by Mel Valentin
Released in the summer of 1984, "The Last Starfighter" was, at the time, the latest attempt to capitalize (or rather duplicate) the success of the original "Star Wars" franchise. Pitched at sub-teenage boys and their tolerant parents or older siblings, everything about "The Last Starfighter" came off as derivative and unoriginal, with one exception: the then groundbreaking visual effects. "The Last Starfighter" employed computer graphics rather than physical models (as the "Star Wars" films did). By today’s standards, the visual effects look painfully crude and unfinished, making it hard to believe that the effects company, Digital Productions, used a Cray super-computer to create 27-minutes worth of visual effects. Still, if you’re in the mood for lightweight, escapist fare (and you’re feeling nostalgic), it’s hard to go wrong with "The Last Starfighter."Along with his family, Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) lives in a semi-remote trailer park. While he anxiously awaits news of a loan that’ll help him pay for college, he helps his mother, Jane (Barbara Bosson), run the trailer park. His Playboy-obsessed younger brother, Louis (Chris Hebert), doesn’t so much look up to Alex as admire Alex’s skills with the one and only stand-up video arcade game in the trailer park. In the game, Alex has to take on and defeat “Xur and the Kodan Armada.” When Alex isn’t sulking, dreaming about escaping the trailer park, or playing the video game, he’s marking time with his girlfriend, Maggie Gordon (Catherine Mary Stewart).
"Sometimes revisiting a childhood favorite isn't so bad after all..."
Everything changes (as it has to), when Alex beats the video game record as his family and neighbors cheer him on. The video game designer, Centauri (Robert Preston), appears, seemingly out of nowhere and offers Alex a proposition: a grand adventure. Alex reluctantly agrees, but discovers almost immediately that Centauri isn’t who he appears to be: Centauri’s an alien sent to recruit starfighters for the Star League, an intergalactic organization that resembles the United Nations or the Federation of Planets from Star Trek. As Alex soon discovers, the starfighters have been recruited to fight off Xur (Norman Snow) and the Kodan Armada. Alex meets several aliens, including Grig (Dan O'Herlihy), a gunstar-experienced navigator, and learns more about Xur, the outcast son of the Star League ambassador who betrayed his people for the promise of power from the Kodan Emperor.
Alex initially refuses to join the Star League and convinces Centauri to return him home. Luckily for Alex, that’s exactly when Xur and the Kodan Armada decide to strike the starfighter base. Back on earth, Alex’s double (supplied by the enterprising Centauri), tries to keep everyone, including Maggie, from suspecting he’s really not Alex. After learning that the last starfighter may have survived the attack on the Star League base, Xur sends alien mercenaries to eliminate him. In little time, Alex has to learn how to use the real weapons aboard the one surviving gunstar (with Grig as his navigator and mentor) and get some live practice in before fighting Xur and the Kodan armada (to the death, naturally).
The Last Starfighter borrows heavily (okay, the word “rip-off” might not be inappropriate) from Star Wars. Young dreamer with a destiny stuck in a backwater town? Check. Untapped talent that makes said dreamer unique? What about a mentor offering mystery and adventure? Check. Evil villains bent on conquest? Check. Colorful aliens? Check. Reptilian, leathery aliens? That's a check. Space battles? Check. Final, gigantic space battle? Check (more or less). Lone hero fighting irredeemable villains? Most definitely a check. And last, uniqueness and courage proved, fame and prestige? Check (for the last time). And that’s not even including the logic and chronology-defying storyline involving a video arcade game, a slow, really slow moving armada, an easy-to-find earthbound Alex (in a world of six billion), and a linear storyline that takes the hero from novice to expert within a few minutes.
Maybe that’s being too hard on The Last Starfighter, though. As unoriginal as it is, least its Stars Wars meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind storyline moves along at a rapid clip. There’s humor too, if, again, geared strictly to pre-teen boys (and girls, in lesser numbers). And, of course, let’s not forget visual effects created by a long-defunct company, Digital Productions (DI). DI invested in a multi-million dollar Cray X-MP super-computer (the word “super-computer” once made tech geeks tear up) to take computer graphics to the next level (released two years earlier, Tron included 15 minutes of computer animation). DI created 300 individual shots spread out over 27 minutes. Each frame contained, on average, 250,00 polygons (a then staggering number). The practical effects (i.e., makeup), however, were, at best, sub-par, especially scenes involving aliens.Add that up and well, you get a lot of minuses, a lot of reasons not to check out "The Last Starfighter" except one: that unmistakable feeling of nostalgia when you revisit a part of your childhood you remember well and remember fondly. On that score, it’s hard to argue that "The Last Starfighter" works. If, however, this is your first time seeing "The Last Starfighter," then you might be disappointed with the storyline or the dated visual effects. Taken in context, though, "The Last Starfighter" was part of the evolution of visual effects from a model-based practices to a computer graphics one. Better films would follow almost immediately (no, "Enemy Mine" isn’t one of them), but "The Last Starfighter" will continue to have a special place in the hearts of nostalgic science fiction fans.
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originally posted: 08/01/08 07:07:46