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Last Starfighter, The Print E-mail
Friday, 01 February 2008
ImageEven director Nick Castle admits “The Last Starfighter” owes a lot to the Star Wars movies, as well as to Spielberg’s “E.T.” So don’t come to this movie looking for originality—it has very little of that. But it’s warm-hearted, albeit clumsily so, and features the last movie role of the great Robert Preston, here more or less “The Music Man”’s Harold Hill as an alien looking for adept star warriors. Preston twinkles, ingratiates and completely steals, without too much effort, every scene he appears in. He even gets a death scene (but death doesn’t last long in this kind of movie).

The screenplay is by Jonathan Betuel, who’s had what might politely be called a checkered, skimpy career—his most recent movie was 13 years ago, the barely-released “Theodore Rex.” His script for “The Last Starfighter” is adequate—it has the kind of premise that make studio execs sit up and take notice, while the rest of us wonder why something so blankly obvious was ever green-lit. Nonetheless, it’s here and the story fills up the running time and a bit more (the movie suffers a little from overlength).

Alex Rogan (the bland Lance Guest) lives at a trailer park somewhere in the mountains. He’s the general handyman, constantly busy, but always dreaming, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” of traveling to other places. In the meanwhile, he spends all his spare time (and probably a lot of money, though this is cagily evaded) playing Last Starfighter, a video game installed at a nearby convenience store. (Why there’s a store here, in the middle of nowhere, is unexplained; no one ever enters or exits the store.)
One night, he makes a winning score, the only source of local excitement—all the trailer park residents, including his younger brother and mother (who rarely does anything), crowd around the machine; even the park’s one and only dog and one and only cat get excited. Alex’s girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) is less impressed; she keeps wanting Alex to just DO something. The only black man, given to sighing “it’s a sparklin’ day,” urges Alex to seize opportunities, though hanging around the trailer park wouldn’t seem to provide many.

But it does. Cenaturi, a chatty, friendly guy (Preston) in what looks like a jet-propelled DeLorean shows up one night, looking for whoever set that winning score in the Last Starfighter game. He bids Alex to climb into his swell car, first shaking hands with the shadowy figure in the back seat—Alex gets a shock, the figure climbs out and disappears into the park. Then Centauri takes off; that is, he REALLY takes off—the car leaves the road and heads into outer space. (You might ask why a video game, which of course presents no real dangers, no real threats, could possibly be used for a life-or-death job like the captain of a fighter spaceship.)

Centauri explains that the video game was a kind of recruitment tool, a way of picking out potential starfighters. He’s working on behalf of the planet Rylos, engaged in a war with the Ko-Dan, a warlike race now led by Xur (Norman Snow), son of the leader of Rylos. (This connection is emphasized, but plays absolutely no part in the plot.) Thanks to Centauri (and I guess other recruiters), they’ve rounded up a mixed bag of aliens to man their “gunstar” fighter ships and take on the vast Ka-Don armada. Alex is introduced to his navigator, the lizard-like Grig (Dan O’Herlihy). However, Alex—who after a couple of pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moments, takes this in stride—doesn’t WANT to be a Starfighter, so Centauri starts taking him back to Earth.

But Xur’s legions of Ko-Dan fighters strike, blowing up the Rylan fortress and killing all the Starfighters. You knew there HAD to be a LAST starfighter, right? And of course it’s Alex. His battle with the Ko-Dan armada is flashy, loud and weirdly both brief and easy.

Back on Earth, that character who emerged from Centauri’s car/spaceship is a “beta unit” (he insists he’s not a mere robot) who’s turned himself into a duplicate of Alex, though his head is removable. He’s there so no one will wonder where Alex went. He has his own problems—an alien “hit beast,” an amazing-looking Zandozan, is sent to destroy the beta unit, though just why isn’t clear. Things don’t work out well for the Zandozan. The movie cuts back to the beta unit whenever a laugh or two is needed.

The story, as you can see, is okay for a minor space adventure, and the film has a pleasant, feel-good aura, not easy when lots of characters (all those Ko-Dan pilots, for example) are killed wholesale. The beta unit is simply removed from the story at the appropriate moment, and just what happens at last to Xur isn’t clear.

The movie is aimed squarely at kids, and they’re the best audience for it even now. Those who first saw it when they WERE kids are likely to be more forgiving than those who first see (or saw) it as adults. It’s another of the several films made in the wake, and in imitation, of “Star Wars;” even the score by Craig Safan has a definite John Williams flavor.

Nick Castle hasn’t had a robust directorial career, but he’s kept busy, partly through his association with John Carpenter (among other duties, he was the masked killer in the original “Halloween”), also by directing movies mostly made for kids. He’s largely a routine director, but he really knows how to use wide screen—the images in “The Last Starfighter” are superbly composed.

The importance of “The Last Starfighter” doesn’t lie in the cast (other than it being Preston’s last movie) or the screw, but in its historical position as the first movie to use computer graphics extensively in place of models. In “Tron,” often cited as the progenitor of CGI effects, the images were supposed to look like a video game because that’s the environment in which the story took place. In “The Last Starfighter,” computer graphic creations took the place of models, allowing this relatively low-budget movie to have vast armadas of spacecraft, all moving about in the correct perspective.

When this movie was released on laserdisc, the documentary, “Crossing the Frontier: Making ‘The Last Starfighter’” was produced. It’s hosted by Lance Guest and includes well-staged talking head interviews with writer Jonathan Betuel, director Nick Castle, producer Gary Adelson and production designer Ron Cobb. Others appearing include Jeffrey A. Okun, Rick Sternbach, Larry Yaeger and composer Craig Safan. Even ILM’s Dennis Muren, who didn’t work on “The Last Starfighter,” gets in a few words as an expert. There’s also a commentary track, informative but rather dry, by Castle and Cobb.

Today, the computer-graphic effects in “The Last Starfighter” look slightly crude, like very good effects in a modern-day computer game. But at the time, they were dazzling, the first time effects that had ordinarily been done with elaborate models were replaced with computer images. The movie is well-designed with excellent photography by King Baggot. The images are crisp and clean; colors are well realized, though scenes on the other planet tend toward the pastel, using lots of soft grays and tans.

“The Last Starfighter” belongs in history books devoted to special effects; otherwise, it’s an average space movie for kids, with some colorful characters (including a “gung-ho iguana”), lively if brief space battles, and a story which, if hard to buy into, keeps things moving along.

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