Universal // 1984 // 101 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // August 10th, 1999
He didn't find his dreams...his dreams found him.
The Last Starfighter, although in many respects following the footsteps of Star Wars, broke into new ground with its pioneering use of computer generated visual effects. Thankfully, Universal gives us a disc loaded with its usual assortment of Collector's Edition features.
In this age of digital wizardry, where whole films and even episodic television (notably Babylon 5) can be created via computer, it is fascinating to look back to the time when this technology was in its infancy. The Last Starfighter was the first movie to use computer graphics to represent what had up to that point been the sole province of models and miniatures. This technology had been available for some time, as Digital Productions, the company responsible for the effects, had done some tests for Star Wars (which are seen in the featurette). However, not until The Last Starfighter had the technology and financing progressed to the point where it was viable.
Even so, the pioneers at Digital Productions had to create software and procedures where none had existed before, and had such a monumental task that they brought a Cray supercomputer to its cyber-knees (which was quite a feat for the time). I think their efforts speak for themselves, as it stands the test of time better than some films that pushed the technical bounds of moviemaking (such as Tron). As is explained in the extensive bonus material, the computer generated visual effects had to be scaled back and simplified in order to meet production demands, so I can only imagine just how much better the effects would look if Digital Productions had been given the luxury of time.
I do not mean to give the impression that this is a totally effects driven movie. At its heart, The Last Starfighter is firmly grounded in the simple but compelling story of a young man, Alex Rogan (Lance Guest). With his mother, Jane (Barbara Bosson) and younger brother, Louis (Chris Herbert), Alex lives in a trailer court located in a ruggedly beautiful rural area. He is tired of his going-nowhere life at the trailer park, filled with onerous chores and responsibilities, and yearns to escape with his girlfriend, Maggie Gordon (Catherine Mary Stewart).
One of his favorite outlets is playing a video game, and he is so good that one night he breaks the scoring record. He is happy for just a brief time before the weight of his hope and despair drags him back down to earth. Moping around that night, he is shocked when a strange star-car rolls into the trailer court. The driver, Centauri (Robert Preston), informs Alex that his skill at the game qualifies him to become a starfighter for real, in the service of the Star League. Intrigued at this prospect, Alex goes with Centauri back to the main Starfighter base on the planet of Rylos. Once their, Alex finds that Centauri is quite the rogue and con artist, having broken the rules to recruit him in the first place, and then failing to tell him that the Star League is engaged in a deadly war with the renegade Xur (Norman Snow) and his allies in the Ko-Dan armada.
This is not at all what Alex had in mind, and he forces Centauri to take him back to his less exiting but much safer life on Earth. He finds that a substitute, a "Beta unit" has been carrying on, literally in his shoes. Unknown to Alex, Xur and his minions carry out a devastating attack on the Starfighter base, killing the other budding starfighters. Alex gets only a brief respite before an alien "hitbeast" (Marc Alaimo, better known as Gul Dukat on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) attempts to do Xur's bidding and kill the last starfighter.
Knowing that even more hit-beasts will follow, Alex knows that his only chance is to return to Rylos and become a true starfighter. He teams up with a reptilian pilot, Grig (Dan O'Herlihy), and reluctantly climbs aboard the last gun-star, an untested prototype. His first foray into combat is not entirely a success, as Alex still does not feel comfortable in his role, nearly giving up yet again. However, Grig boosts his morale with some inspirational speeches, and Alex recovers in time to leap into the furious climactic battle with the Xurian and Ko-Dan ships.
Once the galaxy is safe once again, Alex is asked to help the Star League rebuild a cadre of starfighters, but his heart wants Maggie at his side. He returns to his trailer court in full starfighter glory, and convinces his love to join him on Rylos. As they fly off into the stars, his friends and family give him a cheerful send-off.
The video is a good news, bad news situation. On the positive side, it is properly letterboxed and anamorphically enhanced. Colors are a bit on the pale and washed-out side, flesh tones are accurate, and only minimal film grain is visible in a handful of shots. Contrast is excellent, and the film is generally clean, with one notable exception being a vertical line that flickers in and out about a third of the way across the screen in a few scenes (and a very distracting flaw it is, too). On the negative side, the sharpness is found wanting, a point that is quite clear when comparing the ultra-sharp computer generated effects against the fuzzier film visuals. Unfortunately, this fault is feature-length and tends to remind you rather forcefully that you are not watching a recently released feature.
The audio does the job well, but it is apparent that this 5.1 mix was remastered at some point from the original. The dialogue is clear, and the channels nicely separated, but the mix loses some depth at the ends of the spectrum, and the LFE channel is not used in any significant fashion. The score (by Craig Safan), supports the action well and reflects the emotion of the film nicely.
Universal graces this disc with a nice set of collector's edition extras. The crown jewel is a roughly half-hour featurette, "Crossing the Frontier: The Making of The Last Starfighter" produced by Sharpline Arts (who did such nice work on the Alien disc, among others). The most interesting parts deal with the enormous task of creating the computer visual effects, and how the film blazed a trail for others to follow, as reflected by the comments from various people at Industrial Light & Magic. The feature length commentary track by director Nick Castle and production designer Ron Cobb provides the usual mix of insight and trivia.
Buried a little deeper are 1.85:1 letterboxed teaser and theatrical trailers, production notes, web links, and cast and filmmakers' bios (which contains a hidden trailer for Major Payne in the director's bio). The menus are nice, incorporating animation and sound in pleasing fashion. Rounding out the disc is an extensive collection of production photographs, which includes a look at an unused alternate ending. You also get a multi-page insert (with production notes) and the annoying keep case usually used by 20th Century Fox (boo hiss!).
The acting is generally good, if you don't mind the corny moments that you have to suffer through. Lance Guest conveys the desperate yearning and conflicted desires of Alex Rogan quite well, and has the added challenge of making the "Beta unit" substitute act similar to but also quite different from Alex. Catherine Mary Stewart is a natural beauty, supportive of Alex but fearful of making her own break. In his last film, Robert Preston shines as the intergalactic con man Centauri, always ready with a smile and a disarming word. Finally, I must commend the efforts of Daniel O'Herlihy. That he is able to give Grig such a variety of facial expressions and personality despite being hidden behind all that latex and makeup is a testament to his dedication. (Check out Robocop for a more visible role, where he plays the CEO of Omni Consumer Products.)
In a way, I feel like I've been sold some very tasty but reheated leftovers. According to the IMDb, it appears that this transfer and set of supplements (more or less) was made for a 1998 laserdisc release. Not that I blame Universal too much, except that when you slap it onto a DVD disc, the higher resolution will magnify flaws that may be less apparent on a laserdisc.
If you are looking for hard-core sci-fi, or serious drama, then this is not going to be the film for you. The story may seem a bit too hokey, and even the film's creators can't help but make comparisons to Star Wars. The villains, both Xur and the Ko-Dan, aren't very well developed beyond serving as basic plot devices, but then again neither is the Star League. Fortunately, since the film is very focused on Alex and his experiences, these lapses are not too damaging.
One final criticism is the quality of the video transfer. For a premium priced collector's edition, I expect to get top-notch video and audio to go with a bushel of extras. While no doubt an improvement over previous video presentations, there still is room for improvement. Even if part of the problem is the original film elements, there are film flaws that could have been better hidden.
If you like a feel-good space adventure flick, or are interested in the historical evolution of computer graphics, I give this disc a qualified recommendation. Buy it if you can get it at some kind of a discount from the list ($35). I just wish Universal had cleaned up the video a bit more.
The film is acquitted. Universal and the disc are sentenced to a community service tour, explaining to us why the video transfer doesn't look better than this.
Review content copyright © 1999 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Teaser Trailer
* Theatrical Trailer
* Production Photographs
* Animated Screens
* Commentary With Director Nick Castle and Production Designer Ron Cobb