Hot on the heels of the then-defunct Star Wars franchise came The Last Starfighter. There had been other copycat films before (see: Battlestar Galactica) but none were as successful as The Last Starfighter. The theme that they both have in common was the young boy, stuck in the doldrums of his daily life, aching to get away and make something of himself. The Last Starfighter wore its theme on its sleeve. Like Otis says in the opening scenes, "When life gives you a chance, you gotta grab on with both hands and hang on tight!"
I recently re-watched my old DVD and was shocked to see how bad that 1998 release looked. Certain frames had sections that were washed out, I could see a hair on the film, and there were plenty of scratches that begged for digital restoration. I immediately went out and bought the blu-ray. Suddenly, everything was crisp and clear in glorious 1080p hi-def. All the defects I noticed before had been cleaned up. The film looks great!
Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is your average American teen living somewhere in the southern states (Arizona? New Mexico?) in a trailer park. His application for a loan has been rejected and it looks like he's going to be stuck going to city college with the locals. His dream of finally getting out has been quashed. However, Alex has a talent -- more accurately, "the gift" -- to be a Starfighter. Only he doesn't know it yet. All he knows is that he just scored 1,000,000 points on a video game called "Starfighter".
Light years away, the peaceful planet of Rylos is about to be invaded by the traitor Xur, who has declared himself Emperor (Star Wars?), and the deadly Kodan armada. Rylos' best hope are the Starfighters: an elite group of fighters who have mastered the gunnary station aboard the powerful Gunstar starships. And that video game was more than a game. It was simulator, planted there by the alien Centauri (Robert Preston in his final role), and designed to find someone with "the gift" to be a Starfighter.
In short order, Centauri appears, as a 70 year old man in a (then) futuristic car. He whisks Alex away across the lightyears to Rylos where the whole situation is explained to him. One problem though: Alex doesn't want to go. He doesn't want to die for a war he'd never heard of before, far from home. Will he eventually remember Otis' advice? Will he grab hold of this chance with both hands and hold on tight?
What made The Last Starfighter unique was that it had a dual plot. While Alex has been swept away to the stars, he has been replaced back home with a Beta unit that looks exactly like him. These scenes ground the movie and provide much of the comedy relief, as Beta tries to understand Alex's girlfriend Maggie (Mary Catherine Stewart). Beta also doubles as a a target, a decoy. Once Xur learns that there might be a Starfighter on Earth, he sends a (really cool looking) Zandozan assassin to eliminate him.
Humour, action, cool looking aliens and fascinating early CG animation all make The Last Starfighter an interesting viewing. Although now it looks horribly dated, it is easy to overlook the primitive CG and just get into the story and characters. The only way this movie could work, then and now, is if you can suspend your disbelief and get into the characters. Thankfully, some stellar performances make that easy to do.
Bonus features are excellent. The original DVD documentary from the 90's is included, as well as a brand new one in 1080i hi-def. Both Lance Guest and Mary Catherine Stewart appear and provide fascinating insight. As a kid, I always suspected that the Beta version of Guest was wearing a wig as the hair never looked right. Guest confirms this: Many of the Beta scenes were added as an afterthought, and he had already cut his hair. Stewart is good humoured about her awful Michael Bay moment ("I love you Alex Rogan").
The Last Starfighter, while looking dated, is still a timeless story and it should still grab the imaginations of kids today. It certainly still holds mine.