Arrow Video: The Last Starfighter (1984) - Reviewed

Most filmgoers know the name Nick Castle as the guy who was in the Michael Myers costume on John Carpenter’s legendary horror film Halloween.  Fewer however are aware of his own career in the director’s chair, one which began quietly with the Linda Hamilton starring videogame to film adaptation TAG: The Assassination Game but quickly gained momentum with his second feature, the 1984 cult favorite The Last Starfighter.  Known to fans as the last starring role of Robert Preston and among the earliest adopters besides Disney’s Tron to utilize computer generated imagery, The Last Starfighter joins the aforementioned Disney film as another one of those movies where the human protagonist finds himself sucked into the world of an arcade game.
Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) leads a quiet life in the trailer park with his mom and younger brother.  Bored with his humdrum life and having failed to enter a scholarship, he whiles away his time playing an arcade game called Starfighter.  Little does he know, however, that the game’s extraterrestrial creator Centauri (Robert Preston riffing on The Music Man) is using the game to recruit new starfighters on an intergalactic battle between good and evil.  Something of a Star Wars and Tron hybrid with a dose of Steven Spielberg sentimentality, The Last Starfighter is a science-fiction fantasy mismash which proves to be one of the better early films to be based around a videogame.

For the time, this sported startling computer visual effects which were created on the then Cray X-MP supercomputer.  But not everything consisted of digitally rendered spaceships engaged in dogfighting.  The Last Starfighter also employs a fair amount of practical effects including original designs by Star Wars and Alien graphic artist Ron Cobb.  Centauri’s Starcar, for instance, was reportedly a rejected design for the flying cars in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.  Though dated, seen now the early CG effects work help cement the film as something of a time capsule.
Lance Guest and the supporting cast members are good but Preston completely steals the show in every scene he appears in.  Despite the years between The Music Man and The Last Starfighter, the showmanship from Preston remains infectiously charming with an energy which electrifies the screen.  For all of the visual effects wizardry and videogame concepts being dealt with at a time when the computer game industry was in infancy, it is Preston who makes this silicon spaceship soar.

At the time the film did decent box office numbers though critics were quick to dub it a Steven Spielberg “wannabe”.  In the years since, however, the film has gained a cult following with regular syndicated television screenings.  Despite now being ostensibly a nostalgia machine, The Last Starfighter oddly never saw an arcade rendition itself despite numerous efforts from Atari and the PC computer to make it a reality.  While ideas of a sequel continue to come and go throughout the years, for now The Last Starfighter is a charming pastiche of then-recently produced science fiction film fits and one of the more endearing videogame oriented films to come out of the 1980s.

--Andrew Kotwicki