2.5 out of 5 stars

The seismic impact of Star Wars (1977) can’t be understated. Much of the 1980s in Hollywood was spent trying to emulate its success. The Last Starfighter is one such attempt, borrowing from many other science fiction stories along the way. However, it has an irresistible hook: the hero receives his call to adventure in a unique way, by breaking the record on an arcade machine.

Directed by Nick Castle, a collaborator and old friend of John Carpenter’s (who even played Michael Myers in 1978’s Halloween), The Last Starfighter is one of those summer films that wasn’t a huge theatrical success but found an appreciative audience on home video. And thanks to children of the ‘80s who grew up with fond memories of it, it had developed a cult following by the late-1990s. However, it’s not a household name that’s been embraced by the mainstream.

Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is a teenager living in a remote trailer park with his mother and younger brother, Louis (Chris Hebert). Opportunities to have fun with his friends and girlfriend, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), are frequently curtailed by his on-site maintenance work. His only guaranteed source of entertainment and a chance to mentally escape the trailer park is by playing ‘Starfighter’, an arcade shoot-’em-up set in outer space. One night, Alex breaks the game’s world record (with the mostly elderly residents of the trailer park hilariously excited to witness his achievement), and is met by the game’s inventor, Centauri (Robert Preston), driving a futuristic car. It turns out the arcade machine is actually a recruitment tool, as Centauri needs people to help the benevolent Rylan Star League defeat the evil Ko-Dan Empire, led by Xur (Norman Snow).

This central conceit is a lot of fun and worked brilliantly in the ‘80s, when arcade gaming was incredibly popular. It’s sometimes said the idea has a hint of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game novel about it, in the sense that younger people are recruited to battle aliens, but The Last Starfighter was actually released a year before that book was published.

Apart from its cool and unusual way of getting the hero drawn into such an extraordinary adventure, The Last Starfighter suffers from otherwise being indebted to superior sci-fi properties. It’s one of many films that walked in the shadow of the Star Wars phenomenon, which came to an end the year before with Return of the Jedi (1983), but there are arguably more Battlestar Galactica (1978–79) vibes because of its sci-fi twist on “fighter pilot” iconography with scenes inside spaceship cockpits or shooting enemies from inside a rotating ball turret. Although that series was itself a response to Star Wars.

The one thing that makes it visually distinctive is its decision to create all the spaceships and some environments using computer graphics, rendered by Digital Productions on a Cray X-MP supercomputer. A total of 27 minutes of early CGI was produced for the film, which makes it a significant pioneer of the way almost everything is done today, alongside more recognised trailblazers like Tron (1982). If nothing else, it’s an important milestone for VFX technology.

The downside is that these effects are crude and haven’t aged well, at least when compared to what the norm was in the ‘80s using heavily-detailed models. The spaceships lack texture and the overall effect isn’t convincing, although the decision to use CGI fits the video game premise and I can see why this choice was made. I remember thinking Centauri’s gull-winged car was incredibly cool when I first saw The Last Starfighter as a kid, so at the time it probably worked just fine for audiences unaccustomed to seeing silky smooth computer graphics. And without big swings like this we wouldn’t have eventually perfected its techniques.

What truly lets down The Last Starfighter is the story. Once Alex has been whisked away by Centauri to meet the other defenders of ‘The Frontier’ in their Gunstar ships, the script grinds to a halt and loses momentum. The first mistake is having Alex initially refuse his call to adventure (always a misstep in such tales), as returning him to the boring trailer park and having him change his mind feels like wasted time. And by the time he’s fully committed to fighting in the alien war, it’s disappointing that all the other Gunstar pilots have been slaughtered off-screen during his absence on Earth, making him the titular Last Starfighter before he’s even flown his first mission! It would have been preferable to see him undergo training and get to know some of his extra-terrestrial comrades before they’re killed off and he becomes the last man standing.

Unexpectedly, the earthbound subplot to Alex’s space odyssey is more entertaining. It’s soon revealed that a doppelgänger of Alex, known as a ‘Beta’, has switched places with him so no one gets suspicious about his disappearance at the trailer park. It’s a fun idea and gives Lance Guest the opportunity to play a naïve version of his character, having to keep up appearances around his family and friends. And there are some genuinely funny moments, like when his brother sees him detaching his head to fix an ear glitch, or when he lets out a raucously fake laugh when encouraged by his girlfriend to relax and have fun.

Beta Alex is oddly reminiscent of Jeff Bridges’s performance in Starman (1984), released the same year. It’s unsurprising to learn that the director added more scenes for Beta after positive responses during test screenings. (This also explains the continuity issues, as Guest had cut his hair by the time reshoots were underway and so had to wear a wig. He was also very unwell, so a lot of make-up was required to make him appear healthier.)

Fundamentally, The Last Starfighter feels ripe for a big-budget remake because the central premise is fantastic, but the original script wasn’t strong or complex enough to do it justice. It coasts by on likeable performances from the actors and a smattering of fun ideas, but the audience is never emotionally invested in the life-or-death situations, and the potential for stronger character dynamics is missed and ruins any chance for higher emotions.

Alex’s mentor, a scaly alien called Grig (Dan O’Herlihy), is well-played and enjoyable to watch, but more could also have been done to establish the Luke Skywalker/Han Solo interplay that I believe they were aiming for. The best sense of camaraderie is between Guest and Centauri, his Gandalf-ian guide into this world, perhaps because Robert Preston is naturally charming and effectively reprising his character of Professor Hill from The Music Man (1962).

Xur is portrayed well by a scenery-chewing Norman Snow in the tradition of a ripe Shakespearean villain, but he hardly compares to Darth Vader. And adventures like this are often only as good as their villain. It’s also a shame most of his alien race have comical Frasier Crane-style haircuts, which doesn’t help matters.

Overall, while a venerated cult favourite amongst those who grew up in the ’80s, I can’t honestly say The Last Starfighter charmed me 40 years later. It’s certainly a notable moment in time for sci-fi adventures scrambling to deliver Star Wars level thrills to a hungry audience, but outside of the likeable performances and novel premise, everything else feels undercooked and a missed opportunity. But if you wore out the VHS tape as a kid, I’m sure nostalgia alone lets you forgive a lot of its problems.

USA | 1984 | 101 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Limited Edition 4K Ultra HD Special Features:

Already made available across North America since last year, Arrow Video finally bring their own restoration of The Last Starfighter to the UK, in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio with stereo sound. There’s also a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio mix and a 4.1 version created for the movie’s 70mm release.

The results are impressive, with some lovely details to the practical effects, although there’s certainly a lot of film grain to the image thanks to the use of optical effects and compositing of VFX shots. The picture’s at its best in the outdoor daylight scenes, with nighttime scenes less so. But considering its age, The Last Starfighter looks good and the early CGI appears incredibly crisp and clean —which one might be uncharitable and say makes it look more artificial than when watched on DVD. I can’t say this was an enormous improvement on Arrow’s own 2020 Blu-ray release, but it’s marginally better thanks to the HDR improving the darker scenes.

There aforementioned choice of sound mixes is welcome, and I opted for the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track when reviewing the film. I can’t say it really benefitted from the rear channels all too often, but they help to sell some of the atmospherics along the way. I’ve heard the 4.1 mix may be the best option.

There’s a lot of bonus material to pore through on this disc, although most of it’s ported over from previous DVD and Blu-ray releases.

  • Brand new 4K restoration by Arrow Films from the original camera negative.
  • 4K (2160p) Ultra HD Blu-ray presentation in Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible).
  • Uncompressed 2.0 stereo, 5.1 DTS-HD MA and 4.1 audio.
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
  • Audio commentary with star Lance Guest and his son Jackson Guest.
  • Audio commentary with Mike White of The Projection Booth podcast.
  • ‘Maggie’s Memories: Revisiting The Last Starfighter’—interview with actor Catherine Mary Stewart.
  • ‘Into the Starscape: Composing The Last Starfighter’—interview with composer Craig Safan. 
  • ‘Incredible Odds: Writing The Last Starfighter’—interview with screenwriter Jonathan Betuel. 
  • ‘Interstellar Hit-Beast: Creating the Special Effects’—interview with special effects supervisor Kevin Pike.
  • ‘Excalibur Test: Inside Digital Productions’—interview with sci-fi author Greg Bear on Digital Productions, the company responsible for the CGI in The Last Starfighter.
  • ‘Greetings Starfighter! Inside the Arcade Game’—an interview with arcade game collector Estil Vance on reconstructing the Starfighter game.
  • Theatrical and teaser trailers.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Ferguson.
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring writing by Amanda Reyes and sci-fi author Greg Bear’s Omni magazine article on Digital Productions, the company responsible for the CGI in The Last Starfighter.
  • Limited Edition slipcover featuring newly commissioned artwork by Matt Ferguson.
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Cast & Crew

director: Nick Castle.
writer: Jonathan R. Betuel.
starring: Lance Guest, Dan O’Herlihy, Robert Preston, Catherine Mary Stewart, Norman Snow, Kay E. Kuter, Barbara Bosson, Chris Hebert, Dan Mason & Vernon Washington.