Thursday, June 30, 2016

Retro Review: THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984)

Welcome to another installment of RETRO REVIEW, where we take a look at films made before the year 2000. Today we review the 1984 sci-fi classic, THE LAST STARFIGHTER.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. Last week, I reviewed a recent direct-to-VoD movie called The Call Up, about a video game played in real life instead of on a screen, for the blog Three if by Space. I have no one to blame but myself for picking that title, but still, I would like those two hours of my life back. But it got me thinking about movies that came before that dealt with this same theme, and so for this review I've picked what I consider to be one of the best examples of "Video-games-for-real" movies, 1984's The Last Starfighter.

The film is the story of Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), who lives with his mom and little brother Louis in a rural trailer park. Unhappy with his current lot and dreaming of a better life, Alex spends his free time playing a video game called "Starfighter". After beating the game, or "breaking the record" as the film puts it, since finite arcade games were still largely unheard of in 1984, Alex discovers the game was actually training him to fight in a very real war happening far out in space. Suddenly faced with the chance to "do something with his life" that he has been hoping for, Alex must decide if a life other than what he knows is really what he wants after all.

If I had to make a list of the most miraculous movies to come out of the early 80s, The Last Starfighter would be somewhere on it. This is one of those exceedingly rare movies that turned out far better than it had any reason or right to. To start, you have that theme. A brilliant piece of music that is still the standard by which I judge movie themes today. If you've never heard it, correct that right now. You can thank me later. Fun fact: the theme was composed by Craig Safan, otherwise known as the composer of the theme from the TV show Cheers.

The cast is made up largely of no-names best known for bit parts in TV movies, aside from a very young Wil Wheaton, who makes a non-speaking appearance in the role of "Louis's Friend". The only recognizable names in the cast, other than Wil, are those of Robert Preston and Dan O'Herlihy, who appear as the alien huckster Centauri, and Grig, Alex's Navigator, respectively. The lack of star power in this cast cannot be understated. And yet this group of nameless, faceless working actors turn a disposable summer flick into a sweet, funny, relatable story that stays with you after it's over. Chris Hebert, as Alex's little brother Louis, is one of the few little kids in movies that don't annoy me. Catherine Mary Stewart plays Maggie, Alex's girlfriend, with a sincerity that we don't see very often in the love interest character. She and Alex are still the only couple under the age of fifty I've seen in a movie or TV show that can make me believe they're more then just a summer fling.

That's not to say the movie isn't without its share of corny moments, but the cast is so invested in each one that their corniness just makes them part of the movie's overall charm. Yes, it's silly that the whole community comes out to watch Alex beat a video game. Yes, Norman Snow as the villian Xur is like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon. Yes, the "I love you, Alex Rogan" scene is cringe-worthy melodrama. But I can't imagine the movie without them. I hate to keep using the word "sincerity", but that's the first word that comes to mind when I think of the performances in this movie. There's never a sense that the cast just wants to get through even the most indefensibly dumb scenes to get to the "good" parts, and I admire that kind of dedication.

We need movies like this today. Hollywood still likes to tell stories of some great change happening in a person's life, but more often than not that change just leads to misery and suffering, until the "hero" of the story finally throws up their hands and goes back to the way things were. Or they persevere, but they're so broken by the end that any victory they may enjoy is rendered hollow. We need movies like this to remind us that change is scary, and demands a lot from us, but just because something has changed doesn't necessarily mean we're damned for all eternity; that change could be our salvation. "If nothing ever changes," the bumper sticker said, "nothing ever changes." But with courage and dedication, change can lead to great things.

The Last Starfighter has aged better than some 80's fare, and it's still a lot of fun to watch. If you've never seen it, I envy you the experience you're about to have. Yes, it's got its flaws, but no movie is perfect. That this movie turned out as well as it did, and has aged as well as it has, is just one more reason why it deserves to be remembered and rediscovered today.

The Last Starfighter is rated PG for fantasy violence and some language.

Robert's Score: 9/10

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