I love seeing older films on a real theater screen. As much as I might enjoy re-watching a favorite movie at home, seeing it on the big screen reminds me that it is not a video product but a theatrical experience that I can see on video when the optimum viewing experience is not available. “The Last Starfighter
” is a movie from 1984, one of my favorite movie years. In fact, if you look on this page, you will see a link to a whole series I did almost a decade ago on a film year that was thirty years old at the time. Starfighter is an example of the 80s style Science Fiction that was so popular at the time. This year had a Star Trek Film, the first big screen adaptation of Dune, and “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension”. “The Last Starfighter” was also an early adopter of computer imagery to create environments for the story to take place in.
Alex Rogan is a teen, dreaming of a different world , rather than the modest surroundings of the trailer park he lives in with his Mom and little brother Louis. He is a lot like Steve Rogers from the MCU, devoted to doing the right thing and willing to sacrifice for others. His Mom works as a waitress and they manage the park, which means Alex is the handyman. He has to be available to reboot an electrical panel, fix a leak, put up a TV antenna, you name it. It often means that he sacrifices time with his girlfriend Maggie, who lives in the park with her grandmother. “Starlight, StarBright” is the name of the trailer park, and there is a community that appreciates Alex and his friendship, but they are all a little quirky. Otis, who runs the little grocery store at the location, is an older, friendly mentor to Alex, who sees his potential and tries to keep Alex from despair of ever getting out. One night, Alex gets started playing the lone arcade game in the facility, “Starfighter”, which he has mastered and seems to be a natural at. As he gets close to breaking the record, Otis calls all the residents out to cheer him on, and the sleepy little community gets a collective chance to celebrate Alex and his achievement. It might seem a corny and improbable moment, except it is set up by seeing how Alex has interacted with everyone and how all the residents are in each other’s business to some degree. His victory seems short lived as his Mom delivers the news that his application for student loans has been turned down and he will be doomed to the local community college and staying at the trailer park.
This is when the story takes off. It turns out that the video game is actually a recruiting tool for pilots who might be able to fight with the Star League. The nostalgic home front has been established nicely, now it is time for Alex to show what he is made of. The recruiter is Centauri, played with ebullient enthusiasm by Music Man Robert Preston. He turns on the flim flam man charm and his character punches the energy level of the story into the next gear. As usual, the hero has doubts, hesitates to step forward and seemingly withdraws from consideration. It is only when he is confronted by the threat to himself and the planet he is from, including his little community, that he fully commits.
The hero needs a mentor and a connection to the new culture that is asking him to save. Grig, a lizard like alien with a wife and 6000 little griglings, is played by another old pro, Dan O’Herlihy. Even under a prodigious amount of makeup, O’Herlihy gives a lively performance conveying warmth and humor. The byplay between Alex and Grig is full of those moments that are in every hero movie, but they are underscored with a lot of laughter, and the two warriors seem destined to achieve “Victory or Death” as the other now dead starfighters chanted.
The effects in the film are primitive by today’s standards. The planets, asteroids exterior structures look like early video games. The Starships on the other hand are solid. Centauri’s vehicle looks like a DeLorean on steroids, the Xur fighters are distinctly designed to distinguish them from the Kodan ships. The Kodan ships look like early renderings of the fighters in the Star Wars Prequels. Alex’s Gun-Star is the most interesting ship design, and the secret new weapon system is deployed at a key moment and it is fun to watch.
The battles are important, but the heart of the story is back on Earth in the Starlight, Starbright trailer park. At the close of the film, we see Maggie and Alex resolve their conflicts, reach for the dream they both have, and they inspire his little brother to start dreaming himself. Some in the audience at last night’s screening laughed a bit at the corny moments of the community, but I saw that this is where the real battles were being fought by Alex. All of the intended humor still works, and even the derisive laughs coming from some audience members did not seem to bother the nearly sold out house for this terrific 1984 film.