A film review by Craig J. Koban August 26, 2009

 

THE LAST STARFIGHTER  jjj

25th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1984, PG, 126 mins.

 

Lance Guest: Alex Rogen / Catherine Mary Stewart: Maggie Gordon / Dan O'Herlihy: Grig / Norman Snow: Xur / Robert Preston: Centuari

Directed by Nick Castle /  Written by Jonathan R. Betuel 

THE LAST STARFIGHTER is certainly a sci-fi adventure that attempted to encapsulate a sort of gee-whiz vitality and out-of-body escapism that STAR WARS – a film that definitely influenced its making - was able to successfully implement.  Unfortunately for Nick Castle’s 1984 film, it certainly has not aged nearly as well as George Lucas’ universally revered space opera.

Coming out seven years after Lucas’ freshmen WARS effort, THE LAST STARFIGHTER seems positively primitive to modern eyes; even though the first WARS film used visual effects techniques that seem woefully ancient even by today’s standards, that film’s amazing visual palette still holds up to contemporary scrutiny.  In short, STARFIGHTER has not dated well at all; perhaps more now than ever before, it is a sci-fi film where its undeniable, early 80's wow factor has all but perished.  Films that are classics of its genre have a sort of intangible timelessness, a trait that STARFIGHTER generally lacks. 

However, it would be wrong to dismiss Castle’s film as totally disposable.  Far from it.  Two things come easily to the surface after a recent viewing of the film on a splendidly remastered Blu-Ray 25th Anniversary Edition: Firstly, THE LAST STARFIGHTER still maintains a level of wholesome energy and fun and does a very decent job at balancing humor, action, intrigue, and – despite lacking polish now – a sense of ambitious visual creativity.  Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, THE LAST STARFIGHTER  – under the hindsight of the last quarter of a century of effects-heavy films – can now be newly appreciated as an integral and important film in the history of the medium.  

Although the film did not radically revolutionize the entire filmmaking industry upon its release like Lucas’ film did, there is no doubting that STARFIGHTER commands similar respect now as a landmark film in the annals of computer generated imagery.  It certainly took decades before the film’s CGI-effects-heavy production had a substantial influence on current film making techniques, but it nonetheless can be regarded as one that signaled the beginning of a new era of movie magic.  Yes, the ripple effect of STARFIGHTER was not as prominent as STAR WARS was to the industry, but it nonetheless deserves merit as a seminal visual effects film. 

STARFIGHTER came out at a time when (a) high tech, flashy, and inventive science fiction films like STAR WARS were in their heyday and (b) the then newly-expanding video game craze was a permanent fixture for the youth of North America.  Undoubtedly, STARFIGHTER feels like STAR WARS-light through and through: both films have ambitious-minded young heroes that clamor to escape the monotony of their modest home lives for something bigger and better; both films have wise old sage mentor figures that lure the unassuming hero into a conflict that has galactic ramifications; both films have heroes that learn that they possess "special" talents and gifts well beyond mere mortals; both films have intergalactic civil wars; both films have an evil and despotic villain that rules over his empire and is willing to do anything to crush the heroes; and finally, both films have aerial dogfights in outer space.  

Let’s be frank: THE LAST STARFIGHTER is anything but original. 

Yet, the actual production of the film took huge creative risks: Alongside Walt Disney’s groundbreaking 1982 sci-fi film, TRON, THE LAST STARFIGHTER belongs on a very, very short list of films that pioneered the use of extensive CGI effects to depict its environments and action set pieces.  Compared to the contemporary films of the time – including Lucas’ own STAR WARS Sequel Trilogy, which relied ostensibly on physical models shot on computer controlled cameras to sell the reality of their worlds - STARFIGHTER was a different type of innovative beast altogether.  It was the first film to do all of its special effects (excluding makeup and explosions) on a computer…and on computers that, at the time, filled entire rooms and would not equal the power and memory of modern notebook computers that can sit comfortably on one’s lap.   

The film's computer in question was a Cray X-MP, a “super-computer” that, at the time, was one of the first for generating three-dimensional images.  By today’s standards, this mammoth machine is a dinosaur (apparently, it has less than half of the power of Microsoft’s first XBOX video game machine).  Overall, the company created and oversaw nearly 30 minutes of effects for STARFIGHTER, which was considered an incalculably large number at the time, and did so using a vastly unproven technology.  For the 300 scenes containing some sort of computer tinkering, each frame contained an average of 250,000 polygons and had a resolution of 3000 x 5000 36 bit pixels.  By envisioning the film’s ships, environments, and action scenes using the Cray, the filmmakers estimated that using computers took only half the time as traditional analogue methods, not to mention costing one-third less than traditional effects.  Considering the borderline archaic processing power of the Cray computer, the production team was unquestionably taking risky creative gambles.  

One critic once wrote that the best way to critique a film – especially an older one – is to look at the film constructively  within the tight bubble or context of its times.  In that case, THE LAST STARFIGHTER is indisputably state of the art in the arena of gutsy innovation; it's is an unqualified triumph.  Looking at the film outside of context, it's feebly cheap looking.  The computer generated space ships, cityscapes, and environments now (and, to an extent, even back in 1984) don’t hold a candle up to the physical and optical visual effects work in similar films of its time.  Furthermore, the pixalized imagery lacks the definition and sense of realism that graphics from home video game consoles construct now (more often than not, the images in STARFIGHTER have dynamic motion, but lack a sense of texture: everything seems too polished).  Yet, stating that its effects and production design are “weak” via today’s very critical eyes seems redundant: Of key and noteworthy importance is that STARFIGHTER was audacious and enterprising enough to make an audience-friendly film via vastly untraditional and untried methods, which seems to the very definition of novelty.    

As for the overall story of the film itself?  It’s aged about as poorly as the film’s visual impact.  A poor man’s Luke Skywalker, Alex Rogen (Lance Guest) is an adolescent handyman that works at a trailer park (named the Starlite, Starbrite) and – of course – dreams of doing more with his life, as long as he can escape from the confines of his restrictive environment (question: who wouldn’t want out of their trailer park trash surroundings?).  His true aspirations are to attend a big city college, but he is stunned when he learns that he has been turned down for student loan assistance and must – by the beard of Obi-Wan Kenobi! – attend a local community college. 

Realizing that he will not be able to leave the doldrums of small trailer park life, Alex tries to find solace with his girlfriend Maggie (the very easy on the eyes and very wooden Catherine Mary Stewart), who seems to want her beau to stay put with her.  Oh…Alex has one other form of escape: the Starfighter video game that has mysteriously found its way into town, and he has become…shall we say…very skilled at it (granted, its gameplay and graphics feel like a spruced up version of Space Invaders).  During one fateful night Alex, with a steely-eyed determination, sits at the game’s controls and, with the entire town looking on, he manages to do the unthinkable and sets a record high score. 

To the surprised Alex, he not only receives adoration not only from his friends and family for his video game achievement, but also from a very unlikely visitor named Centauri (the wonderful Robert Preston), whom reveals that he is from another galaxy and actually designed the video game as a recruitment tool for enlistment in a galactic military of elite “starfighters”, who are part of the Star League (could they not think of a weaker name?) that defends the galaxy’s frontier from the evil Xur (Norman Snow) and the K-Dan Armada.  Although he initially balks at the opportunity to take his dexterous joystick and button mashing skills to save the universe, Alex begrudgingly decides to join the Star League and faster than you can say “May the Force Be With You” he takes a prominent seat on a prototype starfighter alongside its reptilian navigator, Grig (Dan O’Herlihy). 

Despite feeling like it was recycled from STAR WARS’ narrative table scraps, THE LAST STARFIGHTER still maintains an acceptable level of pure cornball fun throughout.  On a refreshing level, the film absconds from being too somber and serious, which would have made it unendurable.  Instead, it has an innocent and innocuous level of gumption, not to mention an underlining sense of sweetness.  In regards to the unavoidable parallels to STAR WARS, STARFIGHTER was not trying to be as bold, audacious, and epic with its story and visual wit; rather, it was aiming squarely at telling a good, old fashion adventure yarn with simple virtues and noble themes that children could easily grasp.  On those levels, the film was a modest victory: it rarely has any smug pretence that it’s trying to be bigger than it actually is.   

The film’s musical score, provided by Craig Safan, recalls the robust, uplifting, and sweeping orchestral chords of a John Williams, which gives the film a bit more gravitas when it needs it.  The art direction and production design is certainly ambitious as well, which was provided by Ron Cobb, who worked on such films as far ranging from ALIEN, STAR WARS, and CONAN THE BARBARIAN.  On the performance side, Lance Guest embodies his character’s sense of youthful enthusiasm and heroic spunk rather well, but Dan O’Herlihy and Robert Preston own STARFIGHTER.  I have always liked O’Herlihy’s gentle and soft spoken charm playing his alien role and I especially admired Preston – in his last film role – amusingly riffing on his most famous role as Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN to enjoyable effect. 

On a negative, THE LAST STARFIGHTER is far from being a perfect adventure yarn.  The effects, as stated, are laughably unsophisticated now, and as much as the makers have gone on record and have tried to hide the fact that STAR WARS was just a fleeting influence on the film (riiiiiggghhht), there seems no getting around the fact that STARFIGHTER feels largely recycled.  Then there is the massive armada of Xur, whom never feels like a memorable villain and menacing threat in the film. There is also some very obvious (and passé) Cold War overtones that permeate the film that seems a bit too heavy handed (the Xur-led baddies all wear Commie red and the Star Fleet heroes all wear angelic white tunics).  Finally, the love story between Alex and Maggie is on pure autopilot...or should I say star-pilot? 

When released in 1984 THE LAST STARFIGHTER was only a minimal hit (it grossed a little over $22 million; not a financial failure, but not a monstrous hit either).  I think that the film hit a serious stride when released on video in the mid-to-late 80’s where a legion of young fans (myself included) marveled at it.  The child viewer in me thought the film to be lively, engaging, and exciting, whereas the present adult in me…well…not so much.  However, THE LAST STARFIGHTER deserves serious consideration among my repository of RETROSPECTIVE-REVIEWS for the serious impact it had on the motion picture industry...for better or worse.  Yes, there where such distinguished and widely influential CGI-effects efforts like THE ABYSS, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, JURASSIC PARK, the STAR WARS prequels and THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, all of which took the astounding computer advancements of its predecessors and catapulted them light years further.   Yet, it could easily be argued that all of those films and the countless others not mentioned that have occupied multiplexes every year could have never been made without the pioneering technological innovations of THE LAST STARFIGHTER, which indeed can now be seen - 25 years later - as a work that created a ripple effect that still has reverberations felt today.  And for that, it is ironically both an inconspicuous and significant film. 

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