You either take home the High Score, or go home in a body bag!
The Last Starfighter is a youth oriented, rollercoaster ride about a young boy that dreams of bigger things and actually gets his wish. It owes as much to The Wizard of Oz as it does Star Wars, all while advancing the use of computer graphics in film.
The trailer could be any number of teen films from the 80s where the protagonist wants to leave their life behind for some adventure. But in this case, Alex Rogan is a video game whiz who gets recruited by aliens to fight in their war. He gets taken into space and becomes the last starfighter, defending the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In a dusty, near-desert trailer park, young Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) dreams of getting out of the home he shares with his mother (Barbara Bosson) and younger brother Louis (Chris Herbert) to be more than all the other kids that go nowhere after high school. In between doing handyman jobs for his mother, who is the manager of the trailer park, he plays the Starfighter video game, which is all the excitement available on site, and tries to spend as much time with his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) that he can.
One day, after setting the high score on Starfighter–which the whole park gathers around to witness, Alex is approached by an older man called Centauri (Robert Preston) who drives a strange car and claims to be the game’s inventor. He offers Alex a surprise and when Alex gets into the car, it transforms into a spaceship and flies them both to the planet of Rylos, where Alex is to become a real Starfighter who will help defend “the Frontier against Xur and Ko-Dan armada.”
Alex cannot believe that he is in outer space amongst a number of aliens, which includes a Gunship navigator named Grig (Dan O’Herlihy). The briefing is interrupted by the holographic projection of Xur (Norman Snow), who declares he and the Ko-Dan armada will attack when the Rylos moon is in eclipse. Alex feels he isn’t cut out for this reality and demands that Centauri return him home. Centauri provides Alex a communo crystal in case he changes his mind.
At the Rylos Starfighter base, a saboteur knocks out the defensive capabilities so that the Ko-Dan meteor gun is able to destroy all the Gunships, save one. On Earth, Alex discovers that a robotic version of himself, called a Beta, has been filling in for him while he was away. One evening a Zando-Zan–an alien bounty hunter hired by Xur, attacks Alex, and shoots Centauri when he returns after Alex’s call. The Beta stays on Earth and continues to pretend to be Alex, going so far as to sacrifice itself to stop a Zando-Zan communique.
Alex and Centauri return to Rylos, where Centauri dies. Grig informs Alex that there is only one Starfighter left alive–him. They board the remaining Gunship, which is an advanced prototype and set off to defeat Xur, alone. Alex questions his judgment in coming back out to battle the armada, but after some target practice, and a great tactical decision, he begins to feel better about the odds. His gunship waits for the Ko-Dan battlecruiser to pass, before knocking out their communication beacon, and then single handedly destroys the fleet using a new weapon called Death Blossom.
Xur is hauled away in disgrace on orders of the Ko-Dan Lord Kril, but Alex disables the battle cruiser and it crashes into a nearby moon. Xur is revealed to have escaped, while Alex is hailed as a hero and asked to help rebuild the Star League. He and Grig return to Earth to say goodbye to his family and he asks Maggie to come with him. She agrees and the head back into space. Young Louis, inspired by his brother’s new fame, starts up the Starfighter game so he too can one day become a space pilot.
“Listen, Centauri, I’m not any of those guys. I’m a kid from a trailer park.” – Alex Rogan
History in the Making
In the annals of CGI pioneers in film, TRON may get the majority of the press, but 1984s The Last Starfighter advanced the craft significantly. Up until this time, the use of computer generated imagery had only been used to represent on-screen graphics, or in the case of TRON, vehicles within a computer system. The on-screen wire-frame models of Star Wars, The Black Hole and Alien or the CGI-generated demo “video” from Star Trek II all provided necessary exposition for their respective films. TRON utilized 15 minutes of computer generated vehicles used to depict the elements and parts of the environment within the computer system. While these elements were much more realistic than previous usage, they were never meant to represent the real world. Enter The Last Starfighter.
This film created 27 minutes of footage, or nearly double that of TRON as well as created CG elements that were meant to represent technology and environments in the real world. This evolutionary step showed that CGI was here to stay, as it was able to effectively create vehicles that were necessary to the advancement of the story, as well as depict them in a realistic way. Not only did the graphic team create the Gunstar ships and the battle scenes at the Frontier (a string of satellites) with the Ko-Dan ships, but also replicated Centauri’s car digitally (which looks like a modified DeLorean) to match the practical vehicle built for use with the actors. The majority of The Last Starfighter’s CG scenes were fully digital without any practical elements, though a shot near the end did include a split screen where the Gunstar lands behind the trailer park location, which was a practical foreground element. It would be one more year until CG animation was integrated into live-action plates with Young Sherlock Holmes creation of the stained-glass knight. But for the subject matter of advanced alien spaceships, the process worked monumentally well.
The other thing The Last Starfighter had going for it was its youth appeal. The 80s are replete with films about kids or teenagers and the amazing adventures they would get into. These films, when presented within a fantasy or sci-fi genre were also often wish fulfillment films for their protagonists, but since the youth oriented film knew no particular genre, dramas or comedies could fulfill this quotient as well. The year 1984 was when this style reached critical mass. While 1983 saw the teen hacker film WarGames released, 1984 had films such as Footloose, The Karate Kid, Red Dawn, Sixteen Candles, Night of the Comet, and of course, The Last Starfighter. Many of the films had children/teens entering into a situation which would be impossible for them to access under normal circumstances, such as fighting a war with Russians after America is suddenly invaded, or breaking into NORAD and accidentally setting off a doomsday scenario. The young protagonist always had the skills or talents to be able to complete these tasks, usually baffling the adults and fulfilling their dreams, like young Elliott in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial or the teen protagonist in The Manhattan Project (1986). The Last Starfighter proved everything that teens of the 80s knew to be correct: playing video games was the best way to prepare for the future, aliens were real, and if you could fly a spaceship you could get the girl!
The Last Starfighter fits into the mold of Joseph Campbell monomyth, as do many other sci-fi and fantasy properties. In fact, it owes as much to fantasy storytelling as it does to the sci-fi genre featuring allusions to classic fantasy stories such as The Wizard of Oz, the Arthurian legend, and of course, Star Wars. It’s actually a wish fulfillment story where the protagonist gets to be in Star Wars, sort of. It has the young protagonist, upset with his place in the universe, heeding a call to adventure, then realizing it’s too much for him, discovering that there’s more at stake than just himself, and then become a greater person for answering the call, expanding his world view and his maturity. The film isn’t shy about its inspirations with Grig calling out Centauri for using one of his “Excalibur tricks” referencing the Arthurian legend where only the worthy heir to the sword may pull it from the stone. There’s also a moment where the balding head of Xur appears as a giant hologram threatening the Star League, in much the same way that the Wizard uses a projection of a massive head to dissuade and command Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
Obviously the film has much more in common with the Star Wars films than anything else (with the betrayal of his species by Xur being seen as a small nod to Boltar in Battlestar Galactica). The obvious science-fiction elements of starcraft, aliens, intergalactic wars all co-mingled with the story of a boy who dreams of bigger things than living in a dirty trailer park. Unlike some other films from the time, there is a suitable variety of alien character types, even if they’re not fully explained. For example the Rylans, the race that includes Xur and other balding aliens, are seemingly the main aliens. They appear to lead the Star League, which is made up of a number of other alien types, most of whom are seen as pilots. Centauri appears to be a different race with glowing eyes. There are also the more evil looking Ko-Dan’s and Zando-Zan’s who are obviously the antagonists due to their appearances. And while the film teases large battles, it is of course called The Last Starfighter, so there’s only some space action scenes in the third act.
And then there’s Alex’s ability to be a superior pilot, which is the key driving factor of the film. The Last Starfighter makes a big deal of the importance of video games in a popular Hollywood film. As with TRON, video games, and the people that play them are seen as heroes; not nerds or socially inept. This trend of honing skills of video games or other trainer devices, and then being able utilize them to accomplish a feat undreamed of was common of the wish-fulfillment aspect of stories like this. Alex plays the only video game that the trailer park owns as a way to escape the drudgery of his existence, which leads him to actually escaping the drudgery of his existence, something that was only a dream at the time for audience members. Of course there were some competitive gaming competitions, but nothing like some of the league and team play that has cropped up in the last 20 years. Alex hones his skill on a device that so many youth were pumping quarters into at the time (even though it was never a real machine), that it seems like a dream come true.
A dream come true. That’s how The Last Starfighter presents the arrival of Centauri, his flying car, and the promise of becoming a Starfighter in the Star League defending the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada. At the time, it seemed that playing a video game could never lead to anything (especially if you listened to conservative parent groups), so this was a dream come true. But looking behind the veil of excitement, this is slightly more insidious than it appears on the surface. I’m going to read a little deeper into the fantasy elements of the film, which may upset the purists, so please bear with this exercise.
Seemingly Centauri is responsible for recruitment into the Star League. He may be one of several beings to gather potential Starfighter candidates as the Star League is presumably bigger than a few planets. He is at least responsible for Earth, which isn’t actually a member of the Star League. It’s not due to be approached to join until it matures, according to Grig. Nevertheless Centauri uses a video game as a testing system to recruit Alex (which could have been any other individual if the machine had been delivered to Las Vegas as intended). Seemingly this game is a one-of-a-kind system, and the odds of it being delivered to Alex seem like fate. Obviously he was destined to win at Starfighter and be recruited by Centauri. Except that he’s not.
The word recruited gets thrown around a lot in the film. There’s no sense that the other pilots faced a similar trial to Alex in becoming a Starfighter, but they might have. In fact, Alex never volunteered, as he had no idea where he was being taken by Centauri. He was conscripted! This is akin to being drafted but more of an involuntary situation. Conscription is defined as “enlisting (someone) compulsorily, typically into the armed services,” and is usually thought of as a bad thing. Of course, Alex balks at the original invite and when he returns to Earth and sees the dangers of the Zando-Zan, decides to enlist. But imagine if the other pilots were also conscripted, potentially under false pretenses. They all seemed happy to be serving the Star League, perhaps due to propaganda presented to them, like the Starfighter video game. They were all killed, not in battle, but in an attack by Xur. A sad fact if they enlisted, but a tragic event if they were conscripted under dubious means. Yet the audience too is duped by the “honor” to fight in a real spaceship blasting real aliens.
Looking at The Last Starfighter in this way is an interesting re-orienting of expectations to a film that is often given a pass for its tactics. As with many films from the 80s, especially those involving youth themes, certain liberties and shortcuts are taken with aspects of the plot. Whether that’s the legality of the action, the inherent danger that is downplayed, or maybe just the implausibility of the events happening, many of these films can stand a review with fresh eyes. This exercise is not designed to take the fun away from the film, but just to extend a critical eye to how the reality of this situation may actually play out. It’s an alternate point of view that might open someone’s eyes to a different perspective.
The Science in The Fiction
The film has some big advancements in the technological advancements of a filmic world. These include the video game inspired weapons and alien tech. The technology of the spaceships and laser guns depicted is standard fare for films of this type. If anything, the Gunstars might be a larger, two-person vehicle than seen in comparable films, more akin to a flying fortress than a fighter jet. They’re cool elements but nothing new at this point. However, the film does introduce a couple interesting aspects previously unseen. Both of these weapons seem to be based on the aspect of video game weapons in one way or another. The Ko-Dan fleet has a “meteor gun” which they launch at the Rylan base, destroying the hangar and the Starfighters inside. This seems like an aspect of the video game Asteroids, or possibly Missile Command, where the player must prevent rocks from hitting their ship or space laser from hitting their cities. It’s not completely a one-to-one match up, but similar enough to playable scenarios to be feasible. Additionally Alex’s Gunstar is equipped with a new prototype weapon, called Death Blossom, which fires dozens of homing missiles in one burst as the Gunstar rapidly rotates, targeting the enemy ships. This seems very similar to the smart bombs in the video game Defender and Stargate, where a single weapon destroys all visible enemies at once.
The Last Starfighter also includes humanoid robots, called Beta units, that are apparently indistinguishable from humans–except when they remove their head to clean their ears. Numerous films have made use of humanoid looking robots, but none having been created by aliens to masquerade as their human counterparts. The film also depicts aliens with various disguises to impersonate humans. Centauri uses a costume mask of some type that he can remove by simply pulling it off his face, while the Zando-Zan has a more complex holographic disguise that also hides its more complex physiology. Fortunately the Starfighter game appears to be able to disrupt the frequency of this disguise revealing its alien visage.
The Final Frontier
The Last Starfighter was directed by Nick Castle, who has had a most interesting career. Besides directing this film, he also wrote Escape from New York for John Carpenter and appears as Michael Meyers (aka The Shape) in the original Halloween. The writer, Jonathan Betuel, would also go on to write and direct My Science Project, a youth oriented sci-fi adventure film from 1985. He is also currently working with screenwriter Gary Whitta (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) on a potential sequel film that would continue within the same universe 25-30 years after the events of the original film. The film has also inspired numerous other tales including author Ernest Cline’s novel Armada, which is about “a flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting Earth from alien invaders.” Cline, who also wrote Ready Player One and Ready Player Two, fills Armada with all sorts of video game and pop culture references to the 1980s.
Unfortunately, this was the last film for film legend Robert Preston, whose career stretched over six decades and included The Music Man, and Victor/Victoria. He managed to create a memorable character, in Centauri, that still entertains audiences today. As for the other actors, this was Lance Guest’s most prominent role and the one he’s most remembered for. Dan O’Herlihy made an impression later in the 80s as The Old Man, owner of Omni Consumer Products in Robocop, as well as the evil Conal Conchran in the previous year’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Catherine Mary Stewart would follow this girlfriend role up with a lead role in the sci-fi apocalyptic zombie film Night of the Comet. Finally, a young Wil Wheaton can be (barely) seen in the film as one of Louis’s friends. His scenes were cut, but of course he would go on to bigger things as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The Last Starfighter was never intended to be a serious sci-fi film and serves as more of a popcorn adventure movie, full of excitement and fun moments, especially for the target demographics: teens. It does provide hope to individuals that may feel stuck in the same situation, making escape seem possible. It also continued to show that video games had become an important part of American culture, and that the dreams of the young can lead to amazing and wondrous things.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.