What if an arcade game actually taught you to be good at something? This simple, yet, high-concept premise is the entire foundation upon which several wish-fulfillment fantasies are built. No, endless hours of gaming aren’t rotting your brain and wasting time — you’re training to do something amazing! While Tron imagined that the skills of ‘80s button mashers might be put to could use in a virtual world, The Last Starfighter took it to the next level: Some arcade games are actually recruitment devices, created by an interstellar league of planets to see who has the right stuff. And on July 13, 1984, The Last Starfighter not only executed this wonderful premise perfectly but predicted the next phase for blockbuster movies entirely.
Thirty-nine years after its release, one of the strangest truths about The Last Starfighter is that it came out before Back to the Future. This factoid has doubtlessly sent you to Wikipedia or Google because it feels impossible, right? And yet, this one of those ‘80s paradoxes that’s just true: Back to the Future hit theaters on July 3, 1985, but a year prior The Last Starfighter hit on July 13, 1984. If you watched The Last Starfighter on cable or VHS in the ‘90s, this will feel strange, only because The Last Starfighter represents the ‘80s sci-fi formula so perfectly, that it feels like it must have been influenced by Back to the Future. There’s even a flying car, with doors that open kinda like a DeLorean!
But, the great thing about The Last Starfighter is that it was very much its own thing. The movie was shot in less than two months — just 38 days total — but, featured a massive orchestra, and thus, a musical score from Craig Safan, that rivaled Star Wars. Our young hero, Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is stuck in a trailer park, but the scope is galactic. The Last Starfighter is one of those great sci-fi ‘80s movies that feels like an indie film and a studio sell-out at the same time. And the success of the film comes down to essentially two components: The movie has a lot of heart, and its special effects are so surreal and unique that it’s shocking how we take this kind of thing for granted now.
Briefly, in case it’s been a while, The Last Starfighter is about Alex, a down-on-his-luck recent high school graduate, who wants to go to college, but keeps getting rejected for financial aid. He’s got copies of Playboy hidden under the mattress and, because it’s the ‘80s, his kid brother Louis is always trying to look at them. Alex is a good guy though, and everyone in the trailer park loves him because he’s not a burnout or a jerk. Guest plays Alex with genuine affability, channeling Mark Hamill in Star Wars ‘77, but minus the whining. Essentially, Alex is what Luke Skywalker would be like if he was real, in the ‘80s, but with a touch of fairytale good-guy magic. So, when he breaks the high score of an arcade game called “Starfighter,” and learns it’s really a recruitment tool for a real space armada, you’re already rooting for him.
Borrowing from the kind of logic that Doctor Who often relies on; The Last Starfighter posits that there’s just a bunch of bipedal aliens out there that look, to varying degrees, like humans with funny haircuts, or are lizard aliens, or have face tentacles, or whatever. The Last Starfighter packs in all these sci-fi tropes — including the idea of instant language translation — very quickly. So quickly, in fact, you barely notice that some of the instructions for how to destroy the villains do seem outright ripped off from A New Hope.
But here’s the thing: The Last Starfighter is allowed to make a lot of its structure look like Star Wars’77, and the reason why is simple: This movie’s premise says: Yes, but what if that was happening out there in the real galaxy, right now? This conceit leads us to the second big reason The Last Starfighter is so influential: The visual effects.
Instead of trying to create a photo-realistic spacescape, The Last Starfighter makes the outer-space visuals computer-generated, and obviously so. At the time, other than Tron, nobody had really done computer-driven visual effects for a feature film like this. The difference, of course, is that in Tron, the video-game aesthetic matches the fact that the characters are literally in a computer matrix. In The Last Starfighter, the computer-generated VFX are supposed to represent the “real world,” IE, we’re meant to think this is what outer space looks like in this reality.
Here’s why this works and has actually aged beautifully. First, the design of the spaceship, the Gunstar, is awesome. Second, the effects create a sense of surreality that only makes the rest of the breezy world-building more palatable. Last Starfighter director Nick Castle clearly wasn’t really going for “realistic” with these effects. Instead, the effects match the tone of the movie. And as the years passed, these smooth, very unique spaceship effects have only become more artistic and bold in retrospect. The Last Starfighter has aged gracefully, not because its CGI seems primitive, but because the artistry with which it is used is novel and smartly deployed. Unlike some recent big blockbusters (cough, cough Quantumania, The Flash) with this film, the CGI feels like part of the story and isn’t even ashamed to be recognized as unreal.
In this way, The Last Starfighter represents something that a lot of contemporary blockbuster sci-fi movies have forgotten: The visual effects don’t need to be convincing per se, they just need to feel new and unique. And more important than that, the effects need to match the story, and in that department, The Last Starfighter is one in a million.
You can also grab the excellent Blu-ray from Arrow video, which is stacked with special features and looks amazing.