'The Last Starfighter', Wish-Fulfillment in the Most Terrifying Way Possible.
'The Last Starfighter', available from Amazon
"Greetings, Starfighter! You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada!"
Is there a single gamer out there that wouldn't jump at the chance to apply some of our awesome gaming skills in a real life situation? Like taking on Nazi Germany single-handed, and punching Hitler in the face? Or, learning to thrive in the inevitable zombie apocalypse? Or, jumping on our enemies and collecting the coins that burst out of them? Well, of course it would actually by more than a little terrifying - and, if any of us long-time gamers where actually given the opportunity for something like this in real life, we would probably run as far as we could in the opposite direction. But, that doesn't really stop us from fantasizing about it, does it?
It is exactly this sort of unique wish fulfillment that forms the premise of one of the greatest movies ever made (or so I would have happily told you as a child in the 80s), The Last Starfighter.
Alex Rogan is a bored and frustrated teenager living at his family's trailer park, with his mother and his younger brother. His only forms of recreation come through time spent with his girlfriend, Maggie, whenever he is able to pull himself away from his general handyman duties around the park, and through the lone Starfighter arcade cabinet set up outside a nearby store. After managing to break the high score, and beat the game (something which turns into a major spectator event since, well... they all live in a trailer park. What else are they going to do with their time?), Alex is shocked to learn that there is more to this particular game than he thought.
Alex is quickly contacted by an eccentric alien named Centauri, who reveals to him that the game was part of his own plan to track down people with the skills necessary for piloting real ships, called Gunstars, in a real intergalactic war. Alex is told that beating the game has earned him the right to be recruited, and that he is now expected to join the Star League's elite Starfighter squadrons in a very real war against the militaristic Ko-Dan Empire.
Naturally, being a sensible young man overall, Alex demands to be taken straight back home. Though, when he returns, he finds his place filled by an android double name Beta, left behind by Centauri to cover for his absence. And, also, that he has already been identified as a Starfighter, courtesy of one of Xur's spies, and is now the target of alien hit-beasts. From here, Alex realises that he doesn't really have a choice in the matter, anymore – and, then, the fun begins.
As absurd as the premise is, the film is not without its charm – and, in fact, the goofy premise ultimately became a large part of the charm for me. Alex, and his alien co-pilot Grig, make for likable heroes – and, Alex's clear discomfit with the whole idea gives it a touch of realism that helps to ground things. Also, the scenes involving the android Beta's increasingly bewildered attempts to cover for Alex provide a fair amount of entertainment value.
It can also be a lot of fun to watch an over the top villain do his thing, and that's exactly what we get here. From his very first scene, Xur abandons any pretense of giving a subtle and retrained performance in favour of chewing on as much of the scenery as possible. And, it works for him, too – it's really just that sort of movie. The Ko-Dan leaders, on the other hand, manage to be almost genuinely menacing figures – if this were ever intended to be a serious science-fiction film, then they may have been a generally terrifying foe.
The Last Starfighter also has the distinct honour of being one of the first movies ever released to make heavy use of CGI – and, it shows. The space battle scenes were developed on one of the most powerful super-computers available at the time. It was a risky idea, at the time - but, it paid off for the film in the end. But, you do have to remember that the computer used to render these scenes back in the 80s probably has the processing power of a modern smart-phone. So, naturally, while these scenes may have locked great at the time, they are horribly dated by today's standards.
So, is this a good movie? Well, arguably no. But, it is a hell of a lot of fun. It's cheesy, based on a spectacularly absurd premise, and full of over the top, scene chewing, performances. It is, overall, very much a product of the 80s. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, then you'll have fun here. Otherwise, there are plenty of other movies out there to watch, instead.
© 2012 Dallas Matier
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