The Last Starfighter (Limited Edition)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Sci-Fi;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Lance Guest, Catherine Mary Stewart, Robert Preston, Dan O’Herlihy, Norman Snow, Dan Mason, Chris Hebert, Barbara Bosson, Vernon Washington.

In the decades since its release, The Last Starfighter has proved to be one of the seminal space fantasies of the 1980s, and Arrow Video’s new special-edition Blu-ray gives it the treatment it deserves.

On the surface, the 1984 space adventure would appear to be a mish-mash of a few of the biggest trends at the time. The plot is a bit Star Wars meets Tron, involving a teenager named Alex (Lance Guest) living in a trailer park and dreaming of a better life as he distracts himself playing a video game called Starfighter. After he sets the high score on the machine, he learns it’s a recruitment tool monitored by a fast-talking alien named Centauri (Robert Preston of The Music Man in his final film role) who wants him to become a warrior for an interplanetary alliance preparing to fend off an invasion, joining the ranks of the starfighters — who serve as elite gunners for the Star League’s fighting ships.

However, when an attack cripples the fleet and kills all the other starfighters, Alex is left as the final hope for the galaxy, aided by his pilot and navigator, Grig, a humanoid lizard played by Dan O’Herlihy, who is perhaps best known as the old man from Robocop.

Overt parallels with the story of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone are no accident, as screenwriter Jonathan R. Betuel had been reading The Once and Future King when he got the idea of substituting a video game for Excalibur.

The film story also offers a touch of The Wizard of Oz in its tale of someone transported from obscurity to a strange land and confronted with the task of freeing it from evil.

But in focusing on the sci-fi and video game crazes that dominated the era, the film and its notion of fanboys becoming the next Luke Skywalker was the ultimate fantasy fulfillment for boys (and perhaps a few girls) growing up in the ’80s.

As if Alex’s offworld adventures weren’t enough, the film adds a subplot about a robot lookalike sent to replace Alex on Earth so no one will notice he’s missing. This dovetails into yet another plot thread of the film, a love story, with Alex promising to take his girlfriend (Catherine Mary Stewart) away to a better life. His robot doppelganger, however, throws a complication into their relationship with his awkward attempts to understand humanity. He’s also the target of alien bounty hunters who want to eliminate the last starfighter to ensure the invasion goes smoothly — the robot serving as a nice decoy while the real Alex prepares for his mission. (The film is at least wise enough to broach the question of why the robots aren’t doing the fighting, even if it doesn’t want to delve too heavily into the answer.)

So, with these additional elements, the presages elements of Starman, which came out later the same year, as well as 1999’s Galaxy Quest, another story of people connected to fictional space adventure discovering the fantasy is real.

It almost seems like too much stuffed into one movie, but director Nick Castle makes it work, aided by several energetic performances and a rousing musical score by Craig Safan. The worldbuilding is sufficient enough to warrant a sequel, but one never emerged despite a few ideas being kicked.

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The bigger irony may be how the film’s credits promote a tie-in video game, which would seem to be an obvious marketing tool for the film, but Atari never got around to making it. A few games based on the film did pop up over the years, but most of these were just retools of pre-existing games, and certainly didn’t match the gameplay depicted within the film itself. As chronicled in the Blu-ray extras, one fan did manage to eventually program a Starfighter cabinet that served as a reasonable facsimile to the game as depicted within the movie.

While the trope of a video game as a recruitment tool has been aped in subsequent movies and TV shows, in terms of film history The Last Starfighter might be most notable as one of the first films to use extensive CGI for visual effects, particularly using computer animation to depict things meant to exist in reality — in this case for all the spaceflight shots. Before this, CGI had been limited mostly to depicting displays on computers and in simulations. Even in Tron, which came out two years earlier in 1982, the CGI effects were used to depict the digital landscape within a computer.

Though the effects were groundbreaking at the time, they are far from photorealistic and still carry the obvious sheen of early CGI, reminiscent of how video games looked in the 1990s. The filmmakers in various bonus materials discuss how time limitations forced them to not fully develop some of the shots as detailed as they would have liked, or the movie could have taken another year to finish. But it was an important step in advancing the technique for visual effects within the industry. For context, it was only nine years before Jurassic Park, and 11 years before the first Toy Story.

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The new Arrow Video edition is a huge improvement over the previously released Blu-ray from Universal Pictures, which originally distributed the film in theaters. The picture and sound are a step up thanks to Arrow’s fresh remastering of the film elements.

In addition, the bonus materials from previous releases have all carried over alongside a trove of new ones.

Among the legacy materials are a 32-minute, four-part making-of documentary from the 1999 15th anniversary DVD, a 25-minute retrospective featurette from the 2009 25th anniversary Blu-ray, several photo galleries and the film’s trailers. There’s also the informative 1999 DVD commentary by Castle and designer Ron Cobb, who just died this past September.

Among the new extras are two additional commentary tracks, both of which are worth a listen. One is by Mike White of “The Projection Booth” podcast, which is a bit more of a fan’s perspective on the film and it’s place in the sci-fi genre. The other is star Lance Guest with his 16-year-old son, Jackson, which serves as a nice inter-generational reflection.

The new featurettes are a series of retrospective interviews with people involved with the film: 10 minutes with Stewart, 12 minutes with Safan, 10 minutes with Betuel, and 10 minutes with special effects supervisor Kevin Pike.

There’s also an eight-minute video of sci-fi author Greg Bear discussing Digital Productions, the effects house that used a Cray supercomputer to render the film’s CGI.

Rounding out the package is an eight-minute interview with arcade game collector Estil Vance, the aforementioned fan who took it on himself to re-create the game as depicted in the film.

 

‘Mallrats,’ ‘The Last Starfighter’ Among Releases Coming to Blu-ray in October From Arrow and MVD

Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, The Last Starfighter and the horror film The Deeper You Dig are among the titles coming to Blu-ray Disc in October from Arrow Video and MVD Entertainment Group.

Oct. 6 comes The Deeper You Dig (2019), which follows a mother, daughter and stranger as they deal with the aftermath of a roadside accident. The film is a family affair written and directed by husband and wife tandem John Adams and Toby Poser, who also start alongside daughter Zelda. The limited-edition release also comes with The Hatred, a previously made feature film by the Adams family. Bonus features include a reversible sleeve featuring two exclusive choices of artwork; a double-sided fold-out poster; a limited edition illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Neil Mitchell; audio commentary by writers/directors/stars Toby Poser and John Adams; “At Home with the Adams Family,” an exclusive, in-depth interview with the trio of filmmakers responsible for The Deeper You Dig; “It’s in the Blood: The Family in the Horror Genre,” an exclusive visual essay by critic Anton Bitel exploring the theme of family in The Deeper You Dig and the Adams family’s broader filmography; a special effects breakdown with commentary by Trey Lindsay; a FrightFest TV interview with the Adams family; Hellbender music videos; the theatrical trailer; and an image gallery.

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Due Oct. 13 is Kevin Smith’s cult classic Mallrats (1995), a comedy about a pair of recently dumped best friends seeking refuge at their local mall. The new release includes new restorations for both the theatrical and extended cuts approved by Smith and cinematographer David Klein. Bonus features include a newly assembled TV cut of the film featuring hilarious overdubbing to cover up profanity with an intro by Smith; a collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Philip Kemp; a fold out poster featuring replica blueprints for “Operation Drive-by” and “Operation Dark Knight”; audio commentary with Smith, producer Scott Mosier, archivist Vincent Pereira, and actors Jason Lee, Ben Affleck and Jason Mewes; a new introduction to the film by Smith; “My Mallrat Memories,” an all-new interview with Smith; a newly filmed tribute to producer Jim Jacks by Smith; a new interview with Mewes; a new interview with cinematographer Klein; “Hollywood of the North,” a newly produced animated making-of documentary featuring Minnesota crew members who worked on the film; Smith and Vincent Pereira discussing deleted scenes and sequences originally cut from the film; outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage; cast interviews from the original set; “Erection of an Epic: The Making of Mallrats,” an archival retrospective with cast and crew looking at the making of and release of the film; a 10th anniversary archival Q&A with Smith; “Build Me Up Buttercup” music video; stills galleries; the theatrical trailer; a stills gallery of the comic books featured in the film’s opening sequence; and Easter eggs.

Also coming Oct. 13 is Kôji Shima’s 1956 classic Warning From Space. The first Japanese science-fiction film to be shot in color, it’s the story of giant starfish-like aliens that land in Tokyo. It’s the film’s first-ever HD release in America and includes a newly restored English dub. Extras include a new commentary by Stuart Galbraith IV, author of Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!; theatrical trailers; image galleries; a reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin; and, for the first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring an essay on artist Taro Okamoto by Japanese art historian Nick West and an essay on the production of the American edit of the film by David Cairns.

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Coming Oct. 27 is the serial killer film Cold Light of Day (1989), a fictionalized story about one of Britain’s most brutal serial killers, Dennis Nilsen. The limited-edition release includes a new 2K restoration approved by the film’s director Fhiona-Louise. Bonus features include a new audio commentary with writer/director Fhiona-Louise; a new audio commentary with film historians/writers Dean Brandum and Andrew Nette; a newly-filmed interview with actor Martin Byrne-Quinn; a newly filmed interview with actor Steve Munroe; an original Cold Light of Day promo film made to raise financing for the feature; the re-release trailer; two short films starring director Fhiona-Louise and photographed by Star Wars DP David Tattershall, newly restored in HD, Metropolis Apocalypse (1988) and Sleepwalker (1993); a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx; a limited-edition, die-cut O-card; and a limited-edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Jo Botting and a look at how the press reported Dennis Nilsen’s real-life crimes by Jeff Billington.

Finally, also on Oct. 27, comes Nick Castle’s The Last StarfighterReleased in 1984, The Last Starfighter follows gamer Alex Rogan who thinks he’s just playing another game until he finds himself transported to another planet where he learns the game was actually a recruitment effort. The Last Starfighter lands with a new 4K scan. Bonus features include a new audio commentary with Mike White of “The Last Projection Booth” podcast; an archival audio commentary with director Nick Castle and production designer Ron Cobb; the “Heroes of the Screen” archival featurette; the “Crossing the Frontier: The Making of The Last Starfighter” archival four-part documentary; image galleries; theatrical and teaser trailers; a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Ferguson; a limited edition reversible poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork; and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Amanda Reyes and sci-fi author Greg Bear’s never-before-published Omni magazine article on Digital Productions, the company responsible for the CGI in The Last Starfighter.