Nicholas II was defeated by the last tsar fighter.
“Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Kodan Armada.”
Let us take a moment and consider the double jump. You’ve seen this before. In practically every video game, the character you’re playing as can jump, and then, in midair, is able to jump just a little higher with the press of the button. I guess the idea here is that your character is so skilled, strong, or just filled righteous fury that he or she is able to get just a little but more out of that jump. It’s a standard part of the “language” of gaming. The question is, has anyone ever actually tried this? In fact, go try it right now. I’ll wait.
See? Can’t be done. Even if you’re an Olympic gymnast, which I doubt, you won’t be able to do this. No matter how high you can jump, that’s as high as you can get.
Why bring this up, because this the whole concept of The Last Starfighter—what would happen if the video games were real?
Alex (Lance Guest) lives in a trailer park in the middle of nowhere. Even though he has a dedicated girlfriend (Catherine Mary Stuart), he hopes to someday go to college and make more of his life. His only enjoyment is a coin-op video game, Starfighter. Alex becomes a minor celebrity after getting an all-time high score on the game. Someone takes notice of this, namely an odd fellow named Centauri (Robert Preston, The Music Man), who takes Alex into outer space and to another world. The game, it turns out, is a test used to find individuals with the skills needed to become real starfighters and battle the sinister Kodan Armada. After the armada attacks, Alex ends up as the last surviving starfighter. Will he choose to go back home to his girl and his family, or will he stay and fight against overwhelming odds to save the galaxy?
The Last Starfighter is meant to evoke the good ol’ days of the video arcades during their heydays, in which kids funneled quarters into various games in the hopes of achieving the always elusive high score. Whenever that one unbelievably cool kid—the one with the leather jacket and the huge hair, you know the one—started wowing everyone by racking up an enormous score on something like Donkey Kong or Frogger, suddenly everyone would crowd around and watch, hoping to see some of the advanced levels not seen in the demo screens. Sure, you can still find moments like these in some surviving arcades, but for most folks these days, video gaming comes from home consoles and computers. The Last Starfighter, though, takes us back to the time when a stand-up coin-op game could make an ordinary kid a hero. Literally, in this case.
Revisiting the movie after all these years, I find I’m impressed with a lot of the little details. It takes a while for the sci-fi element to kick in, but there are all kinds of visual cues foreshadowing where the story is heading. A lot of the trailer park scenes are shot at night, making the most of the stars in the background. A kid runs around wearing a toy astronaut helmet. Alex’s bedroom has all kinds of space/stars imagery all over the walls, as well as a poster of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Not only does this reflect Alex’s longing for life away from the trailer park, but the tower points to the sky, reinforcing the outer space adventures to come.
Some have accused Lance Guest as being wooden in this movie, but I think he does exactly what’s required. Alex is an earnest hero, one who is instinctively driven to do the right thing. At first, after being taken into space, all he wants to do is get out of there and get back home. This is understandable, but then, once he sees how high the stakes are, he has no problem suiting up and kicking some Kodan ass. I’m kind of not sure about his starfighter uniform with its gigantic headgear, though, but for all I know maybe it’s based on something fighter pilots actually wear. Back on Earth, Guest plays a second character, and this allows him to work some comedy into the film.
Robert Preston’s Centauri is an odd character. Here’s this old-timey con man with a bowtie and fedora flying spaceships and hanging out in high tech alien bases. Preston shows a lot of charm, though. Along the way, Alex meets his alien navigator, played by Dan O’Herlihy who fills the sidekick/best friend role. This is another odd performance, especially that wheezy laugh he keeps making, but the character is important because he gives Alex someone he can talk to during his adventures. At home, Catherine Mary Stuart provides plenty of cheese as the doting girlfriend, but it’s a gentle, likable kind of cheese, so that’s OK.
Getting back to the video game thing, a lot of today’s CGI-laden blockbusters get criticized for looking too much like games, but check out the crazy proto-CGI in this movie. This is, as most everyone knows, one of the first movies to use computers to create special effects in a big way. All the outer space stuff, including the space battles, planets, meteors and the like, were done on computer, a fairly revolutionary idea at the time. The result is…interesting. Does it look primitive and clunky? Yes, but it also gives the movie its own sense of style. You’ve likely never seen another movie like it.
This 25th anniversary DVD coincides with the movie’s Blu-ray release, so it’s a no-brainer that the visual and audio quality would be excellent, despite its age. The director and production designer contribute a commentary that has a lot of fun anecdotes and really shows their love for the film. The disc comes with two featurettes, a brand new one, and one made in 1999. Both repeat a lot of the same information, but are nice reminiscences about the film. The image gallery has a surprising amount of goodies in it, including production photos, promotional materials, and even a glimpse at an alternate ending. The original teaser and trailers and also included.
Why is it that movies based on video game are generally disappointing, but movies about video games in general—such as Tron or The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters—are so much fun? Consider The Last Starfighter among their ranks. Yeah, it’s dated and cheesy, but in a good way, one that adds to the overall fun quality of the movie.