An enjoyable mash-up of western-styled action and John Hughes-styled coming of age drama, Nick Castle's The Last Starfighter was also, according to a 2003 article in the humor newspaper The Onion, the film that inspired former President George W. Bush to seek the presidency. While that's funny, like many of The Onion's satirical articles, it's also fairly believable -- The Last Starfighter is the rousing kind of kid flick that inspires ten-year-old boys to grab broomsticks, storm the neighborhood hill, and go nuts on pretend aliens with ridiculous faux karate moves.
This was also the first film to use CGI for much of its special effects work (all the spaceships and space battles). Programmed on a now Jurassic Cray X-MP supercomputer, in 1984 the digital effects shots were stunning. It was, for kids of the '80s, Space Invaders come to life.
The flick's Kurosawa-lite plot revolves around Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), a teen denizen of a mountain trailer park who spends his time playing stand up arcade games and working as a handyman. Alex wins the Starfighter game (while being cheered on by the trailer park's quirky residents -- would there be any other kind?) and is soon approached by the game's inventor, Centauri (Robert Preston, in his final film role). Centauri, as his name suggests, is actually an alien and his car (a DeLorean-like vehicle) is, of course, a spaceship. Whisked away into interstellar space, Centauri reveals that the Starfighter game was actually a recruiting test and Alex has been summoned to the planet Rylos to fight in an ongoing space war between the Rylan Star League (the good guys) and the Ko Dan Empire (the brain melting baddies). Joining up with a lizard navigator/co-pilot, Grig (Dan O'Herlihy), Alex is thrust headlong into an intergalactic battle royale. Will he save the Star League? Will he return to Earth to make-out with Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart)? Can he survive as the last Starfighter?
While the techie kids marveled at the 27 minutes of computer generated action, the film's real success lies in Alex's immediate likeability. This is a kid struggling to make sense of his life, a kid lost in the fantasy of videogames, who gets a second chance to become king of the world (well, really, the universe) and win the girl. Forget college, Alex is on is way to intergalactic fame.
While lead Guest's career never took off, he makes a great Alex (and Alex Beta, a goofy android doppelganger dropped off at the trailer park to replace him). Director Nick Castle helmed a number of youth-centric movies (TAG: The Assassination Game, The Boy Who Could Fly) before spiraling into painful Wayan brothers territory. His work on The Last Starfighter is engaging while not being showy. Writer Jonathan R. Betuel wrote and directed the similar, though perhaps more imaginative, My Science Project a year later.
Despite its aspirations, it's unlikely The Last Starfighter will ever be hailed alongside Star Wars as one of cinema's finest science fiction films. The effects really haven't held up that well, the story is fairly pedestrian, and the whole thing, at times, reeks of commercialism. However, as a teen space opera, The Last Starfighter more than succeeds and will likely inspire future generations of imaginative young people (and possibly future presidents) to stare wistfully at the stars (or at their gaming consoles) and wonder, what if
Here's another quarter.