The Last Starfighter
directed by Nick Castle
starring Lance Guest, Robert Preston, Catherine Mary Stewart
The Last Starfighter was intended to be a sizable science fiction hit at the box office with its seemingly lucrative marriage of teen angst, video games, and computer generated special effects but the film didn’t click with audiences at the multiplex who were feasting on the summer of Ghostbusters, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The box office wasn’t there and the anticipated tie in toys and video games never materialized. But being the mid ’80s cable networks and video stores needed content and The Last Starfighter found a new life at home and is today a fondly remembered and influential part of ’80s pop culture.
When you get beyond Los Angeles and San Francisco there is a vast nowhere that makes up most of the state of California. Small cities and even smaller towns dot the landscape and are seemingly as far removed from the bright lights of Hollywood as anywhere in the midwest. In one of these pockets of mundane existence lies the “Starlite Starbrite” trailer park. The park is populated by second tier Speilberg types who try to bring some charm and cheer to their daily lives. Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) isn’t having any of it. He’s got big dreams far from the flickering lights of the Starlite Starbrite sign and the dead end life it represents to him. He needs a scholarship to afford his escape and when that door closes it seems the life he wants for himself and his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) has been dashed before it even begins. One night pouring his frustrations into playing the Starfighter arcade game at the trailer park general store Alex beats the game, complete with a schmaltzy bit of business that finds the Starlite Starbrite residents cheering him on. What happens next is more believable when an alien in human disguise named Centauri (Robert Preston) shows up and informs Alex that the Starfighter arcade game is actually a test to fight the best potential starfighters in the galaxy. Before you can say “marching band” the fast talking Centauri (Robert Preston) has Alex en route to the fleet while leaving a robotic double of Alex behind. Alex is more than a bit in over his head and when confronted with the enormity of the task at hand, namely taking on the mighty Ko-Dan Empire with just a ragtag group of inexperienced pilots. He opts out and Centauri agrees to return him to Earth. After learning that his friends and family are under threat from Ko-Dan assassins Alex and Centauri return to Star League too late as a surprise attack has destroyed all but one Gunstar ship. Alex and his lizard like alien co-pilot Grig (Dan O’Herlihy) head out to avenge their fallen comrades and take on the whole Empire themselves.
The Last Starfighter is essentially The Sword in the Stone but filtered through the prism of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg into a modern fairytale. Director Nick Castle (yes, that Nick Castle, who played The Shape aka Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween) pulls really engaging performances from his actors. Lance Guest is extremely likable in a role as Alex that could have been agonizing to watch and his scenes with Catherine Mary Stewart are particularly nice. Stalwart character actors Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy chew the scenery with gusto and are the most memorable characters in the movie and have much to do with its endearing and enduring charm. Castle also keeps the pace lively which helps skim over huge plot holes and keeps the cute contained so it doesn’t overwhelm the action in the film. Sure the plot is contrived and predictable but there are only so many stories to tell and honestly every movie doesn’t not need to reinvent the medium. The Last Starfighter succeeds at being an exciting action film with heart that flows easily over a lazy Saturday afternoon.
In 1984 the film received a great deal of buzz about its extensive, early use of CGI in the space battles, effects that weren’t all that impressive at the time and have not aged gracefully, but did lay the groundwork for the use of computer generated effects in movies in the coming decades. The movie just looks like a ’80s film and that is not accident since it was shot by King Baggot who was one of the architects of the ’80s film look as Director of Photography for numerous ’80s films including Doctor Detroit (1983), Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and Tough Guys (1986). The film oozes with the charm that retro-properties like Stranger Things and It are trying so hard to recapture.
Arrow Video has unleashed an outstanding line-up of extras including three audio commentary tracks from Lance Guest and his son Jackson Guest, a new track from Mike White of The Projection Booth podcast, and a previously released audio commentary with director Nick Castle and production designer Ron Cobb. Other extras include a 4 part making of documentary, interviews with actress Catherine Mary Stewart, composer Craig Safan, screenwriter Jonathan Betuel, special effects supervisor Kevin Pike and much more
Whether you are looking for a nostalgia trio back to your youth or looking to experience the warm glow of The Last Starfighter for the first time, this new Blu-ray release with its stunning picture and sound, rounded out with amazing extras is one to cheer about.