Hot on the heels of the then-defunct Star Wars franchise came The Last Starfighter. There had been other copycat films before, but few were as well done as The Last Starfighter. The theme that they both have in common was the young boy, stuck in the middle of nowhere, aching to get away and make something of himself. The Last Starfighter wore its themes on its sleeve. Like Otis says in the opening scenes, “When life gives you a chance, you gotta grab on with both hands and hang on tight!”
I recently re-watched my old DVD and was shocked to see how bad that 1998 release looked. Certain frames had sections that were washed out, I could see a hair on the film, and there were plenty of scratches that begged for digital restoration. I immediately went out and bought the blu-ray. Suddenly, everything was crisp and clear in glorious 1080p hi-def. All the defects I noticed before had been cleaned up. The film looks great!
Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is your average American teen living somewhere in the southern states (Arizona? New Mexico?) in a trailer park. His application for a loan has been rejected and it looks like he’s going to be stuck going to city college with the locals. His dream of finally getting out has been quashed. However, Alex has a talent — more accurately, “the gift” — to be a Starfighter. Only he doesn’t know it yet. All he knows is that he just scored 1,000,000 points on a video game console called “Starfighter”. Small triumph, sure, but more important than he knows.
Light years away, the peaceful planet of Rylos is about to be decimated by the traitor Xur, who has declared himself Emperor (Hmmm…Star Wars?). Xur brings with him his allies, the deadly Kodan armada. Rylos’ best hope are the Starfighters: an elite group of fighters who have mastered the difficult gunnery station aboard the immensely powerful “Gunstar” fighter ships. A heavily armed beast of a spacecraft, a Gunstar is manned by a crew of two: a pilot and a gunner. And that video game, back in the trailer park, on Earth? That was more than just a video a game. It was simulator, planted there by the alien recruiter Centauri (Robert Preston in his final role). It was designed and built specifically to find someone with “the gift” to be a Starfighter.
In short order, Centauri appears, as a 70-ish year old human in a (then!) futuristic car. He whisks Alex away, across the lightyears to Rylos where the whole situation is explained to him. One slight problem though: Alex doesn’t want to be a Starfighter. It’s not his war, and he doesn’t want to die for a planet he didn’t know existed, so far from home.
Will Alex remember old Otis’ advice? Will he grab hold of this chance with both hands, and hold on tight?
What made The Last Starfighter fun was that it had a dual plot. While Alex has been swept away to the stars, he has been replaced back home with a “Beta unit” that looks exactly like him. It’s a robot, also played by Lance Guest, but his “fish out of water” scenes return the movie to comedic moments. These scenes help ground the movie and keep it relate-able. A lot of the humour comes from Beta trying to understand Alex’s girlfriend Maggie (Mary Catherine Stewart). But it’s not all fun and games for Beta. Emperor Xur thinks he has destroyed all the Starfighters, but he learns that there might be a last Starfighter, a human, alive on Earth….
Comedy, lasers and action! Cool looking aliens! All that fascinating early CG animation! These all make The Last Starfighter a blast for me to revisit. Although today it looks horribly dated, it is easy to overlook the primitive CG and just get into the story and characters. The only way this movie could work, then and now, is suspending your disbelief and getting into the characters. Thankfully, some great performances from the lead cast make that easy to do. In particular, Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy as the reptilian alien pilot Grig are standouts.
Blu-ray bonus features are excellent. The original documentary from the old DVD version is included, as well as a brand new one in 1080i hi-def. Both Lance Guest and Mary Catherine Stewart appear and provide fascinating insight. As a kid, I always suspected that the “Beta” version of Guest was wearing a wig, as the hair never looked right. Guest confirms this: Many of the Beta scenes were added as an afterthought, and he had already cut his hair short. Stewart is good humoured about her awful Michael Bay moment in the film (“I love you Alex Rogan”).
The Last Starfighter, while appearing dated, is still the same old timeless story it always has been. Recommended for anyone born before Jurassic Park came out.
- Lance Guest as Alex Rogan / Beta Alex
- Dan O’Herlihy as Grig
- Catherine Mary Stewart as Maggie Gordon
- Norman Snow as Xur
- Robert Preston as Centauri