Sunday, April 24, 2016

Zaki's Retro Review: The Last Starfighter

Yesterday I decided to pop in 1984's The Last Starfighter for my kids. I was about five or six when I was first exposed to this flick, which was probably the perfect age to have it take up permanent residence in my psyche. The sci-fi adventure, about teenager Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) who inadvertently drafts himself into an intergalactic corps of space pilots after beating a video game, is completely of its time -- the quintessential '80s artifact -- though in this case I mean that in the best way possible. It arrived at a time when earnestness hadn't yet been overwhelmed by cynicism, and it's the earnestness that's the key element in this mix.

Directed by Nick Castle from a script by Jonathan Betuel, The Last Starfighter was one of the first films to use computer-generated effects as a stand-in for models, in the "real" world (as opposed to the entirely otherworldly Tron), and if there's a creaky element to the movie, it's probably that. However, the central storyline, Alex's journey, his relationship with his family and girlfriend (Catherine Mary Stewart), is something that resonates no matter when we happen to watch it, and it's the human elements allow us to look past any deficits in the effects area. Here, watch the trailer:

In terms of those human elements, it helps enormously that Guest makes for such a relatable everyman of hero. Stuck spending his days doing maintenance at the trailer park where he lives, Alex is stifled by the demands of his life while dreaming of what isn't. And yet, as the film demonstrates, he's a basically decent guy who we want to see succeed. We get a sense of this in an early scene when he gives up a day at the beach because his mother needs his help. It's a simple moment -- a brief look of disappointment, and then his statement that he'll stay to help -- but it also tells us everything we need to know about the character.

By design, the film sticks strenuously close to Joseph Campbell tropes. Per Betuel, the "Starfighter" video game that drives the plot was meant to serve as an '80s equivalent to the "sword in the stone," and it works remarkably well as that. We see Alex's skill at the game, so we buy it when we see him using those skills combatting the evil "Ko-Dan Armada" later. Helping our buy-in is the presence of Robert Preston (basically reprising his Music Man role) as Centauri, the alien con-man who designed the game and ends up as Alex's gateway to adventure, and Daniel O'Herlihy as Grig, Alex's bemused co-pilot on the "Gunstar" ship.

The Last Starfighter arrived in the midst of a bumper crop of sci-fi movies including GhostbustersStar Trek IIIDuneConan the DestroyerThe TerminatorStarman2010DuneGremlinsSupergirl, and plenty more that I'm sure I'm forgetting. As such, I guess it's entirely understandable that it kind of got lost in the crowd and faded away at the box office despite getting a decent reception from critics (it made about $30 mil worldwide against a $15 mil budget). Being a kid at the time, I had no idea how badly it tanked. I had the Marvel Comic, I had the novelization, I dug the movie, and that was it. That was all I needed.

I didn't really think about it at the time, but the film is certainly open-ended enough to leave room for a sequel, and I'm certain that was part of the plan. However, ticket sales (or lack thereof) didn't justify a continuation, which is fine. I prefer this as a one-and-done story, told well. As far as whatever adventures lie ahead for our main character, well, they happened, we just never saw them. Which is fine. Clearly Jonathan Betuel feels the same way I do, as he retains all sequel and remake rights, and despite entreaties from high profile Starfighter fans like Steven Spielberg and Seth Rogen over the years, he has them locked down.

Bear in mind, when I put the movie on for the kiddies yesterday, it actually marked the first time I'd seen it the whole way through since the early '90s, and there was a little bit of worry in case I found myself dealing with a massive dose of cognitive dissonance as my memories bumped up against reality. Luckily, not only did the movie hold up just fine, more importantly my kids were utterly transfixed. They laughed at the right times, and actually broke out into applause at a key moment near the end. That might be entirely anecdotal, but getting that reaction thirty-two years after The Last Starfighter's release certainly speaks to the enduring, intergenerational appeal of this cult classic.

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