Welcome to 1984: The Greatest Year Part II – Electric Boogaloo, the Geek League of America’s 30th anniversary tribute to the iconic geek culture films of 1984. This series of in-depth, analytical, fun, and nostalgic essays on the year that brought us instant classics like Ghostbusters, The Terminator, Gremlins, and others serves as a sequel to our 1982: The Greatest Year articles. Like 1982, 1984 was a game-changing year for genre cinema, loaded with popcorn blockbusters, cult hits, and genre-defining masterpieces. Join Jeff and other members of the Geek League of America for a fond, and sometimes funny, look back at this monumental year in nerd culture history.
“Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada!”
I have a confession to make. While this series celebrates the great movies of 1984, I don’t think I saw The Last Starfighter until the early ’90s. After all, I was 3-years-old when it came out in theaters. Either way, despite seeing the film a decade or so after it came out and seeing it after many more technologically advanced films, it managed to keep a place in my heart as a fun adventure film. It was one that I watched many times on my HBO-recorded VHS tape over the years. I bought it on DVD, but I can’t say I watched it much. I caught it in passing on TV in bits and pieces in the past few years, but when we here at the League decided to do a series on the great films of 1984, this was the one I knew I wanted to do. In an effort to offer a fresh perspective, I threw it in for preparation for this article… and man, I can’t believe what I found.
“A game! Well, you may thought it was a game, but it was also a test. A-ha, a test! Sent out across the universe to find those with the gift to be Starfighters. And here you are, my boy! Here you are!”
If you haven’t seen the movie, do yourself a favor and go watch it. I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it. If you’re too lazy be bothered with watching a 30-year-old sci-fi movie, here’s the synopsis (SPOILERS ON A 30 YEAR-OLD MOVIE!):
Alex Rogan is a young man, seemingly post high-school, trying to get out of his small southern California trailer park and off to big city college. He’s stuck doing maintenance on Elvira and Granny’s mobile homes rather than going off to hang out with his girlfriend and friends at the lake. In the trailer park, there is a lone arcade cabinet — a game called Starfighter. It’s an outer space flight combat game where you must save defend the frontier from the evil Xur and the Ko-Dan armada. Alex is damn good at the game. He even sets the high score, much to excitement of the whole trailer park!
Soon thereafter, he’s approached on the road by a man in a dark and mysterious vehicle looking for the person who set the high score on the game. “That’s me,” he says, and so he hops in and is introduced to the inventor of the game, the fast-talking Centauri. The car is actually a spaceship and he’s whisked away to space. In order to cover for his absence, Centauri leaves behind a Betazoid unit, essentially a copy of Alex.
Upon his arrival at an outer space starbase, Centauri informs Alex that the game is not just a game and there really is an intergalactic war, a fleet of Starfighters, and a bad guy named Xur. Alex wants no part of it and asks to be brought home. While he’s gone, the bad guys attack and destroy the good guy base leaving only one capable navigator, Grig, one fancy prototype Gunfighter ship, and only one guy in the universe left who can save the day: Alex.
“Louis, you’re having a terrible nightmare. Go back to sleep.”
In my memories of watching this as a kid, I definitely remember enjoying it. I know I watched it a ton. Here’s some things that stuck out to me:
SCARY STUFF! The scene with the Beta unit pulling off the sheets to expose its metamorphosis into Alex was terrifying to me as was Xur’s brain/face melting of the Star League’s spy. I don’t know why, but these scared the crap out of me when I was younger. They must have done something to me because they stayed with me more than anything else.
ADVENTURE! I remember being excited by the prospect of being whisked away into a real life video game, especially one with an awesome spaceship that I already knew how to fly! Just think about all the arcade or video games you’ve played and which ones you’d want to be in? All I know is that I would really want to avoid side-scrolling beat-em-ups because I’m sure in real life, I wouldn’t be able to handle level after level of endless bad guys and a boss that takes way too much money to beat!
CENTAURI! Yeah, I remember Centauri being pretty awesome. Smooth talking and cool, I know you’d get into a car with him too, right?
GRIG! That laugh!
And lastly… Beta Alex’s weird laughing scene… Um…. ok.
“I must congratulate you on your virtuoso performance, my boy. Centauri is impressed. I’ve seen ’em come, and I’ve seen ’em go, but you’re the best, my boy. Dazzling! Light years ahead of the competition! Centauri’s got a little proposition for you. Are ya interested?”
Well, let’s forget about the memories I had from 20 years ago. Let’s talk about what I just discovered having rewatched this movie start-to-finish as an adult. Here’s some bullets:
It Owes A Ton To STAR WARS
The Last Starfighter is a Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey movie through and through. Coming out in 1984, this movie feels, in more ways than one, like a low-rent Star Wars movie. Don’t get me wrong, I still like it, but geez! Alex is Luke Skywalker. Instead of going to the Lake (Toshi Station), he has to fix Elvira’s cable (take these two over the garage)! He goes with Centauri (Obi-wan) on a journey to become a Starfighter (Jedi) and he’s left as their universe’s only hope. The Star League base looks like a mix between a Rebel Base and a Star Destroyer bridge. Enduran is basically Mon Mothma, spies get killed (Bothan or not), and the Ko-dan bad guys look like red Stormtroopers. Alex learns how to pilot a Gunstar in a scene reminiscent of Luke’s training scenes as well as the Luke/Han Death Star escape battle against the TIE-fighters. Alex also hides in an asteroid like the Falcon in Empire Strikes Back. Alex even has a pomp and circumstance award ceremony at the end of the film when he saves the day.[divider]
This was the biggest surprise to me when I rewatched it. The special effect space battle scenes mostly all CG! They look a mixture of TRON and the Super Nintendo game Star Fox. However, if you are willing to look past the polygonal look of the scenes, they are still enjoyable and hold up emotionally (just not too much technologically). This, along with TRON, were among the first of the major CG films of the 80s. While old-school Star Wars was done with miniatures and rotoscoping, The Last Starfighter opted instead for CG. The giant sets and hero Gunfighters look great and the creature effects are also not awful (even if again, they owe a lot to Mos Eisley and Admiral Ackbar). I want to also make special mention of Dan O’Herlihy’s Grig. Covered in makeup appliance, he shines through with bright eyes and emotion, serving as Alex’s mentor and co-pilot. Don’t tell me his look didn’t influence 1985’s Enemy Mine. Just sayin’. The bounty hunter Zando-Zans and the Ko-dan generals both have cool alien looks as well.[divider]
Robert Preston is amazing in this film. For those of you who don’t know, Robert Preston originated the role of fast-talking instrument-shilling Harold Hill in the Broadway and Hollywood productions of The Music Man. The Last Starfighter is actually his final film role before two more TV movies and his death in 1987. It is fitting that his final movie role would mirror the greatest role of his professional life. Centauri is basically an out-of-this-world Harold Hill and why the hell isn’t that ok? I could watch Robert Preston fast talk in and out of any situation because he’s certainly one of the best.[divider]
Citizens Of The Trailer Park
Alex Rogan needed more than Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen and what a wacky group of characters we got. His mom the trailer park manager, little brother 12 year-old-or-so brother Louis with his Playboy magazines (only in the 80s), a gaggle of old ladies with names like Elvira and Granny, and kindly old-timey Otis who helps Alex with his repairs and stuff. Alex’s girlfriend Maggie is pretty, even if it seems like she doesn’t really stand by Alex when his a-hole “friends” laugh at him for wanting to go to college and being stuck behind doing work for the trailer park. Maggie is bothered by the Betazoid unit left behind as fake-Alex and once she finds out that he’s not REALLY Alex, she gets over it in about 15 seconds. Sure, why not?[divider]
What a great theme for this film. Triumphant and energizing, you wouldn’t think that a film like this would leave us with such a cool score.
Overall, even after discovering that The Last Starfighter borrows plenty from other films, I still love it. Hiding in Roger Ebert’s slightly negative 2 ½ star review of the film are my key points of takeaway from reexamination of the film:
“The Last Starfighter” is not a terrifically original movie. The video game concept seems inspired by Walt Disney’s “Tron“, and the battles in space are such close copies of the “Star Wars” movies that George Lucas might have a lawsuit. … [but]“The Last Starfighter” is a well-made movie.”
Sometimes, you don’t have to make a film that’s amazingly original. I feel like The Last Starfighter endures because of heart. The characters are likeable, the acting is good, and if you aren’t cheering when Grig, Alex, and Maggie leave together to go back to space and rebuild the Star League, then there’s something wrong with you.