Sunday, April 19, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Last Starfighter (1984)

For Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, the first movie I've sat in the defendant's chair for in a long time was 1980s cult science fiction classic The Last Starfighter.This one I remember my grandmother taping for me off the Disney Channel (at least I think it was the Disney Channel--there's some surprisingly adult content in the full film) back when it was new. You can listen to our podcast here. And now for the review...

The Plot

Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), a young man living in a trailer park somewhere in the Southwest, wants more out of life than going to community college with his friends. His main outlet besides spending time with his awesome girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) is playing a video game called The Last Starfighter, in which he has to defend the outer-space Frontier against the villainous Ko-Dan Armada. He earns a record high score with the game, only to learn that he didn't get a loan he needs to go to college elsewhere. He goes back to play the game, only to encounter the mysterious Centauri (Robert Preston), a man who claims to be the game's inventor. It turns out he's an alien and the game was his unorthodox method of finding pilots for the Star League, which is faced with an invasion by a very real Ko-Dan Armada. Alex now must go into battle aboard a prototype Gunstar alongside the alien navigator Grig (Dan O' Herlihy).

The Good

*The concept and world of The Last Starfighter is really interesting. I like the idea of this spacefaring civilization under threat from some interstellar warlord and they're so hard-up for personnel to fight it (according to TVTropes, the novelization depicts the Star League culture as being so ridiculously pacifistic that they can only find a few dozen functional warriors) they've got to resort to unorthodox tactics like the whole video-game thing. The confrontation between the traitor Xur and his father indicates some potentially interesting back-story, especially the references to a cult that has apparently been scattered.

*Writer Jonathan R. Betuel (who was canny enough to hang onto many of the rights associated with the film, unlike many writers) does a good job of showing and not telling just how helpful Alex is to the other residents of the trailer park. Even if that's his actual job (as opposed to him just helping his neighbors out of community spirit), there's a sort of "auditory montage" of everybody thanking him for helping them with various tasks after he has to abandon a trip to the lake with some friends. That's a good bit of characterization (he's helpful) and exposition of his situation (he doesn't get a lot of time to himself).

*I liked Maggie's character. She actively desires Alex--much to his alien robot double's shock--rather than being some blushing shrinking violet. When she learns that Alex has been replaced by an alien robot double while he's fighting a war in space, rather than freak out, she immediately jumps in to help said alien double prevent an alien assassin from warning the Ko-Dan that Alex, the last surviving Star League fighter pilot, isn't actually on Earth. She's honest enough to admit she's scared of leaving the familiar trailer park, responsible enough to want to stay and look after her aging grandmother, and brave enough to go for the gusto when her grandmother tells her to "write or whatever it is they do up there."

(And when the reptilian Grig reveals himself to the townsfolk at the end of the film, it's her grandmother who confronts him with a shotgun. I guess we know where she gets it from.)

*Robert Preston is clearly having a lot of fun playing Centauri, as is O' Herlihy playing Grig. Preston in particular is clearly channeling his part in the 1957 production of The Music Manand is doing a good job. And O' Herlihy puts in the best performance in the movie. Stewart's Maggie rounds out the top three, but she has one misstep (that I'll get to later) that keeps her from rising higher.

*I liked the concept of the Gunstar, which is more like a frigate than a fighter-jet. It's able to take far more damage than the Ko-Dan space fighters and keep on fighting. And the tactic Alex uses to ambush the Ko-Dan carrier is pretty clever--power down and wait for them to pass, then pop up and destroy the carrier's communication array to keep the commander from coordinating his fighters.

*Although the sub-plot involving "beta Alex" (the alien robot double) was generally not that interesting, it had some really good parts. The one I'm thinking of is the robot taking off his head and setting it on the table and the head continuing to talk to and interact with Alex's little brother Louis.

*The Ko-Dan tolerate the obnoxious traitor Xur because they need him to break through the defenses of the Frontier. They don't particularly like him and they get rid of him as soon as possible because they're sick of his arrogance and meddling.

The Bad

*The movie was really rather boring. The whole "beta Alex" story was rather dull--and his social awkwardness was downright painful to watch--until he revealed to Maggie that he was an alien robot and being hunted by Ko-Dan assassins. Then things got more interesting. And the whole "stop the alien assassin" thing was more interesting than most of the space-battle plot, probably because the whole thing looks like, as Nick put it, the first Descent game.

*And speaking of that, the special effects have not aged well. I vaguely remember the effects looking a lot more realistic, possibly involving models and practical effects rather than CGI. After all, this was the mid-1980s. Wrong. The film uses CGI and it's crappy. It looks like something out of a mediocre Playstation One game. I say "mediocre" because my first PS-1 game (Warhawk) had full-motion video. According to the Wikipedia article and TVTropes, this was the biggest deployment of CGI at the time, but it was all done on the equivalent of an 800 MHz Pentium III. I can't really fault them for this the way I did the people who made the film Spawn because they did the best they could, but it still doesn't look good.

*The dominant race of the Star League is ridiculous-looking. They're basically humans with shaved lumpy heads and what one of my fellow reviewers called "Martin Van Buren hair." I mean seriously, look at Xur here:

I get a major Babylon 5 vibe off these people. I'm reminded simultaneously of the Centauri (see Londo Mollari and his hair) and the Minbari, although the latter's appearance is due to a difference bone structure rather than funny haircuts.

*I vaguely remember seeing the Star League fighters getting ravaged by explosions and the like as they line up to launch against the Ko-Dan carrier, but that's not in the movie at all. We see what looks like one fighter preparing to launch as the Ko-Dan throw rocks at their base. Either there's another cut of the film out there somewhere (the 1985 ABC TV broadcast of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khanincluded a scene revealing cadet Peter Preston is Scotty's nephew when the theatrical and most DVD releases didn't) or my imagination is embellishing things. That would have made the whole situation more scary and urgent if we see most of the Starfighters massacred in their hangars, the one or two that manage to launch getting shot down before they can engage the Ko-Dan, etc. Make this Pearl Harbor IN SPAAACE...

*Louis seems strangely precociously sexual. He looks like he's around seven or eight and he's got his own hidden collection of Playboy magazines. The actor would have actually been around 10 years old when the movie was shot, but based on my own experience, I would not have been interested in sex or girls at that age. I could imagine reading a Playboy if I found it out of curiosity, but not collecting them or treasuring particular centerfolds. It seems more realistic that Alex, being 18-ish, would have them, although I doubt the assertive, rather sexual Maggie would want to share him...

*Many of the actors needed to work on their craft. Guest really doesn't seem to emote too terribly much, even when being kidnapped by a stranger who turns out to be an alien, being taken to a faraway planet, seeing somebody get gut-shot by an alien assassin, etc. He seems half-asleep during the flight to Rylos in particular. And although I liked Stewart's portrayal of Maggie, her "I love you Alex Rogan" to the empty sky was delivered very poorly. And when the assembled alien fighter pilots chant "Victory or Death," it's the most unenthusiastic war-chant I have ever seen. Given how (almost) everybody seems to be doing poorly, I'm inclined to think it's the director who's the problem.

*Also, when the Gunstar lands in the trailer park and the townsfolk turn out to see it, nobody seems frightened, shocked, etc. Only the reaction of Maggie's shotgun-wielding grandmother seems remotely realistic. Again, this might be more a judgement on the director than the actors, since it wouldn't be that hard to be more alarmed than the people seem to be--more than likely it seems they just weren't told to act frightened.

*And I would expect the townsfolk to be more leery of Grig no matter how polite he is or how much Alex vouches for him, at least at first. Heck, some of the older women in the trailer park seem awfully friendly toward him, if you get my drift. :)

*In one scene, Grig references how the only power they've got is the life-support power, but then he manages to re-power the Gunstar at a crucial time--without any unpleasant side effects like their air getting bad. That's something that should have happened, to build suspense.

*The reason for Xur's treason should have had more elaboration. From the way it's depicted it seems like a combination of greed for power and Daddy issues. Building on this a little bit would have been possible in the scene where Xur's hologram confronts his father, before the Ko-Dan actually attack--just give him some lines about how weak and decadent the Star League has become (he can point out how few volunteers they've got to become Starfighters, frex).

*When Alex breaks the record, pretty much the entire population of the trailer park turns out to cheer him on. Old men even abandon their checkers game. Even though Alex is apparently quite popular with the residents and it seems like there's not a whole lot going on, it's very difficult to imagine people caring that much about an arcade game.

The Verdict

See it once if you're feeling nostalgic. 6.75 out of 10. It would be much better if it were remade with modern special effects and better actors, although that doesn't look like it's going to happen anytime soon. If you want to see how I would have done the movie, see this post here.

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