As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I loved video games. In the summer, my cousins and I would walk just about every day to a nearby convenience store or to Wal-Mart to play whatever arcade games they had in their stores. We’d hustle quarters from our parents, our uncles, and grandparents. We’d keep our eyes to the ground as we walked just in case somebody had dropped some change along the way.
I grew up playing home video games. My first console was a Texas Instruments TI-99, which looked like a keyboard with a cassette deck. Then it was the Atari 2600 followed by the original Nintendo Entertainment System and finally the Super Nintendo. After that, I lost interest in video games. They got too complicated and the graphics made me nauseous. Now I play casual games like Candy Crush and the like.
But for a while there in the 1980s and early 1990s, I was never too far away from one game or another. My brother used to mock me by calling me a “NN” which stood for Nintendo Nerd (never mind the fact that he played just as much as I did.) But I got my revenge in school when I was finally, and briefly, super cool: I had beaten the original The Legend of Zelda and could show off to all the popular kids at school.
When The Last Starfighter came out in 1984, it was like it was made especially for me. Here was a movie that suggested that video games weren’t just something that ate up a kid’s time and quarters, but it was a stepping stone to saving the world. I don’t remember if I saw it in theaters or not, but man, I watched it every time it came on cable TV and rented it more times than I can count on VHS.
Watching Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray release of the film today, I have to admit it doesn’t hold quite the luster it once did. Now it plays like the Star Wars knock-off it always was. It is well made and the special effects hold it pretty well, and it still warms the nostalgic parts of my heart, but yeah, it isn’t really a good movie.
Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is a teenager living in a trailer park out in the California mountains. He’s a good kid who fixes his neighbor’s plumbing and their television antennas. He’s got a sweet girlfriend named Maggie (Catherine Mary Stuart) and some friends who take him to the lake on weekends. It isn’t a bad life, but he dreams of getting away, of getting anywhere, or moving to the city and going to college and having a real life.
There is a videogame at the trailer park. It is called The Last Starfighter and it is about a space pilot sent out to destroy the bad guys and save the world. Alex loves to play it. He’s good, too. Really good. One night he beats the record (which I suppose considering the game sits in an isolated trailer park with not that many people living there really shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but this is a movie about how gamers can literally save the world so let’s let that pass), triggering an appearance by the game’s inventor Centauri (Robert Preston having a lot of fun). He is really an alien and whisks Alex away in his sports car, which is really a spaceship, and off they go. Centauri invented the game as a test and whoever beats the high score wins a chance at training with real space pilots to help destroy the real bad guys and save the world.
Alex is reluctant at first but eventually, he comes on board, treating us to some fun bits involving various other alien species, training montages, and the like. Back on Earth, an alien robot that looks like Alex is there in order to not freak out the locals, treating us to some fun bits where the “Beta Alex” learns to be human and not freak out when the girlfriend kisses him.
It all leads to a big showdown with the bad guys and a nerdy gamer saving the universe. The plot is not the least bit original. It is textbook “hero’s journey” stuff with some fish-out-of-water bits thrown in for comedy. Most of the action sequences in space are cribbed directly from Star Wars with some Buck Rogers thrown in for good measure.
The special effects look very much like a video game from the 1980s. From what we used to call “stand-up video games” I mean, the kind you found in arcades with better graphics than what you got from Atari or Nintendo. Unlike most special effects-heavy movies from the 1980s, The Last Starfighter opted for then state-of-the-art computer-generated graphics instead of practical effects, making the action scenes feel strangely modern.
It is a fun family adventure. It isn’t great, or as good as it could be, but if you’ve got a young kid who loves video games, this makes a good Saturday afternoon movie.
Arrow Video presents The Last Starfighter with a new 4K scan from the original negatives with a 4.1 sound mix that was originally created for the film’s 70mm release and has never before been heard on a home video format. Extras include a new audio commentary from podcaster Mike White, an archival audio commentary with director Nick Castle, production designer Ron Cobb, and several behind-the-scenes featurettes. It also comes with a collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Amanda Reyes and sci-fi author Greg Bear’s never-before-published Omni magazine article on Digital Productions, the company responsible for the CGI in The Last Starfighter and a cool reversible poster.