Generationally speaking, the 1980’s was also a time in American resurgence on the global scene. Ronald Reagan was elected to the Presidency, and his ineffable charm and tireless positivity touched off a sense of national pride amongst those who lived through it. (Don’t believe what the history books tell you, kids.) Though the Cold War was still being waged in political corners, as the decade wore on it became increasingly clear that one side – the Soviet Union – was losing pace with the U.S. Who could’ve possibly imagined that as we turned the corner into the 1990’s that the Berlin Wall would come down, the USSR would (kinda/sorta) break apart, and cinema would descend into that usual ‘where do we go now’ exercise that leads to various shades of black-and-white.
But back in the 1980’s? The good guys were good guys. The bad guys were bad guys. Both sides were easily identified. And evil was almost always vanquished.
Into this era soared The Last Starfighter.
And I like to think that filmdom is a better place thanks to his adventure.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Written by Jonathan Betuel and directed by Nick Castle, The Last Starfighter remains one of the most perfect films from the 80’s. Guest is brilliant as the young hero who – like Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker – was only wishing for a way out of his boring existence when circumstances turn to his favor. Catherine Mary Stewart is perfectly cast as his loving girl-next-door, a role she played repeatedly throughout much of her career in film and television. Robert Preston brings a measure of old school Hollywood chemistry to the motion picture in the guise of Centauri, a kinda/sorta intergalactic conman whose set-up the Starfighter video games without his employer’s knowledge – a shenanigan that ends up saving life as we know it. Dan O’Herlihy rounds out the principles: his turn as the alien navigator Grig gives the film its most family-friendly appeal as the actor imbues the lizard with enthusiastic and expressive huffs and puffs that give life to even the layers of faux skin over the man’s face.
Performances aside, The Last Starfighter is also gifted with a wealth of technical expertise that helps complete the cinematic experience. The fledgling CGI isn’t always convincing, but the detail works when required. Castle’s direction and pacing keeps the tale moving at an ideal pace, and Betuel’s script balanced the well-rounded subplots with time both on Earth and in outer space. Ron Cobb’s production design is particular fetching: the Gunstars remain one of the signature starfighters in all of Science Fiction, and his understanding of physics and mechanics helped him produce one of the most believable spacecraft in film. Kevin Pike (as special effects supervisor) helped bring both Earthbound and space-based environments to life. Lastly, Craig Safan’s score provides a brilliant undercurrent to the entire film; the track are constantly tugging at the viewer’s heartstrings or providing a pulse-pounding heartbeat for the action and adventure.
For what it’s worth, I’d be a fool if I failed to mention that there have been attempts to follow-up The Last Starfighter: Betuel mentions more than once on the disc’s supplementary features that plans were afoot in such a way as to treat this film as only a first chapter. As grand as a follow-up could’ve been, I shudder to think at what could go wrong especially with waiting so long to take another swing at the material. The original film has a timelessness to it that other flicks from the 80’s can’t claim, and I suspect a continuation (or reboot) at this point would sacrifice a lot of the wholesomeness that pervades so much of Guest and Stewart’s work here. I’d hate to see this one’s reputation tarnished in any way, shape, or form. It’s that rare perfect viewing pleasure – even if you consider it a guilty one – and maybe once is good enough for all time.
Highest recommendation possible.
So far as this reviewer is concerned, The Last Starfighter remains one of the quintessential films that demonstrates practically everything audiences loved about films from the 1980’s. There’s a wholesome lead character blessed with a hero’s quest. There’s a wonderful and believable small-town romance. There’s a solid premise that gives all of the principals something to do and not just serve as vehicles to advance the plot: the whole team serves a purpose, and it’s arguably one of the most cherished SciFi/Fantasy flicks to come along ever. Furthermore, if you’re into special effects, Starfighter remains one of the best examples of the earliest, most effective use of computer graphics (CGI), and a single viewing shows the promise that this new frontier of special effects could bring to all of filmdom. It’s one of the few times that great stars, great stories, and great effects truly meshed on the silver screen.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video provided me with a Blu-ray of The Last Starfighter by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form was influenced by it.
If you're thinking about picking up a copy, it's available for purchase at Amazon.com.