Throughout cinema's history producers, directors and the movie going public as a whole have been galvanised by special effects. Not the effects per se though , the fact that when used correctly they allowed the viewer to visit and inhabit strange new worlds. Georges Melies was an early pioneer of the art form and paved the way for films such as... Metropolis (1927), King King (1933), War of the Worlds (1953), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Fantastic Voyage (1966), 2001 (1968), Star Wars (1977), The Abyss (1989), Jurassic Park (1993), Titanic (1997) and a slew of others far too many to mention in this very brief introduction.
In the early 1980s technology had progressed to such a level that the movie industry started dabbling with computer aided graphics. Initially Disney's Tron took up the reigns and produced a credible enough affair where the graphics on screen were still showing the fantasised insides of a computer system. The movie going public had to wait a couple of years for The Last Starfighter to come along and integrate computer graphics with an almost credible storyline. For the special effects geeks among us it was well worth that wait.
The story is a simple enough affair, Alex (Lance Guest) is a typical American teenager... helping his mother out running the trailer park, dating the sweet American girl next door, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), ultimately trying to to escape the mundane confines of the trailer park by attending a good university. His skill though resides in video games, and on breaking the record for one particular beast he's recruited into the legions of the Starfighter League, the defense force of the Rylos planetary system.
Once there, dubious about his abilities and slightly confused as to what's going on he decides not to play ball... to go home and leave them to it. Only when he finds aliens now invading his own world does he return to find the League wiped out. Success or failure resides on his shoulders. He and his navigator Grig (Dan O'Herlihy) are now to take on the full might of the Kodan hoardes. Let battle commence.
The Last Starfighter is derivative of so many works before it, not least of which is the current grand daddy of them all, Star Wars. Had the producers got cold feet and brought in standard model work in place of the embryonic CGI they were developing then this film would have fallen off the radar like so many others at the time. Who now really remembers with any degree of fondness the likes of Battle Beyond the Stars, Flash Gordon, Spacehunter or any one of many which jumped on the popular band wagon of the time? Ultimately The Last Starfighter succeeds only because of the giant leap it made in computer assisted special effects.
Every film produced these days enjoys CGI to some degree or other. Pixar, of course, use it exclusively, other shops integrate CGI with live action and these days it is so well refined that at times you'll be hard pushed to see where it is being used and where is is not. Only 25 years after this ground breaking movie has techology advanced to such a level that special effects no longer look all that special; they are just there and expected to be so. Digital Productions, the company responsible for these effects, went onto work on other features such as 2010 and Labyrinth but it is for this feature that they will be fondly remembered. Designing and developing the software they needed on the hoof, they came to an impasse. There was too much to do, their 'models' a little too ambitious for the computing power at the time and if they had continued on that track the film would have been delayed by some 18 months. That was how long it would have taken their Cray super computer to render the images needed for all of the shots. Nowadays people have more computing power in the PS3 they might be using to play this Blu-ray disc.
During review screenings however the final rendered effects were not complete and low res versions were in their place. As such the audience was not that impressed preferring the interactions Alex's beta unit (essentially a robot clone of him) was experiencing whilst back on planet Earth. Ultimately then the director (Nick Castle) decided more of these scenes were required and hence more were shot for insertion into the final product. In the end they work. It's enjoyable to see Alex blast his way through asteroids and the Rodan fleet whilst being tempered with a more humourous feel back in the trailer park as his beta unit tries to get to grips with Earth teenagers and their habit of sticking their tongue into your ear.
This was Nick Castle 's second venture in to movie making and he, and his producers, were taking an enormous risk in trying out this new technology. He had staked his reputation on it working and that reputation was about to be tarnished. It eventually worked though and Nick went on with his career to The Boy Who Could Fly and Dennis the Menace, however most of his fodder has been pretty low key affairs; nothing much to write home about. He is scheduled to produce a sequel to this film with Starfighter slated to be on the cards for 2010. I have no doubt that this is only riding on the back of the success of this 25th anniversary re-release but it will still be interesting to see who he manages to cast, the technology he decides to employ and the final result. I for one will be looking out for it.
Lance Guest has enjoyed not an all too dissimilar career path as Nick. He went from this to appear in a few films of inconsequence but then was ultimately confined to the depths of American television Hell. If he returns for the sequel is yet to be seen although I do hope he has learned something from his previous television experiences as he's not that great an actor by any stretch of the imagination. Catherine Mary Stewart hasn't faired any better either really, again appearing in some by the way movies but really being resigned to television work for the rest of her career. Now television can provide a vehicle for some excellent acting and drama. Unfortunately though neither of the two leads here have managed to secure any such work.
Robert Preston will be remembered from this film though as it being his last main feature. Essentially reprising his role from The Music Man. A conman then and to a degree a bit of a wide boy, flim-flam artist in this feature. It was good to see him grace the virtual boards once again and certainly adds some weight to the whole proceedings. His character, like most here, is a little overstated, a little cartoonish, but it suits the nature of his Centarui persona. One last actor to mention would be one Will Wheaton. Apparently he plays young Louis' friend and I have tried in vain to spot him in the film. He of course went on to be the precocious young ensign at the helm of the Enterprise-D. I must re-watch the film to see if I can spot him.
Next is the score by Craig Safan. It reminds me at times of a western feature with the white hats going into combat against the evil land-grabbers / cattle rustlers / desperadoes or other such despots. To date I feel this is his best score with some wonderful themes. Light and airy whilst on Earth as Alex tries in vain to escape his trailer park home. Soulful when chatting to his girl Maggie but really it is best when the action starts. Full of derring do, lighter than it could have been, the score carries you along with the ride. It compliments the film perfectly, has depth and is almost an additional character in the film itself.
What we're left with then is a pretty bog standard boy looks for escape film, a young man who tries to better himself by being more than he is. This tale has been told time and time again, will continue to be told and as a story is not too bad; it's how it's implemented that you have to look at. Its implementation here is not too bad but not great either. After all it is a little cheesy most of the time. What sets this film apart from all the others that were parading their wares at this time was the rousing score by Safan and those ground breaking effects by Digital Productions. It is for that last reason through that I'm proud to have this little piece of history in my Blu-ray collection.
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