Blame this edition of Bonfire of the Nerderies on “Ready Player One”. Ernest Cline’s novel has many references to gems of 80’s pop culture – think the likes of “Real Genius”, the John Hughes catalogue, “Family Ties”, “WarGames” – and given its unabashed love of all things gaming, it should come as no surprise whatsoever that one of the movies referenced by hero Wade Watts in the course of his adventure through the OASIS is Nick Castle’s blissfully geeky, video game classic, “The Last Starfighter”.
My relationship with this prime 80’s sci-fi fantasy began with a cultural artefact quite specific to that decade – the tie-in novelization for the film, as written by the poet laureate of film adaptations, Alan Dean Foster. Back in the day, when the internet had yet to become a part of most people’s lives, if you wanted to go deeper into a film than by just going to see it at the cinema multiple times (video recorders were a luxury to my family, as was the idea of owning a film on VHS – just fuggedabout it!), you had to get creative.
Advance gossip and stills found in magazines like the oddly glamorous, exclusive, decidedly American SF magazine “Starlog” offered one peak behind the curtain – getting your pre-teen mitts on a copy of an eagerly-anticipated film’s novelization was another. To invoke “Galaxy Quest” once more, these ‘historical documents’ provided the pre-dot.com nerd crowd with privileged insight into the eccentricities of the film-making process, based as they so often were on the shooting script of the film, rather than the actual end product.
Scenes which didn’t make it into the film! Inky black-and-white stills in the middle of the book! Production credits! Oh the joys that such books offered us in the days when you had to actively work to find out things in the pre-Google age.
So, let’s talk about the film proper. At its core, “The Last Starfighter” operates on a undeniably high-concept premise – resolutely earth-bound trailer park kid Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is so good at video games that his preternatural abilities get him unwittingly drafted, trained and positioned as the initial and only line of defence against a ruthless alien invasion force.
If you read that synopsis and thought “A-ha! That’s ‘Galaxy Quest’ that is”, well I can’t argue with that. There’s a definite shared DNA between the two films – the galaxy is threatened by a menace which can only be averted by a team of unlikely heroes patently unsuited for the task – and both films are at least as interested in relationships and comedy as they are in the science fiction spectacle promised by their titles.
Where the films differ is that “The Last Starfighter” is an unashamed adventure at its core and has an appealingly wide-eyed, glib hipster-repelling tone which probably wouldn’t fly in an age which is more cine-literate than the 1980’s was, more cynical and less likely to engage with a story whose hero is essentially a normal guy with nothing really going on except his ability to get to the final boss on an arcade cabinet.
(For younger readers, there were these things in the 1980’s called arcades and your writer grew up in a British seaside town where arcades where quite the thing if you wanted to play video games in an environment composed of equal parts bright lights, deafening sounds, omnipresent cigarette smoke and imminent danger from the petty criminals who seemed to use such venues as a safe place to offload whatever ill-secured booty they had recently shoplifted. Sounds great, doesn’t it?)
Alex’s life is promptly set-up as going nowhere when we learn that his hopes to get out his trailer park malaise by applying to college has been torpedoed when his request for a student loan is rejected – he’s stuck in the slow lane, doing mind-numbing maintenance work and not being able to offer his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stuart) anything like a better life.
Alex’s life changes forever when he meets Robert Preston’s character Centauri, a wily old goat who claims to be from the company which makes the Starfighter game, but in fact built the game as a recruiting device to find suitable candidates to fight in a galactic war. They are to be trained to fly a real Gunstar ship and defeat the evil Kodan race who – cough, Borg, cough – wish to enslave alien races and assimilate them.
Won’t people, you know, miss Alex when he’s not around to sort out the electrics in the trailer park or unblock the latrine? No, Centauri’s thought of that – he leaves behind a robot double of Alex to look after things whilst the real article’s away on the front line – what could possibly go wrong?
Well, there’s a bit of a hitch when an alien assassin shows up to kill what is believed to be the real Alex and the minor problem of Alex realising that fighting in a galactic war isn’t as straight-forward as it is on a CRT screen. Will he stay the course and save the galaxy, Earth, Maggie and his family? Will the Gunstar’s top-secret, never-tested-in-battle weapon system work when it needs to? Will Robot Duplicate Alex really blab to Alex’s mum about his kid brother’s secret stash of girlie mags? (See what I mean about pre-internet?).
The outcome of this film is never really in doubt – this is not a film which wants to appeal to the seen-it-all-before film student in the audience (beyond, perhaps, casting Robert Preston in a riff on his role in “The Music Man”) or play with the conventions of genre in any meaningful way – but the charm with which it tells its tale of an unwilling hero finding the courage to confront evil head on is probably why it wins so many comparisons to the original “Star Wars” trilogy – it’s hard to imagine this film existing without the then-recent-in-memory Lucas films establishing that there was an audience for gee-whiz sci-fi.
Though the visual effects have, of course, dated somewhat in the nearly thirty years since it’s debut, “The Last Starfighter” is definitely an important film when discussing the history and development of visual effects, with its pioneering use of computer generated ships in the space battles.
The acting is fine with Robert Preston sublime as the disreputable Centauri and I still have a real soft spot for Dan O’ Herlihy’s work as Alex’s navigator, the prosthetically-enhanced alien Grig:
In the lead, Lance Guest is likeable and handsome but somehow never really had the career that you might have expected him to – his IMDB listing indicates that he’s worked regularly since this film but never had much in the way of a featured role subsequently. That’s if you count “Jaws: The Revenge” as being in the same ball park as his work here, and I really don’t.
So, to put this film in some kind of context, it’s definitely a better video game-inspired movie than most of the films we’ve seen recently, which are directly adapted from interactive source material. It’s an adventure which is mostly family friendly – there’s the odd moment of teen romance, and the aforementioned allusion to Hugh Hefner’s signature publication but nothing to embarrass any parent who can sit through an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” with their kids – and essentially positive in tone, with Alex being a hard-working, industrious kind of bloke who just needs a fair break or two. He doesn’t snap anybody’s neck, curse too much or behave like a boor – and to think, this is what Hollywood used to consider the essence of a heroic leading male. Yep, it’s a time capsule case and no mistake.
Does “The Last Starfighter” live up to my memories of it? I’m not sure that any film from such a formative time in my life really could, but it’s still quite charming, funny in its way and boasts memorable aliens and an essential story structure which usually works whenever it’s used in equivalent adventures. It manages to feature the then relatively new phenomenon of arcade video games in a way which suggests that they are not – shocker! – tools of Satan, destined to rob the youth of their spare change and immortal souls.
When your favourite video game blog seems to feature a daily story from some press release-happy special interest group wanting to blame games for every ill up to and including wholesale rat slaughter, any movie which shows games as fairly positive and life-affirming entertainments is more than fine in my book.
Word persists from time to time that this film is ripe for the remake treatment – you can see why this might be. The effects would obviously benefit from twenty-five years or so advances in the field and games are now so much a part of our culture that you wouldn’t have to do much heavy lifting to bring an audience up to speed on what these bleeping, colourful things are all about.
I’m going to go against the grain on this one by suggesting that a direct remake isn’t the best of ideas – the space-based shoot-em-up genre that the original film uses for the Starfighter game is one which is beloved mostly of a hardcore games audience and doesn’t necessarily translate to the modern-day as well as you might hope.
Think, instead of fantasy, role-playing games and epic dungeon raids with garish avatars running amok through a primary coloured realm peopled by weird creatures and level 80 rogues bestriding the land on sweet mounts – shouldn’t the remake take place in an MMORPG?