Greetings, Tor.commers! You have been recruited by, uh, me, to come along for the ride in my Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia… ship!
Okay, I didn’t think that one through. BUT, you should click on anyway, for today’s entry in the MRGN is 1984’s The Last Starfighter! Grab the wifeoid and your six thousand Griglets and settle in!
Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.
And now, the post!
It’s amazing what context will do to change your perception of a thing. Especially when that thing is a thing you first experienced/noticed/consumed in a period of your life (i.e. childhood) that by its very nature is devoid of any but the vaguest amounts of context. Not because the context isn’t there, of course, but because you just don’t have the maturity or the breadth of knowledge to perceive it.
I would venture to theorize that it is this—this ability to contextualize entertainment—that makes the most difference between how you feel about something as a child versus how you feel about that thing as an adult. Certainly in the course of the MRGN so far, that has seemed to be the case. Mainly because when it comes to entertainment aimed at a younger audience, there seems to be two schools of thought. One takes the much more difficult (but ultimately, in my estimation, the far more rewarding) route of creating a sort of “upper layer” to the story, which entertains adults while not disturbing the simpler perceptions of the children also watching it.
And then there’s the other one. Which, er, doesn’t bother with that layer.
To find the former kind of children’s entertainment, see movies like Willow or Ghostbusters, for examples within the MRGN so far. Or, basically any Pixar movie ever made, for examples of movies I am super sad mostly fall outside the purview of the MRGN altogether, since the majority of them came out when I was no longer a child by any reasonable definition. Sigh.
For examples of the latter, on the other hand… well. Let’s just say, The Last Starfighter most definitely falls into the category of “no layers”. What you see is pretty much exactly what you get. And what you see (and what you get) is a movie made in the heart of the early ’80s craze for (a) anything concerning aliens and outer space, and (b) video arcade games.
I think it might be somewhat difficult for someone who didn’t grow up during the late ’70s-early ’80s to appreciate what a tremendous thing the video arcade phenomenon actually was. By now (and for at least the last twenty years, if not longer) video games have just been… things that exist. They are awesome, of course, and constantly improving, and frequently ground-breaking, but they are also just there. They are nearly as ubiquitous and commonplace to the modern-day kid as TVs or microwaves were to my generation. However wonderful video games are to my young nephews, for instance, they are also just… expected. To them, gaming has always been around, and as far as they are concerned there was never a world without it.
But when I was growing up, young whippersnapper, video games of either the home or arcade variety were not just awesome and fun, but they were something new. Amazingly so. They were something never conceived of before. The idea of being able to interact with an electronic storytelling device, however crude, rather than just passively watching it or listening to it… well, it was just astounding. From the first time I ever played Pong on my neighbor’s super-swank Atari home system, my awe of the concept was set. Even though I’ve never been the most avid gamer over the years (mostly for lack of time and/or funds), I still love video games, and still love the idea of them. That conceptual awe took decades to wear off for me; in fact I’m not sure that it has, or ever will.
But my point is, at the time that fascination was a palpable force in the zeitgeist of early ’80s youth culture, that could neither be denied nor ignored. Though I guarantee you this never happened when you won a video game, even in 1984:
But even so, it was entirely inevitable that someone was going to try to capitalize on the video arcade phenomenon in movie form. I mean, duh.
1982’s Tron was the first, and deservedly the most famous, but The Last Starfighter tapped even more blatantly (one might say, shamelessly) into the nascent gaming culture of the time. Basically this movie is the fantasy made manifest of every kid in 1984 who dreamed that his skill in shooting imaginary aliens via the likes of games like Space Invaders, Galaga, Defender, or any of their myriad imitators/competitors would lead to greatness in real life. You—no, YOU—have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada!
Which is great and fun and (evidently) all you need when you’re a pew-pew-pew Galaga-obsessed kid. But when you aren’t that anymore, and have gotten a bit more invested in dreary adult things like plot consistency and character development, well, then things get a bit more… slapdash.
At least, that’s what Kate and I think; our one-word reviews of the movie were “silly” and “ridiculous”, respectively. Liz maintains that we are being entirely too hard on the film (“C’mon, it was fun!”), but reluctantly concedes that she couldn’t in conscience actually recommend the movie to anyone.
This is not to say we didn’t enjoy watching The Last Starfighter, because we did. But we mostly enjoyed it because we were laughing at it, and its hilariously brazen lack of depth. Or sense.
Granted, sometimes we were laughing with it, because it definitely had its genuinely funny comedic moments. Mostly owed to the antics of “Beta”, our hero Alex’s sarcastic android duplicate sent to replace him while Alex is busy saving the galaxy:
They could have made the whole movie about him as far as I was concerned and it would have been a lot better.
But Alex’s shady recruiter, Centauri, also got laughs from us:
Mostly because my mother is a huge fan of musicals, and so we knew without being told that Robert Preston’s performance here was a direct homage to his equally shady con-man-with-a-heart-of-gold starring role in 1962’s The Music Man (though I don’t remember whether we made that connection as kids). Turns out this was one of Preston’s last roles before passing away, so I’m glad at least that he seemed to have had great fun with it.
There was an awful lot of homaging going on in this movie in general, actually. The biggest thing we noticed, in fact, was how many elements of The Last Starfighter seemed to reference (or, if you want to be less charitable, rip off) something else. There were suspiciously Star Wars-esque aliens:
And suspiciously Superman-like fonts for the credits:
And even suspiciously WarGames-ish sets:
Though not all the sets referenced that one:
ME: Many Bothans died to bring us this screen shot.
And I know this is referencing or being referenced by something else, but I can’t place it:
Then there were the even more bizarre elements, that seemed to reference things which didn’t actually exist yet.
LIZ: I didn’t know DeLorean time machines came in “minivan”.
KATE: Ferengi hair!
Even the targets Grig has Alex practice on look exactly like the magnetic mines used in Galaxy Quest:
Speaking of Grig, um, Enemy Mine much?
I don’t really know whether these similarities are coincidences or not, but we kept being startled by them anyway. My absolute favorite, though, was embodied in the villain of the piece, Xur:
LIZ: OMG IT’S MUGATU.
He really was. Again, I have no idea if Will Ferrell got direct inspiration for his ridiculous overblown villain from this particular ridiculous overblown villain, or if there’s just this Platonically ridiculous ideal of overblown villainry out there that both of them sprung from independently, but wow.
(It’s probably Ian Fleming’s fault, ultimately.)
Anyway. The Last Starfighter is also notable for being one of the very first films to use CGI imagery, not just for screen graphics and such, but for physical objects and environments:
The CGI-ness of it is distractingly primitive and unrealistic now, but I remember thinking at the time that it was the very obviousness of the effects’ digital origins that made it so cool, because it was like you were in the video game, man!
So, yeah, The Last Starfighter is cheesy and absurd. But we did have a lot of fun with it.
ME: Prime Directive LOL.
KATE: Hi honey! I was in space! It was full of death! You should come!
LIZ: No thinking! Just get in! Whee!
(As an aside, it says something that my sisters and I are so used to having to pretend, both in 1984 and now, that adventure fantasies clearly aimed solely at boys are also for us that we didn’t even bother to remark on it. But it should be remarked upon, because it’s still true thirty-two years later, and that’s just sad.)
Centauri: “This is a Zando-Zan, an interstellar hitbeast.”
ALL THREE OF US: INTERSTELLAR HITBEAST.
KATE: That is the best pair of words ever.
ME: “Interstellar Hitbeast” is the name of my Scandinavian death metal band.
LIZ: You bet your asteroids it is.
Oh, and randomly, apparently Wil Wheaton is in this movie? We saw it in the credits and were like, WTF. I wasted a rather insane amount of time trying to find him, and finally realized that this was his appearance in the movie:
Welp. Never mind, I guess!
So, in conclusion! The Last Starfighter is not a good movie. But it was fun to make fun of, that’s for sure. And its nostalgia value is pretty high, especially if you were or are into gaming. If your contact embarrassment threshold isn’t too high, and you have a sufficient amount of alcohol and sarcastic sisters and/or friends to watch it with, it might even be worth your while.
And thus ends the MRGN for now, kids, with our usual Nostalgia Love to Reality Love 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness!
Reality: …ehhh, we’ll give it a 6 for the laughs
And that’s what I got for now! Come back in two weeks, when the MRGN comes back down to earth—sort of—for
what promises to be a very entertaining viewing of that Schwarznegger and Nielsen not-classic, Red Sonja! Except then I realized two weeks from now is almost Halloween, and we just can’t pass up a chance to do something appropriate to the season, so instead we decided we wanted more Fairuza Balk – and Tim Curry! – in our lives, and thus you should come back Thursday next to check out my review of 1986’s The Worst Witch! Whoo! See you then!