Looking Back at “The Last Starfighter” at 35

I didn’t discover “The Last Starfighter” until I was thirteen years old. It was 1996, and I was looking for any and all movies that peaked my interest, and “The Last Starfighter” seemed like a good time to me. For some reason “The Last Starfighter” managed to skate right by me when I was a kid, and I watched every movie. I watched everything from “Willow” and “Legend” right down to “Warriors of Virtue,” but I never actually knew there was such a thing as “The Last Starfighter.”

After the release of “Star Wars” in 1977, just about every studio was trying to play catch up with George Lucas, after passing on what would become a massive juggernaut of science fiction and fantasy. It wasn’t that the movie itself was a humongous box office hit, but it was a money maker, and studios wanted a slice of that sweet franchise pie. “The Last Starfighter” wasn’t immune to the attempts, garnering its own arcade game, but that seems to be about it in the realm of the universe explored in Nick Castle’s genre film. If you’re going to do a “Star Wars” rip off, you want to do it just about right, and Castle cribs just enough from the formula of the first film, and also markets on the big video game boom of the eighties to produce what often feels like a distant, distant cousin to the original trilogy.

Small town boy, growing up with an elderly parental figure, dreams of bigger things beyond his life, and gets that accidentally. He becomes a soldier, the last of a dying breed of soldiers whom can save the galaxy. He operates a star fighter, from a tyrannical empire that’s intent on ruling the world. It’s about as blatant as possible, without ever infringing on any trademarks, except it just touches down on a hero who is more of an everyday guy than a farm boy. Lance Guest plays Alex Rogan, a young man living with his grandmother and a slew of eccentric neighbors in a trailer park. Aside from his beautiful girlfriend, the only way he passes the time is by playing his favorite arcade game “Starfighter.”

In the game he, as the player defends “the Frontier” from Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada in a space battle. Alex is attempting to finally beat it, and one night he finally manages to conquer the final boss. Little does he know that “Starfighter” is much more than an arcade game and is approached by its inventor Centauri, a weird old man who has arrived on Earth to seek out Alex. “Starfighter” is actually a simulator meant for Starfighter recruits, and said arcade ended up at the trailer park mistakenly. As fate would have it, Alex is a remarkable starfighter born with the for—erm—“with the gift.” The game represents an actual conflict occurring in space between the Rylan Star League and the Ko-Dan Empire; the latter is led by Xur, a native Rylan traitor to whom the Ko-Dan Emperor has promised control of Rylos.

The last of the star fighters, Alex is teamed with an old alien pilot named Grig who teaches him the fundamentals of using his starfighter space craft known as “The Gunstar.” Wouldn’t you know it? The fate of the alien race of Rylos depends on Alex, who is one of the only people that can stop Xur and the Ko-Dan from breaching Rylos’ protective force field and invading the planet. With Alex thrust in to this massive conflict, he has to figure out if he wants to leave his home and snap in to action. Director Nick Castle wards off the monotony of the science fiction fodder by injecting a ton of weird comedy, including the use of an Alex Rogan android named Beta who is tasked with taking up his identity while he’s off fighting in the stars.

Much of the film bounces back and forth between Alex learning how to become a hero, while his android double tries to keep up the illusion with Alex’s girlfriend Maggie (“Night of the Comet’s” Catherine Mary Stewart), and younger brother Lous (Wil Wheaton). Director Castle manages to create a pleasant and thoroughly exciting coming of age film that feels like George Lucas and Amblin rolled in to one, with a hint of Jim Henson for good measure. Along with the great Lance Guest, Dan O’Herlihy is memorable as the alien mentor Grig, who cheers Alex on most of the time, destroying any sense of self consciousness he has about being a hero. While the CGI is incredibly dated, it’s still riveting to watch Castle and co. attempting something other than blue screen and miniatures.

The slew of intergalactic battle sequences all feel surprisingly meta, with the intergalactic combat resembling the exact dog fights that Alex engages in. Plus, The Gunstar is one of the most underrated space fighters ever conceived for science fiction fantasy, packing massive firepower including its secret weapon “The Death Blossom.” Nick Castle’s “The Last Starfighter” has a lot of heart for such a blatant riff on Lucas’ love child, and is what film in the eighties was all about, it’s a shame the studio never had any confidence that it could be launched as a genuine eighties property along the likes of “Battlestar Galactica.” Until then, it’s a favorite that I often tend to view after my yearly marathon of the “Star Wars” anthology.