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By 1984, a certain trilogy from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away was over and studios were clamoring to reap the rewards of a fanbase hungry for more space action. While Star Trek movies were filling in some of that gap, a deluge of cheaply-made movies hit theaters and direct-to-video, cashing in on the demand. The Last Starfighter was a little different from many, it being a legitimate run to knock off the reigning king, and while ‘knock off’ is certainly an appropriate description, there is something earnest about Starfighter that sets it apart from so many more obvious rip-offs. Here are 7 things great about The Last Starfighter.
As mentioned, Star Wars was having profound influence on the industry and the creators of the film were now pushing the industry in all new directions in terms of what could be done with visual effects. One of the conceptual artists on the first Star Wars film, A New Hope (1977) was a man named Ron Cobb, who worked on creature designs, some of which were seen in the Mos Eisley cantina scenes (including the Ithorian, pictured above). For The Last Starfighter, he was hired as the lead production designer, helping to design much of the look of the film but most notably the Gunstar, the spaceship seen most prominently in the movie.
Speaking of the Gunstar, the iconic ship is actually not a practical effect but a computer-rendered image created by Digital Productions, a computer animation company in Los Angeles, and their work on The Last Starfighter, which included 27 minutes of animation, in 300 scenes, is the first major feature films to employ extended use of CGI for nearly all effects, taking the rudimentary but groundbreaking computer graphic work in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (credited as the first film to have a fully computer-rendered scene in a movie) to the next level, stunning audiences at the time, who were blown away by the images.
While the film is full of great early CGI shots, all of them in space, most everything else was done with practical effects, including one of the more icky moments that generated the film’s only earned jump scare. The main character is Alex (Lance Guest), and after being recruited and taken into space, a highly-complex android duplicate of Alex is left behind to ensure that no one suspects he is missing. Being mostly organic on the outside, it takes a bit of time to take Alex’s shape, and does so overnight in his bed. When we see it mid-transformation, it is a grotesque blob of goo with eyes and it was all done by hand with latex and bladders.
After beating an arcade video game at the trailer park where he lives, Alex is suddenly met by a mysterious man in a very cool futuristic car. Centauri is the name, the game’s inventor, who is actually an alien whose console is a training test for players with skills to become starfighters. He’s played by the late Robert Preston, in his final film appearance, and the character is based on another of Preston’s most celebrated roles, that of “Professor” Harold Hill in the 1962 musical film The Music Man, a smooth talking traveling salesman with plans to swindle a town out of gobs of money under the premise they need an all-boys marching band. Times were different back then. From the way he dresses to the way he talks, if you know the first movie, you almost expect him to break into song in the second.
It’s almost hard to avoid bringing up Star Wars again, the film using a lot of the standards the first trilogy established, but one of the most popular and intriguing bits from the classic sci-fi series is the theme of limb loss, especially arms and hands, with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) losing his hand the most memorable. Still, there have been a lot, with the first being a character named Ponda Baba getting his arm sliced off by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) on Mos Eisley. The Last Starfighter slips in its own limb loss homage when a Zando-Zan alien assassin comes to Earth with intent to kill Alex. Centari steps in and shoots off its arm in a nod to Obi-Wan.
While John Williams is arguably the most famous film composer of all time, his music has come to define entire generations of movies and genres, and so it’s not surprising that many studios have put a lot of effort into duplicating the themes and cues of his work in hopes of capturing a bit of his magic. With The Last Starfighter, that task landed at the feet of Craig Safan, who to that point had mostly worked in television, including scoring the hit comedy series Cheers. While he went on to compose for a number of other movies, it is his grand orchestral masterpiece for Starfighter that remains his best work, himself stating outright that he wanted to go bigger than Star Wars. The movie tends to subdue the music, even in the fantastic finale, never using it as profoundly well as the Star Wars franchise, but if you pay attention, it’s a great score that deserves a closer listen, of which you can do right here.
The Last Starfighter was written by Jonathan R. Betuel, who claims he got the idea while watching a boy playing a video arcade game and comparing a win with Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, putting him on a path of destiny. Having read the book “The Once and Future King” by T.H White, he became inspired to modernize the events and so the movie, even as it mimics science fiction thrillers, is more deeply-rooted in ancient lore. While The Last Starfighter is toned down for a younger audience and is played out for cheesy fun, there’s no denying the great writing, and the movie is as popular as it is not because of the groundbreaking visual effects and high adventure, but because these characters are so well defined by the script we want to follow them wherever they go. Watch it again today.