This is especially true if one subscribes to the critical theory that a movie’s shape ought to reinforce and supplement the movie’s content.
Here, The Last Starfighter’s video-game-themed visuals and flourishes — primarily featuring outer-space warfare — hark back to the movie’s central concept: that of an earthbound arcade video game serving as a futuristic sword-in-the-stone test that uncovers hidden greatness and heroism.
The Last Starfighter depicts the heroic journey of young Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), a man searching for meaning in his life. Alex lives in a “flea-speck” trailer court — the Starlite-Starbrite — along with his Mom and little brother, Lewis. He has been turned down for a college loan, and now plans to partake in “a world-wide tour to nowhere.”
And to his surprise, he gets his wish…
When Alex achieves the new high score on an arcade game called Starfighter, he is promptly recruited by a flamboyant alien named Centauri (Robert Preston). After a lightning-fast journey to the stars, Alex must then save the peaceful planet Rylos from the invading space armada of the traitorous Zur and the barbaric Ko-Dan fleet.
Along with Walt Disney’s Tron (1982), The Last Starfighter is one of the earliest Hollywood productions to eschew models, miniatures, and motion-control photography for a new way.
Instead or relying on tried-and-true physical techniques, the film deploys digital representations of spaceships, planet surfaces, star-bases and the like in its various visual effects sequences. From space cars to GunStars, from the force-field of the breached Frontier to the Rylosian base, everything in The Last Starfighter is entirely computer-generated.
These CG creations indeed appear primitive and lacking-in-necessary-detail to our trained, experienced 21st century eyes, but nonetheless, they still interact meaningfully with The Last Starfighter’s subject matter and core themes.
This is an important element of The Last Starfighter. The film forges a positive connection between our grounded reality — our popular forms of entertainment such as video games — and the intergalactic society of the stars, which the film uses explicitly as a metaphor for achieving one’s dreams and goals.
Released during the aforementioned video game ‘s so-called Golden Age (1982-1987) — the epoch of home systems such as the Atari 2600, Intellivision, Colecovision and Vectrex — The Last Starfighter thus develops an idea that every gamer — at one point or another — has at least briefly, or perhaps subconsciously, entertained.
Simply stated, that idea is that the immersing video game platform is a gateway or training-ground that leads straight to real life adventure. The player thus imagines — or wishes himself — essentially, into the world of the game.
These two productions function as two sides of the same coin, and both acknowledge something brewing in the American pop culture at the dawn of video game popularity: the experiential nature of the new medium, and the manner in which some players view reflexes and talents honed in the game world as real life tools.
While integrating the up-to-date video game craze of its time, The Last Starfighter also puts a mythical, classical spin on its tale. Specifically, the movie terms the Starfighter arcade game, an “Excalibur” test, alluding to the Arthurian legends of Camelot.
What remains so much fun about The Last Starfighter today is the manner in which it imaginatively and humorously integrates the entertainment past (film and literature) with what it views as the “future” of mass entertainment (video-games; CG effects).
And when a Ko-Dan weapon targets a vulnerable starbase, the high-tech screens inside that facility cut to a real-time image of a streaking-missile or bomb that could have been lifted right from Dave Theurer’s initiative for Atari, Missile Command (1980). A weapon with a trail inches irrevocably towards its destination, an unprotected (unshielded) installation. What follows — just as in the game – is total annihilation.
The Last Starfighter even offers a metaphysical spin on life and death, and one also related to the tao of video games. After Centauri is believed dead, he returns to life (just in time for a happy ending). He claims to have simply been “dormant.”
Of course, in video games, our avatars die and are re-born on a regular basis every time we hit the reset or start button on our consoles. In the world of The Last Starfighter, as in the world of video games, death is not a permanent state of affairs. We live to fight another day and death may just be that “unseen dimension” in which we’ve activated the “off” switch till the next contest, the next burst of “life” and action.
But when The Last Starfighter works on all thrusters, it really works. Appropriately, the film’s final shot is a memorable and even stirring one. The camera is aimed towards the Heavens, as Alex, Maggie and Grig return to the stars aboard the accelerating GunStar. But below the GunStar — closer to us in the shot, at the lower left-hand corner of the frame –– stands the neon, flickering star icon/sign of the Starlite/Starbrite Trailer Park.
Like so much of the film’s visuals, that neon, colored light seems a reflection of down-to-Earth technology, of the video game graphics of the day (the 1980s). The image is simple and basic — but still a beacon in the night calling us to adventure. And oppositely, calling adventure to us.
In one closing shot, we get both our grounded reality (the reality of video games) and the dream of a better one: a rocket ship bound for adventure. It’s a beautiful and valedictory image, and if you consider The Last Starfighter a film about dreaming big dreams, a meaningful one too.