Somehow 'The Last Starfighter' flew under my radar when it was released back in 1984. Maybe I was still recovering from 'Star Wars' fatigue when Nick Castle's gentle, hokey, crowd-pleasing sci-fi adventure hit the screens, or maybe my lukewarm reaction to 'Tron' soured me on any subsequent films with an interactive video game slant. Whatever the reason, the movie escaped my notice until it arrived in my mailbox a few weeks ago and my wife shared her fond remembrance of it. "Fondness," in fact, seems to be the prevailing emotion this coming-of-age space story invokes. I mean, let's face it, even its passionate aficionados will concede 'The Last Starfighter' is hardly a work of cinematic art (despite pioneering the use of computer-generated special effects), but its warm, fuzzy innocence and sappy inspirational spirit often eclipse its cheesy elements and help the movie wend its way into our hearts against our better judgment. While I still can't call myself a fan of the film, I can't dislike it either. With so much goodwill and sincerity on display, criticizing it seems almost criminal.
Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is an affable, starry-eyed teen with big dreams that far exceed the limited ambitions of his small-minded friends. Longing to leave the dumpy trailer park where he lives with his mother (Barbara Bosson) and little brother (Chris Hebert) and make his mark on the world, Alex funnels his pent-up energy and mounting frustration into the Last Starfighter arcade game, and one magical evening crosses a new scoring threshold as he obliterates a particularly pesky enemy. Though the euphoria is short-lived, the ramifications are not. For little does Alex know that the Last Starfighter game is really a recruitment engine for intergalactic warriors, and his supreme prowess summons the game's creator, Centauri (Robert Preston), who believes him to be a prime candidate to fight real-life aliens in space. Alex may be the trailer park's handyman, but is he skilled enough to play Mr. Fix-It in the Great Beyond and protect the galaxy from peril?
The greatest asset of 'The Last Starfighter' is the way it evokes the wonder of discovery and depicts the burgeoning confidence of a downtrodden teen on the cusp of manhood. Such feelings are universal, and they never get lost amid the battle scenes and campy creatures that populate the alien world. Castle works hard to keep the picture grounded, wisely expanding the Earth-bound scenes so we never lose touch with Alex's reality – his family, girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), and the pressure that comes with trying to keep his new identity a secret. And though the ultimate message – when opportunity knocks, you've gotta answer the door and grab the chance or else life could pass you by – may seem trite, the film's out-of-this-world framework makes it easier to swallow.
Unfortunately, budgetary constraints and weak direction drag 'The Last Starfighter' down. Despite all the hullabaloo over the movie's special effects, the lame battle sequences look only slightly better than their video game counterparts, which significantly minimizes the impact, while Castle's pedestrian handling of his actors and camera lend a decidedly small-screen feel to this big-screen adventure. Stewart's fresh-faced beauty (even in her off-the-shoulder 'Flashdance' top) and Guest's wholesome persona mesh well, however, and their solid chemistry keeps us involved in their romance. Preston's energy enlivens the film, too, as he cleverly brings components of his patented 'Music Man' character to his role. Now if only the aliens didn't look like they were wearing costumes left over from a 'Lost in Space' episode, we might take the whole enterprise more seriously.
'The Last Starfighter' may not have directly influenced the creation of Pixar's Buzz Lightyear and his arch nemesis, the evil Emperor Zurg, but the movie's golly-gee-whiz story and cartoon style (not to mention its villain, the similarly named Xur) kept Buzz's image buzzing about my brain throughout. (I half-expected Centauri to crow "To infinity…and beyond!" after he abducts Alex and heads for outer space.) Elements of 'The Wizard of Oz' also crop up, with a pig-tailed Maggie looking suspiciously like Dorothy in one scene, and the detached head of Xur recalling the bellowing wizard in a few others. And, of course, an unavoidable 'Star Wars'-ian aura pervades the film as a whole. Such derivations, however, don't really harm 'The Last Starfighter'; on the contrary, they strangely enhance the nostalgia that's such a major part of the movie, at least for today's audiences.
Like the game on which it's based, 'The Last Starfighter' is a relic of a bygone decade, and as the years go by, its appeal will assuredly dwindle. But for those of us who still look with some degree of fondness on the '80s, it's a sweet, enjoyable, kitschy trip back in time. And there's a lot to be said for that.
For a mid-1980s, budget-constrained film, 'The Last Starfighter' looks okay on Blu-ray, but this BD-25 from Universal certainly won’t be one of your demo discs. The 1080p/VC-1 encode doesn't seem to have been upgraded since its HD-DVD release a couple of years ago, despite the anniversary edition moniker. Sadly, the picture never achieves the vibrant levels of color and sharpness a movie like this demands, and instead flaunts a flat, muted look that diminishes impact. Dimensionality comes at a hefty premium; even close-ups don't achieve the hoped for high-def pop. The wrinkles and leathery texture of Grig's face, however, are very well rendered, and fabrics, for the most part, exhibit a realistic feel.
Though the image is clear enough (despite a smattering of print defects), fine details tend to blur into the background, and the overly smooth presentation smacks of digital noise reduction. Colors are drab, but fleshtones appear natural and stable throughout, and thankfully, black levels are rich, so the vast expanses of space look deep and foreboding. Because all the special effects are digital, they take on a crisper appearance than the rest of the film, and while I have to cut the primitive CGI some slack, the enhanced definition still emphasizes its clunky aspects.
All in all, the film is watchable, but looks decidedly retro – not a good thing for a sci-fi flick.
'The Last Starfighter' comes equipped with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that provides periodic bursts of impressive sound, but lacks the overall firepower I expected and craved. For a film that uses an arcade game as its central element, viewers should be thrust into that environment, and although the weapons employed in the intergalactic battle sequences emit distinct tones, surround activity is frustratingly slim, keeping us detached from the action. Explosions lack the heavy weight strong bass frequencies would normally provide, and though the majestic and rousing music score nicely fills the room, it doesn't possess the full-bodied shadings finer audio tracks provide. Dialogue is generally clear and comprehendible, and range levels handle the highs and lows well. Unfortunately, here was a chance to catapult a 25-year-old film into the next century, but the middling audio often keeps 'The Last Starfighter' mired in a bygone era.
All the extras from the HD-DVD release have been ported over, with a couple of notable add-ons to spruce up this anniversary edition.
More Buck Rogers than Buzz Lightyear, 'The Last Starfighter' recalls the cheesy space serials of yore, but does so with such good intentions and youthful exuberance, it's hard to resist this wholesome sci-fi fantasy. A couple of new supplements set this Blu-ray apart from the previous HD-DVD, but the video and audio remain just as problematic as before, so fans should make their upgrade decision accordingly. Still, the 1080p transfer beats standard DVD by a mile, and should please the legions of diehards for whom this 25th Anniversary Edition is tailor-made.
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