Retro Review: The Last Starfighter (first published in Geeky Monkey #1)

I've been fortunate to have become a regular columnist for new U.K. print mag Geeky Monkey, whose second issue has been on the shelves for a while and third is imminent. What follows is the text of the submitted draft of the Retro Review column for first issue, about The Last Starfighter.  To read the final version as edited by Miles Guttery please buy Issue 1 of the magazine, which went on sale 24th September.

the-last-starfighter-posterAs the 21st century rolls on, aging nerds are finding their haze of nostalgia for some classics wiped away by high definition remastering and easy availability to the next few generations, with younger geeks turning their noses up at the primitive entertainment of their forebears when forced to sit through them.  Thankfully, for every film that turns out to have always been utter rubbish, there are those whose strengths outshine any weaknesses due to being made in the time period they emerged in.

1984’s The Last Starfighter is one such beast.  Director Nick Castle was hot off writing John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and directing TAG: The Assassination Game when he broke new ground by making an SF film using extensive computer-generated effects, rather than the small amounts used before then in films such as Westworld, the aforementioned Escape, and of course Tron.  Reworking a screenplay from screenwriter Jonathan Betuel, what emerged was an Amblin-esque tale of ambitious trailer park kid Alex, who wants more from life than his fellow American rural youth, but his flights of fancy are limited to wanting to go out of town for college and playing cabinet arcade game Starfighter inbetween chores for his hardworking mum, the manager of the trailer park.  When he finally beats the game, a mysterious old man in a suit and hat turns up in a DeLorean-esque “Star Car”, leaves behind a mysterious passenger whose handshake with Alex produces electrical sparks, and whisks Alex off into space.  There it transpires the war seen in the game represents an actual interstellar conflict, and Alex has been headhunted and drafted into an elite unit of pilots to fight on one side.

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If the effects - the work of the legendary Cray X-MP supercomputer and such movie legends as Ron Cobb and Jeffrey Okun - occasionally seem a tad clunky in their motion or how they are composited in, they actually hold up surprisingly well, at times even resembling computer games of the following decade.  Of course it’s impossible for them to measure up to modern day graphics in films, let alone games, but who would expect that?

This has the same value now in terms of the history of SFX that Ray Harryhausen’s fine stop-motion work or Walter Day’s amazing matte painting work does, and needs to be appreciated as such.  They effortlessly tell the story, make for some exciting sequences and every now and then offer ambitious detail in otherwise relatively smooth textures that resemble the model work of that and the preceding decade.  Together with costumes and props that bear a pleasing familiarity to preceding SF films and TV, they combine with the live-action work, good acting, lovely location shooting and solid use of widescreen and smart editing to create an aesthetic all the film’s own, topped off by a rousing score from the experienced composer Craig Safan.  Only the comedy sequences with Beta Alex don’t work as well with modern sensibilities.

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Sadly beaten at the box-office by The Karate Kid and Purple Rain despite positive reviews, the film lived on through the burgeoning home video market, making it ripe for re-discovery.  While it can still be bought on DVD and now blu-ray, the only spin-offs it spawned were a novelisation from the great Alan Dean Foster, a Marvel Comics adaptation and a musical (no surprise given director Castle on the disc commentary described the characters and film as “almost like a musical without the music”); Atari’s videogames were never released.  A sequel has oft been mooted but has never come to pass, which is a shame, as these are decent characters it would be worth revisiting, along with the implications of Earth coming early into the war.  It just goes to show that if you get the story and the rest of the filmcraft right, aging FX are no barrier to continued enjoyment.

The Hunger Games/Battle Royale Fallacy (first published on the Manga UK Blog)

With the final film in the adaptation of Suzanne Collins' excellent Hunger Games out in U.K. cinemas this weekend, here's the article I wrote for the Manga UK Blog ahead of the release of the first film in the series. It was commissioned under the heading "Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale", then published as "Battle Royale With Cheese", which seems to have disappeared from the current version visible online here. Follow the link to the final published version edited by Dr. Jonathan Clements, and compare to my submitted draft below.

U.S. Young Adult fiction phenomenon The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010) from TV scripter & novelist Suzanne Collins has come under fire from fans of manga and Asian cinema, who have taken online to dismissing her work and the Hollywood film adaptation looming on the theatrical release horizon as merely derivative of the late great Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku’s final film Battle Royale (2000). Rarely is Takami Kōshun’s 1999 source novel mentioned, nor the manga which he co-write, while few of these complainers seem even to have read Collin’s novels.

71deVIyvWsLBoth stories are SF, both popular with younger readers, but only the U.S. trilogy was written expressly with that audience in mind; the Japanese novel’s high levels of gore and political content show it was clearly intended for an older one. Takami’s work postulates a parallel universe where Japan’s history has diverged some 80 years in the past and is instead a larger fascist state.  The military programme takes 50 third-year high school student classes from across the Republic of Greater East Asia once a year, places them in a local district area cleared to act as an arena, and commits them to a fight to the death, with only a single winner permitted, resulting in 1,950 students wiped out annually.  The author follows one class to focus in on the political, cultural and moral issues he sees as significant in 90s Japan, and makes up for generic, underwritten characters with splatter detail coupled to vivid action movie stylings.

Fukasaku, a life-long rebel with an eye for coruscating on-screen violence and trenchant criticism of Japan’s society across his fiery oeuvre, made a powerful last statement of the film adaptation before cancer took him while directing the sequel. His own experience of his class being drafted at 15 to work on munitions at the end of World War 2 and coming under artillery fire underscores a reality for the film that production limitations could not.  Also, the casting of legendary comedian, actor and writer-director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano in the much-expanded role of the Programme Supervisor shifts the entire dramatic weight of the film, with one of the three clear villains of the book made sympathetic and as much a victim as the children.  It does however add an effective touch of moral grey to a written work that is more black-and-white.

911lppquAtLCollins’ trilogy looks at a future post-apocalyptic U.S. in which nuclear conflict has left the remaining habitable areas divided into 13 districts under the rule of one, with the titular games an annual event that helps prevent rebellion and further civil unrest after one district attempted such and was wiped out.  Looking very seriously at modern U.S. issues such as resource scarcity, the 1% vs. 99%, reality TV, celebrity culture and other, more subtle cultural elements, Collins shows she is an experienced writer capable of placing teenage emotions in that mix, underpinned by her own experiences growing up with a father suffering post-traumatic stress from his military service. She also draws from the same well of potential influences as Takami, including George Orwell’s writings and the dystopian SF sports cinematic subgenre that includes Death Race 2000 (1975), Rollerball (1975) and The Running Man (1987), but is most clearly inspired by the horrific daily reality in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.  In this sense her work is much closer to the superb DC Vertigo comic series DMZ (2006-present) from Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli then it is to Battle Royale, transplanting the effects of U.S. military occupation back home.  Most importantly, she has an entire trilogy to develop her story over, and the characters breathe and grow across the books; her grim final volume is both horrific and compassionate in sufficient measures as to demand her readers grow up with the series, rendering any petty arguments about the Hunger Games being Battle Royale with cheese utterly debased.  Whether the upcoming film manages to do the book justice, however, remains to be seen.