Lost 80s Movies: The Last Starfighter

The delicious nostalgia trip that is the brilliantly contemporary Ready Player One has got me thinking about some of the 80s movies I used to love. To be honest I didn’t really need the push, most of my favourite films come from that decade. Back to the Future, The Princess Bride, The Empire Strikes Back, Footloose, Pretty in Pink and When Harry Met Sally all figure in my all time top ten. (The others are from the 1940s.) I’m not going to discuss any of these though, most of them already have their own posts and one of them is where the name of the blog comes from. Instead I want to look at a few of the flicks I remember enjoying but have never revisited.

First off then we have 1984’s The Last Starfighter. ‘84 was a particularly good year giving us Ghostbusters, The Terminator, Gremlins, Amadeus, Splash, Blood Simple and This is Spinal Tap to name just a few but among these classics was the little movie about a kid who beats the high score on a Asteroids style computer game only to be whisked out beyond the Universe to pilot a spacecraft for real. I vividly recall the end when his ship lands on Earth (spoilers) and thinking it was absolutely awe inspiring. (I don’t think I’d seen Close Encounters by this stage.)

As much as it has been a little bit lost to time, The Last Starfighter was quite ground breaking in its day having great significance in the way it used elementary CGI. Prior to the 80s computer generated effects in cinema stretched about as far as the glowing lines on the X-Wing targeting graphics. The Last Starfighter was two years after Tron and the computer created terraforming sequence in The Wrath of Khan but it was the first film to use computer renditions of real objects like vehicles and buildings rather than using model work. Looking at it now I have to say that it looks absolutely terrible. Seriously, the special effects are less convincing than when Kirk and Spock first set out on their voyage of discovery almost twenty years earlier. To be fair I was impressed when I first saw the film but even by the standards of the time it was rubbish. This was seven years after Star Wars and sixteen years after 2001 both of which made space travel look so so much better. Frankly they fell down on the old Jurassic Park test; they were so preoccupied with the fact that they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should. I accept that they were able to do things with graphics they’d not been able to before but the tech wasn’t ready. Airfix kits on sticks were still way way more convincing. I don’t know if you’ve seen that very very earlier Pixar short with the ping pong ball headed clown and the bee, well that was the same year and visually it’s kind of the same. That and those cheap animated Barbie films. It was all just boxy and plastic. Also, the evidence suggests that if they were going to go with it they could have tried harder too. Within twelve months of The Last Starfighter coming out we had the first CGI animal with the owl in Labyrinth and the first photo realistic CGI character with the stained glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes. I know none of it is the T-1000 but neither does it look like Minecraft.

Pixar’s The Adventures of Andre and Wally B

Barbie in the Nutcracker

Labyrinth‘s owl

The stained glass knight from Young Sherlock Holmes

The Last Starfighter!

The T-1000 effortlessly morphs through some bars in 1991’s Terminator 2


Of course dated effects don’t matter if the story and direction are strong. Hitchcock’s The Birds remains a genuine work of art yet the birdies in question often look fake. In this respect The Last Starfighter also falls short. The script, the plot and the performances are all very cheesy. Female lead Catherine Mary Stuart plays it with conviction like she’s in a John Hughes picture (instead she got this and Weekend at Bernie’s) but as the titular hero Lance Guest seems to know it is all ridiculous. He reacts to the whole being taken into space and dropped into a cataclysmic fire fight thing as you might being told to turn off the TV and come downstairs and lay the table. At most it appears to be a minor inconvenience that he wishes someone else was doing. His two otherworldly mentors are also corny, spending most of their time explaining the plot like they are auditioning for Rentaghost. Not even having a secret weapon brilliantly named Death Blossom can save it.

In the end I think the reason I liked The Last Starfighter so much when I was an undemanding kid is because it is made for undemanding kids. It doesn’t stand up to older modern eyes. I think I’ll put it back in the past where I found it.

Right, on to The Adventures of Buckeroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension.

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