Alex Rogan holding his Starfighter equipment in front of Saturn. image credit: Universal Pictures

Movie Review: The Last Starfighter (1984) ***

The Last Starfighter is an 80s science fiction movie about a teenage boy who gets a high score on a video game that is meant to recruit people to an actual war in space. His big score leads to an alien abduction and joining a small class of others destined to pilot a Gunstar for the Star League. He’s a reluctant hero, but he does become a hero. The eponymous Last Starfighter.

It’s a fun concept, and it works great for kids. I loved this one when I was young. So did my mom, who was barely out of teenagehood when it released. There’s something near-universally appealing about the fantasy of being swept out of your ordinary (crappy) life into a bigger world. The hero, Alex, is very much a chosen one: it’s believed humans can’t even have the aptitude for piloting Gunstars, yet he’s the one who stops the Zur and the Ko-Dan Armada.

The Last Starfighter is obviously coming for Star Wars’s wig, using a lot of the same mechanisms. It’s an extremely straightforward Hero’s Journey screenplay. The humble hero comes from a humble trailer park rather than a dead-end moisture farm on Tattooine. The grand score absolutely competes with that of Star Wars. And the 3D graphics — among the first extensive uses of them in a movie — are more sophisticated than the miniatures and film etchings used for Star Wars.

What TLS misses is that much of the Star Wars charm comes from the quality of the writing, not its use of tropes. You really can’t undervalue what Marcia Lucas did to that original screenplay. It radiates humanity and adventure. TLS mostly focuses on hitting the beats of the Hero’s Journey, and it relies on (admittedly wonderful) charming actor performances to give it life.

But it feels like it’s missing a whole act. Remember how Luke Skywalker needs to develop his skills with Obi-Wan Kenobi? How he’s defeated but rebounds? How Bilbo Baggins takes on side quests so we can actually see him develop? The time Katniss Everdeen takes to repeatedly fail before she develops enough to figure out survival?

Here, Alex isn’t given that time, and what time he gets is spent on Earth — a total misfire that loses the opportunity to develop the Star League beyond a few brief, shallow scenes. The focus on his Beta replacement is funny, but does no good for the story whatsoever.

I think the screenplay is so anemic because of the limited imagination of the filmmakers. See, they blew their load on about a half hour of spectacular CGI, which was only matched in its era by Tron. There are a couple of simple science fiction sets we only see for a short time elsewhere. They can’t imagine any other way to utilize those spaces to work around lacking more Gunstar and combat, so with the budget expended, they just return the story to the trailer park. Even when Alex is being rewarded for his victory at the end, it’s done on a bare black screen, rather than with the grand matte painting of Leia bestowing medals on Luke, Han, and Chewie.

The trailer park just isn’t the right place to spend time in a movie that’s about escaping the drudgery of life for a space adventure. It’s a really nice depiction of a trailer park, though. I mean it! Can you think of another time that a trailer park is painted with such warmth and sentimentality, without even a hint of classist sneer? We just shouldn’t have seen it between his abduction and his return at the end. There’s no sense that Alex has grown bigger and changed and can’t go back home anymore. He’s barely left.

Absent of an act really letting him develop out in a great big galaxy, The Last Starfighter feels like a hollow grasp for Star Wars-like fame. It’s not an adventure so much as a bunch of conversations, and then also some pretty excellent early CGI.

If you love all the character stuff, you might love this movie. A lot of people still do. It’s an extremely polished cult classic. My 13yo found it adequate. My mom still giggles adorably through it. I was less impressed with it now than when I was a kid, and I wish we could do some reshoots on some cheap sets to flesh out the middle. I can think of so much science fiction that taped together great stories from very paltry budgets. What’s the excuse here?

The score is still one of the absolute greats, they’ve got a good Gandalf/Obi-Wan, and this is another fun use of a Delorean. But there are much better, cheaper science fiction movies worth your time than this, and the contemporary box office numbers agreed. Show it to your kids, though.

(image credit: Universal Pictures)

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