reviewer dug through the web and found something for share with all loyal readers and sci-fi fans. An article from Gizmodo that digs into the hows and whys.

One interesting thing is the core of the story itself as well as its inspirations. So, here’s a section from that article to fill in some gaps for all who are just discovering The Last Starfighter.

The story started with screenwriter Jonathan R. Betuel, who was working at an ad agency at the time, wandering into a video arcade in the early 80s and watching a kid play an arcade game. According to Betuel in an interview on the DVD extra Crossing the Frontier: The Making of The Last Starfighter, he envisioned an arcade game that was also like the Arthurian Sword in the Stone. A game that would beam out a signal, announcing the chosen one, when a high score was reached.

And according to the DVD commentary, they had to make a lot of changes to the script to differentiate TLS from all the movies Steven Spielberg or George Lucas was putting out in the 80s. Originally, Starfighter was going to be set in the suburbs, not in a trailer park, but they felt that was too similar to movies like E.T.Close Encounters, and Poltergeist.

In fact, director Nick Castle spent a lot of time comparing his film to the works of Spielberg and Lucas (as he knew that comparisons to Star Wars were inevitable) and then doing his best to make his movie different, which wasn’t always easy, he explained: “You basically back into George Lucas and Steven Spielberg at every corner… You see all those moments come up and you realize, boy, George really knew what he was doing.”

It just goes to show, that even the most dedicated of directors and writers pull the nuggets of ideas from other sources. But it’s what they do with those nuggets to make them their own that gives each movie, no matter the genre, that unique signature to stand on its own.

Cast in the role of Alex Rogan, Lance Guest brings the classic reluctant hero role to life through his performance. An almost typical 80’s teen, who wants more out of life and feels like he’s going nowhere. A perfect high score on the Starfighter video game at his mother’s trailer park thrusts him into an adventure like none other. Not only does he get out of the trailer park, Lance’s character of Alex goes to space to become a Starfighter and engage in an epic space battle against the dreaded Ko-Dan’s. Along the way he learns more about himself and in the end, seems to have become more confident and sure of things like the future and his place in it.

Another figure of note in the movie is not the villain or even the love interest. It’s the person who gets Lance (Alex) out of the trailer park and into the stars. That is Centauri, played beloved actor Robert Preston. Centauri, well he’s not a bad figure, just a little loose on what could be right or wrong. In this case, he considers it right to take Alex to space to become a Starfighter, because he is to receive a massive payoff for such. In point of fact, Centauri is based on one of Robert Preston’s best roles, that of Professor Harold Hill in the beloved musical and movie, The Music Man.

Many times in recent articles, instead of diving into the whats and whys of how these films are made, this reviewer has simply included a link to a ‘behind the scenes’ video. That is primarily because it is both more fun and more educational to see and hear from the people who were a part of said movie, talk about it. And so for everyone’s viewing pleasure, part 1 of the making of The Last Starfighter.

Unfortunately, sometimes, while a movie can look great and be cast well, it doesn’t go over smooth with the critics. Roger Ebert gave this 80’s space opera only 2 ½ out of 4 stars. He did however note the following in his review.

“The Last Starfighter” is not a terrifically original movie. The video game concept seems inspired by Walt Disney’s “Tron”, and the battles in space are such close copies of the “Star Wars” movies that George Lucas might have a lawsuit. For example, when Grig gives the kids lessons in how to fire from the cockpit of his rocket, the cockpit’s swivel chair looks directly inspired by the original “Star Wars”. If the movie isn’t original in its special effects, it tries to make up for that in the trailer camp scenes. A large gallery of eccentric supporting actors is trotted onscreen, all with a few colorful lines to say, and there’s a subplot about the love affair between the kid’s girlfriend and the robot who has replaced the kid (every time the girl tries to lick his ear, he gets a short circuit).

Not every sci-fi movie to come out of the 80’s can be as impactful or groundbreaking as Star Wars, Aliens, or even Buckaroo Banzai. Nevertheless, The Last Starfighter IS enjoyable to watch. From its plot to its characters and decent special effects, all these elements make it worthwhile. So the next time someone wants to watch a guilty pleasure movie or just enjoy something different, make a point to screen The Last Starfighter, and prepare for the fight of your life.