Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Once Over Twice: The Last Starfighter

(1984) Directed by Nick Castle; Written by Jonathan R. Betuel; Starring: Lance Guest, Robert Preston, Dan O'Herlihy, Catherine Mary Stewart and Barbara Bosson;
Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Rating: **** 

Ah… the 80s!  For better or worse, we’re typically a product of our formative years, trapped in an earlier (and subjectively) simpler time that dictates our preferences.  We’re stranded in a time warp, as a willing prisoner to an earlier aesthetic – sort of an existential Stockholm Syndrome.  The Last Starfighter is an example of cinematic comfort food, reminding me when my biggest concern was whether or not I had enough quarters to play my favorite video game, just before life demanded that it was time to grow up and think about loftier issues.

I would be selling The Last Starfighter short if it was just a vehicle for pondering my teen years through blurry rose-colored glasses, however.  There are more than enough 80s movies that cover this territory nicely.  The Last Starfighter marked a milestone in computer-generated effects, but compared to Tron it rarely gets its due.  According to director Nick Castle, half of the movie was a “question mark,” requiring a much larger scope of digital effects than had ever been previously attempted.  It was a gamble by forward-thinking filmmakers who decided to take the plunge into a largely untested technology where outcomes were uncertain. 

Production designer Ron Cobb previously worked with Castle on Dark Star, and did design work on such seminal films as Alien and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The decision to use digital instead of optical effects was ambitious, considering the virtually non-existent state of the art at the time.  The effects in The Last Starfighter represent some significant firsts, including the first motion blur effect and first time that a photo-realistic object (the “star car”) was displayed.  What appears on screen is a compromise between what the technology could accomplish and the demands of the production company to get the film finished in a reasonable time period.  In many cases, the filmmakers did not have the time to fully render what was technically possible.  Cobb (in the DVD commentary) stated that landscapes were the most difficult to render convincingly because it simply took too long, resulting in something that looked “like melted ice cream.”  By today’s standards, the effects are fairly primitive.  The end result is certainly not as effective as what could be achieved with optical effects, detailed models and miniature landscapes, but for the time this was truly groundbreaking stuff.  Audiences and critics didn’t realize that these were the baby steps that represented a point of no return for special effects, creating ripples that would continue to be felt years later.

The film is much more than an exercise in special effects, thanks to a healthy sense of fun.  Castle envisioned The Last Starfighter as a “musical without the music,” with a light touch that never lapses into self-importance.  What distinguishes this from most other depictions of space opera (notably the Star Wars prequels) is that it never takes itself too seriously.  The characters are played broadly, but the comic scenes that result from their interactions never seem overtly forced thanks to Jonathan Betuel’s lively screenplay.   He takes familiar elements, such as a standard space opera story, but adds a fish-out-of-water spin. 

Lance Guest plays Alex Rogan, a young guy with his head in the clouds but his feet firmly planted on the ground.  Castle commented that Guest was chosen for his all-American appearance, evocative of Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart.  It’s easy to see the parallels between Alex and George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Both characters dream about far off places beyond their small hometowns, but are inextricably tied to their families through duty.  Alex doesn’t have time to hang out with his friends when there’s so much work to be done around the trailer park where he resides.  Even his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) gets shortchanged, because of his daily responsibilities.  His only escape seems to be the video game “Starfighter,” which he manages to play in the few spare moments when he’s not doing something for someone else.  Alex doesn’t realize that his pastime will become his salvation, as the Starfighter game is actually an alien recruitment tool, modeling the controls of a gunstar fighting craft.  He’s the archetypal reluctant hero, looking for a way out of his everyday drudgery, but reluctant to let go and follow his dreams when the opportunity finally presents itself.  Change is a frightening concept, even when it’s the very thing we crave the most.

There’s some great supporting work from veteran actors Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy, as aliens Centauri and Grig, respectively.  Preston, in his final film role, plays the dodgy con man Centauri, who developed the Starfighter game to identify potential warriors for an intergalactic battle.  Naturally, profit takes precedence over scruples with Centauri’s selection process.  Castle described Preston’s character as a fast-talking “flim flam man,” patterned after a similar role in The Music Man.  O’Herlihy is virtually unrecognizable as Alex’s reptilian pilot/navigator Grig.  It would be an understatement to suggest that Alex and Grig don’t exactly see eye to at first, with Alex referring to his shipmate as a “gung ho iguana.”  Grig is ready to fight a desperate battle against unbelievable odds, while Alex just feels over his head.  O’Herlihy infused a lot of warmth into his character, endowing him with a distinctive laugh and a somewhat optimistic (but paradoxically fatalistic) outlook.  The clash of cultures between Grig and Alex is readily apparent, but Grig remains a good sport.  It’s amusing to watch the cave-dwelling Grig’s puzzled expression as Alex futilely attempts to describe a mobile home.

It’s easy to dismiss the modestly budgeted The Last Starfighter as trying to do too much with too little.  The space battles are staged on a relatively small scale.  Most of the scenes with bad guy Zur and the Kodan Armada mostly take place on a red and black bridge set, and our view of the planet Rylos is reduced to a mere handful of sets.  The augmenting of these scenes with computer-rendered effects doesn’t quite make up for the fact that we don’t see much.  If the effects are sometimes less than special, it’s tough to deny the fact that the film heralded a new age in filmmaking, paving the way (for good or ill) for the dominance of computer-generated effects.  In an era when digital effects are taken for granted and home video game imagery has surpassed anything rendered in the film, it’s difficult to adequately convey what a novel approach this was.  But what sticks in the mind long after the technical aspects are examined to death is the film’s basic entertainment value.  More than a footnote in special effects history or a quirky little descent into 80s nostalgia, The Last Starfighter is excellent Saturday matinee fare, no more and no less.  Who could ask for more?

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