The late Gene Siskel once opined of The Last Starfighter, “of all the Star Wars ripoffs out there, this one is the best.” It sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it actually proves to be the only praise that matters. The film took the Star Wars formula and made good on it by adding the then-new-fangled notion of video games. The twist dates the movie like nobody’s business, but also taps into a part of the science-fiction fantasy that no other movie did before. We all felt a little bit like Luke Skywalker when that joystick was in our hands. Why not just take that feeling to its logical conclusion?
In short, the gimmick is this: a specific type of arcade game actually serves as a recruitment tool for a great intergalactic armada, protecting the universe from the depredations of the evil Lord Xur (Norman Snow) and his space baddies. If you score high enough on the game, you get beamed up to the final frontier and plopped in a one-man snub fighter. No need to engage in that boring old training: your time pumping quarters into the machine was your training. Now there’s nothing left to do but take aim at the bad guys and shoot!
It’s an elegant fantasy that every kid of the era could readily participate in. The game, “Starfighter,” is one of the toughest around and no one has yet shown the right skill to do it for real. That is, until lonely teenager Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) hits the top score and gets a visit from a friendly signing agent. The fact that said signing agent bears a suspicious resemblance to Professor Harold Hill is only part of the fun. Actor Robert Preston made the film a sort of Space Age curtain call for his famous Music Man hustler, and considering that The Last Starfighter constitutes his last big-screen appearance before his death, it’s a witty homage. His charm remains completely intact, while giving the film just enough of a twinkle in its eye to avoid the turgid pretension of George Lucas at his worst.
That makes for a big boost when the film slips into auto pilot in the second half. The best thing about it are the early computer effects: badly dated but charming for their retrograde earnestness. Director Nick Castle (the same guy who played Michael Myers in the original Halloween) deploys them carefully, but with an eye on getting the most bang of his buck. He uses enthusiasm to make up for the effects’ obvious age, and as a result gives it the right kind of drive-in cheese to earn a few smiles. (Also keep an eye out for Dan O’Herlihy – The Old Man in the original Robocop – in a supporting role as Alex’s lizard copilot.)
The same attitude pervades the rest of The Last Starfighter: not quite satirical, and certainly not self-referential, but with enough knowingness to giggle at some of the scenario’s lumpier moments. The hero is likeable, the twists reasonably entertaining, and the pacing tight enough to get down to business without a lot of lag. Nothing about it feels new or fresh, but that’s almost beside the point. This is pure popcorn, designed to be viewed with nothing more on your mind than a good time (ideally at a local drive-in with the top down on a warm summer’s night). It refuses to apologize for pulling its ideas from Star Wars, but it also has the self-respect to put its own spin on the clichés. With a solid sense of itself, it can meet its modest goals with a little style, and provide a reliable good time in its wake. This isn’t a movie that you watch over and over again, but if you want a little space opera without having to think too hard, it will see you through. Sometimes, it’s enough just to care about what you’re doing and to do it as well as you possibly can… even if it’s all been done before.