November 2, 2020
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.
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.
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.