The Last Starfighter
1984 / 101 min
Directed by: Nick Castle
Written by: Jonathan R. Betuel
The concept of “The Last Starfighter” is better than the movie. An alien named Centauri (Robert Preston) creates an arcade game and leaves it on Earth as a way to identify potential Starfighters, who would then be conscripted to pilot starships to protect the universe from destruction. After Alex scores a new record of 1,000,000 points in the game, Centauri stops by in his space car to whisk him away to an asteroid base where he meets a collection of various aliens who were too visually unappealing and dull to make it further than a concept drawing in the Star Wars trilogy. Since each Gunstar ship requires a Starfighter and a pilot, Alex eventually joins up with Grig (Dan O-Herlihy), the only other remaining pilot, to take down the evil Xur and repel the invasion once and for all.
Coming two years after Tron, it’s easy to see a lot of improvements over the CG technology, but it’s still incredibly primitive and never once convincing. Whereas the smooth, texture-less CG of Tron worked perfectly and still looks great now, those same effects, even slightly updated, just look wrong when thrown into what should be a real world environment. It didn’t matter that the effects-driven world in Tron looked fake, because it all took place inside a computer. But space is real, and the CG on display in this film is only marginally better than what the FX chip in the Super NES could do (think “Star Fox”).
This movie “borrows” a lot of things from Star Wars, but none of the things that would have benefited the film. The heroes wear flight uniforms that look like the ones worn on Hoth, the Gunstar ships that the Starfighters pilot have turret controls straight out of the Millennium Falcon, and the asteroid base in the beginning of the movie is a poor man’s version of the set where Luke finds out how to destroy the Death Star. But all of this is distracting window dressing which only reminds us of better films. What the filmmakers needed to rip-off was a better hero – Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is an incredible stick in the mud, who “refuses the call to adventure” twice, both times with flimsy reasons. If this was Star Wars, the trilogy would have taken place entirely on Tattooine because Luke didn’t want to jeopardize his future as a moisture farmer. Alex Rogan’s future at City College seems just as dead-ended, but he’ll stop at nothing to avoid getting involved with a far-flung space adventure that any thinking person would immediately jump at the chance to take.
Watching the film a second time, it’s striking how much more effort went into the character of Beta Alex versus the non-character of Alex himself. Beta Alex is essentially a fake robot of Alex who has been made to stand-in for the real Alex as he’s away in space, fighting the good fight. He’s also a decoy, luring the enemy away from the real Alex. Beta starts off awkward and annoys Alex’s girlfriend, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and confuses his little brother. But, Beta learns from his mistakes and continually tries to fit in regardless of his failures. The scenes with him are easily the movie’s best, both funnier and strangely more human. Alex even asks his Beta version to take his place as a Starfighter instead. Beta tells him he would have no problem doing that, but as a simuloid, he is unable to. Here’s one of their best exchanges:
Beta: Wait a minute, what are you doing back?
Alex Rogan: Are you kidding? It’s war up there!
Beta: Oh, save the whales, but not the universe, huh?
Ladies and gentlemen, that is our hero of the film being made fun of because he is not a hero. After an embarrassing faux pas at a make-out point, Beta confesses to Maggie that he is not the real Alex, and ends up ramming a car into a rocket ship to prevent it from sending a message back that Alex is actually not on Earth.
It’s difficult trying to understand what to make of an anomaly like this in an otherwise remarkably average film. Did the writer Jonathan R. Betuel just want to make a robot movie? Did he eventually get sick of ripping off Star Wars and decide something in the movie needed to stand out? Bizarrely, he went on to write and direct “Theodore Rex” in 1995, so that just adds more to the mystery.
Without an overall vision or a cohesive world, relying on stolen visuals and a half-assed understanding and implementation of the “Hero’s Journey” will only get you so far. The film is a shameless wish-fulfillment fantasy that seems tailor made for gamers and misguided into thinking that’s all that’s needed to make them happy. It is fully satisfied with only being a fantasy and nothing more.
When playing a space shooter, does the back story of the world matter? Do the characters need any further depth than just the identification that the bad guy is bad and the good guy is good? And does there really need to be any further motivation to save the universe than seeing a random alien’s head explode? No, for a space shooter it doesn’t matter, but for a film, you bet it does. The movie argues that if it works for a game it should work for a movie, which is a miscalculation. If an arcade game’s attract mode is going to be adapted for a feature film, more needs to be done besides just making it run longer.