Film Nerd 2.0: ‘The Last Starfighter’ on BluRay

09.07.09 8 years ago 12 Comments

Universal Home Video

Welcome to Film Nerd 2.0, the first column in an ongoing series about the way I’m experiencing geek media with my oldest son. 

I don’t really have an overall agenda with what I will show him or when, and I think that’s important.  I’ve been asked several times if he’s seen “Star Wars” yet.  Nope.  Or the “Harry Potter” series.  Or “Lord Of The Rings.”  Or “Back To The Future.”  Or many things.  He’s four, so I don’t think those are quite appropriate yet.  Not necessarily because they’re more explicit than what he has seen already, but more because they require a level of understanding of narrative I don’t think he’s got yet.

Right now, he’s about big broad strokes.  One of the reasons I think “Star Trek” connected is because it’s not afraid to go broad in the way it defines and illustrates the relationships between those characters.  As far as what to show him next, I’m not trying to program him.  I’m trying, instead, to let him tell me what’s next, what he’s ready for.  A good example is the way we chose this first film.

Universal sent over the BluRay for review, and it was sitting on top of a stack on my desk when Toshi walked in.

He saw the cover of the movie and he immediately grabbed it.  Held it closer for further inspection.

“Daddy… what’s this one?”

[more after the jump]

“That’s ‘The Last Starfighter.'”

“Is it grown-up-and-I-wouldn’t-like-it, or is it scary?”  Those are the two big reasons I give him when he’s disqualified from watching a movie.

“No.  Not really.”

“So I can watch it?  Let’s watch it now.  Deal?  Okay, Daddy?  Deal?”

That’s his new magic word.  If he can get that out of me, it’s all good.

“Not right now.  But if you’ll let me finish what I’m doing, I’ll turn the computer off and we’ll watch it together.  Deal?”


So later, after lunch, when Mommy and Allen went down for naps, I put both the beanbags in the office and Toshi and I piled in to watch “The Last Starfighter,” which I hadn’t seen since it played theatrically.

I remember it being an agreeable riff on the sword in the stone, with a fun supporting performance by Robert Preston.  I also remember how the CGI effects work was totally cutting edge in 1984.  It’s one of those ’80s genre films I have a general affection for more than a specific one.  Part of that is the involvement of Nick Castle.  He’s one of those guys who continually turns up in the strangest of places when you look at film from the ’70s through the ’90s.  He’s the original man in the mask from John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” the director of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “Dennis The Menace” and the co-writer of both “Hook” and “Escape From New York.”  His father was a famous tap dancer, leading to Castle making the film “Tap” with Gregory Hines.  He’s got one of those strange, totally random filmographies, working in fits and starts whenever and however the stars aligned.  Here, he’s working from a script by Jonathan Betuel (who also wrote “My Science Project” right around the same time) that hits a lot of perfunctory notes, but there’s a breezy charm that carries things.

Lance Guest stars as Alex, the prototypical hero-in-waiting.  He and his single mom run a trailer park, with Alex handling most of the maintainence.  He’s desperate to get out and go to college, but he needs a scholarship if that’s going to happen, and as the film opens, he’s turned down again.  His girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) doesn’t see anything wrong with staying local and going to community college, but to Alex, that sounds like a death sentence.

His one respite from his crappy reality is an arcade game called “Starfighter,” and when Alex plays, he’s the freest he ever gets.  One night, he shatters the high score on the game, and almost immediately, a smooth-talking guy by the name of Centauri shows up, Robert Preston running a clever variation on his own work in the classic “The Music Man.”  It seems Centauri built that game as a test to find real Starfighters to join the Star League in their battle against Xur, commander of the Kodan Armada.

Re-read that last sentence and you’ll get an idea of the biggest weakness of “The Last Starfighter.”  There’s a sort of generic silliness to the language of the film, something that was an issue for a lot of post-“Star Wars” films in the ’80s.  It’s a fine line between cool and silly when naming people and places in sci-fi or fantasy, and the biggest problem here is how forgettable much of it is.

Having said that, I’m officially a fan again, and so is Toshi in a big, giant way.  He’s actively irritated that they aren’t making “Last Starfighter” toys, because he wants his own Star Car and his own Gunstar.  Now.  And as much as some of the film feels too cliche, it still manages to do the most important things right.  There’s a reason some of those archetypes endure, and Lance Guest does an amiable job as this particular Luke Skywalker, the restless kid who finds his destiny out there at the controls of a spaceship, and he’s given solid support from both Preston and Dan O’Herlihy, who plays Grig, Alex’s alien co-pilot.

He got really creeped out by the subplot involving a robot duplicate of Alex that gets left behind on Earth so no one knows he’s gone, and a few of the scarier moments sent him right into my lap, but as soon as they were done, he laughed it off and explained that he was just making sure I wasn’t too scared.  And Xur is such a weakly-drawn bad guy that even though I just saw this recently, I already sort of forget what he looks like or how he buys it at the end of the movie.  No matter… in this film, it’s all about the heroes.

And although the special effects are crude by today’s standards, this is a perfect example of why I’m against the idea of updating movies once they’re done.  There will never be a time when special effects are “done,” when there is only one artistic solution to making the unreal real onscreen.  Visual effects are an evolution, an ongoing game of artistic telephone, each person building on what’s come before, adapting and updating techniques in some cases, simply using what works in other cases.  If we go back into movies and update the work in them, we’re erasing each of these evolutionary steps from the record.  We’re erasing the work of countless craftsmen, erasing their handcrafted efforts, and to what end?  Twenty years from now, do we update the effects again?

Or do we just accept that the state of the art progresses, that the cutting edge moves, and that a film is what it was when it was made?  Because Toshi watched all of the effects in “The Last Starfighter” with a totally unjaded eye, and for him, they all worked.  Yes, this is a kid who has seen Pixar movies and “Star Trek” in IMAX and all sorts of brand-new, but this is also a kid who happily sits through “20 Million Miles To Earth” and “Ultraman” and “The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” and what I see in him is an ability to get lost in a good film regardless of how cutting edge something is or isn’t.

What I see in him, and the reason I want to pursue this column, is somethign that seems to evaporate as film fans get older.  I see the ability to hand himself over to a movie as a whole instead of getting hung up on a laundry list of individual parts.  He loved the fantasy being sold by “The Last Starfighter,” the idea that he could be picked to go fight a war in deep space, the idea of being special and then being summoned so he can unlock his full potential.  So who gives a shit if something looks like a barely-rendered wire frame model?  He just sees a Gunstar, and that’s good enough for him.

He sees a movie like this, and he believes.

And watching it with him, I can believe, too.  And, oh, what a gift that is.

Film Nerd 2.0 is an irregular column, in every possible meaning of the word.

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