A film review by Craig J. Koban August 26, 2009
THE LAST STARFIGHTER
Anniversary Retrospective Review
1984, PG, 126 mins.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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