Cinemanalysis: The Last Starfighter (1984)

by Jason Flatt

The Last Starfighter (1984) might be simple, but it holds a valuable place in the science fiction canon.

The Last Starfighter (1984) came out in a year often considered one of the best ever for film releases. 1984 included The TerminatorGremlinsIndiana Jones and the Temple of DoomGhost Busters and too many more to list. Yet, The Last Starfighter is not one that should be skipped. Even as a cookie-cutter example of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, The Last Starfighter holds a valuable place in the science fiction canon.

The Last Starfighter Simple Is Not A Bad ThingSimple Is Not A Bad Thing

These days, movies tend to be chided when deemed too formulaic, and there is nothing more formulaic in fantasy than the Hero’s Journey. Sometimes though, a simple formula helps prevent a movie from being bogged down by an overly-complicated plot. On the surface, The Last Starfighter is very monomythical. Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is a small town boy that dreams of something more. He is given the opportunity to save the galaxy, but he rejects it so entirely that he travels across space just to return home. It is only after the apparent death of his mentor that he crosses the threshold and fully embraces his role as the last Starfighter of the Rylan Star League.

Not only is The Last Starfighter formulaic, it is total wish fulfillment. Virtually everything goes perfectly for Alex. Yes, he is the hero, but the average hero does not always engender the complete adoration of his small trailer park. The entire village comes out to cheer Alex on as he conquers the high score on Starfighter arcade machine in town. The whole affair is over-exaggerated in the way that all of the older folk in town cheer him on. These are people who would typically chide games and have no understanding of Alex’s accomplishment in typical stories.

Alex’s girlfriend, Maggie Gordon (Catherine Mary Stewart) is also like something out of a teenage dream. Unlike in most stories, Alex and Maggie are already in a committed relationship before the movie even begins. She totally fawns over him, is an overtly sexual being, and in the film’s conclusion, leaves with Alex for outer space without question. Furthermore, Alex has committed friends and a hilarious younger brother (Chris Hebert) who curses a lot. It would be easy to dismiss The Last Starfighter as simplistic wish fulfillment. However, the movie is so wholesome and enjoyable in its delivery that its simplicity is its greatest asset.

Simple Does Not Mean UnoriginalSimple Does Not Mean Unoriginal

The Last Starfighter knows exactly what kind of film it is. It never attempts to take itself too seriously. The plot is dire, of course, and the evil Xur (Norman Snow) is the perfect blend of menacing and fallible. Yet, The Last Starfighter employs some truly affable actors to soften the movie’s tone just right. The Music Man himself Robert Preston plays Centauri, an intergalactic con-man-like character who recruits Alex to the Star Leauge. Preston provides both the most comedic and the most emotional moments in the entire film. His presence in the film alone illustrates exactly the tone that director Nick Castle had in mind: sincere, fun, and heartfelt.

Grig (Dan O’Herlihey), Alex’s copilot, provides a similar tone too, with his constant deadpan humor juxtaposed to his weighty backstory. The shenanigans with the Beta unit and the entire B-plot of The Last Starfighter are the real key to defining what kind of movie it is, though. Nothing that happens with Alex’s body double, Beta, is consequential to the main plot of the movie. The whole film could have revolved around Alex’s journey and the fight to defend the galaxy and nothing would have been lost in the plot. Yet without it, The Last Starfighter would be an incredibly different kind of movie.

The hijinx Beta gets into because of its misunderstanding of human behavior is just the kind of levity the film needs to set it apart. Precisely because The Last Starfighter allows itself to take frequent diversions from Alex’s mission the film is not as cooker-cutter as first suspected. These diversions from the main plot provide breaks from the typical nature of the A-plot by doing something totally unique and enjoyable.

The Last Starfighter Simple Can Be ExcellentSimple Can Be Excellent

The Last Starfighter holds a special place in the crowded field of 1984 releases. Partially, this special place is because, alongside Disney’s Tron, it was one of the first live-action films to extensively utilize computer animation. The animation actually continues to look engaging today, an enormous credit to artist Robb Cobb who designed the movie’s spaceships. Aside from its technical feet though, The Last Starfighter proves that a movie, particularly in fantasy or science fiction, does not need to be extravagant to be great. Sometimes, a film that follows a simple formula but embellishes it with superb acting and a quality B-plot can be excellent in its own right.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. Accept Privacy Policy