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.

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