I’d heard about The Last Starfighter for years, but always from people who claimed it merely copied Star Wars. During the 1980s, many studios tried to imitate the Star Wars phenomenon. Paramount pulled Star Trek out of mothballs so it could have its own sci-fi franchise. Universal’s Battlestar Galactica was embroiled in lawsuits with 20th Century Fox over copyright infringement (not surprising given that Universal hired key members of the Star Wars production team). Dozens of other copycat space adventure films from that era have faded into obscurity.
Indeed, the plot of The Last Starfighter does seem eerily similar to A New Hope:
- Teenager with remarkable piloting skills can’t go to college because of poverty and household chores;
- Wizened mentor finds him and tries to recruit him to fight against an evil empire;
- Teen initially refuses, but reconsiders when the empire threatens his family;
- Mentor figure dies as teenage pilot flees with companions;
- Teen pilot takes down evil empire’s main ship with just his starfighter;
- Movie ends with victory celebration.
In addition, the production design is similar to the original Star Wars. The ships of the Rylan Star League have white interiors like the Rebel Alliance’s capital ships. The Ko-Dan Armada has dark grey interiors like the Empire’s Death Star. Rogan’s starfighter has red lasers, like the X-Wings, and the Ko-Dan ships have green lasers, like the Tie Fighters.
Despite the similarities, the film feels different from Star Wars. Or, at least it feels like it has a heart and soul of its own. I think it’s partly the context. The Last Starfighter doesn’t take place “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” but rather in a 1980s trailer park. Indeed, The Last Starfighter has a lot for fans of 1980s nostalgia. The film really captures what it was like to be a young sci-fi/video game fan during the 80s. Alex Rogen comes to the attention of the Rylan Star League because of his high score in an arcade game (I’m sure many of us wish our high scores had greater consequences). In A New Hope, Luke wanted an adventure; in The Last Starfighter, Rogan – like many kids – wanted to be Luke.
The Last Starfighter is fun, but it lacks a rich ensemble of characters. The story is all about Rogan and his ability to shoot down enemy ships. The movie takes too long in showing Rogan’s attempts to pilot the ship and fire the lasers (Star Wars smartly skipped over Luke’s training). Rogan then proceeds to take down the entire Ko-Dan armada singlehandedly (the enemies make the Stormtroopers seem like crack shots). There’s no sense that the victory was a team effort, or even that other pilots died on the mission with him (as during the Death Star trench run). The other characters seem to exist only to give Rogan moral and technical support rather than as a character in his own right.
In 1984, The Last Starfighter was the first movie to use computer-generated effects to to depict realistic spaceships (TRON came out two years earlier, but it only used CGI to depict an abstract video game environment). The effects hold up surprisingly well, at least on my 17-inch computer screen. The film is pretty frugal with its effects and the camera doesn’t linger too long on effects shots. The ships are definitely too shiny and clean, but they do look like spaceships.
I recommend The Last Starfighter if you like space opera and want a 1980s nostalgia trip. The fact that it resembles A New Hope in so many ways yet feels different speaks to the diversity of stories that can be told within a single story archetype. The movie feels like an homage to the effect Star Wars had on a generation of kids, including yours truly.
Next week, I review Enemy Mine, another 1980s cult classic sci-fi film…