YouTube Cinema: The Last Starfighter (1984)

Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.

 

 

FROM JASON’S BETA UNIT — Let’s cut right to the chase: We might have to wrangle about the definition of the word “plagiarism” here.

 

I was vaguely aware as a child that The Last Starfighter was the Blue Light Special version of Star Wars, but never was it more transparent than when I sat down tonight to watch it on YouTube for the first time in about a decade.

At the very least, director Nick Castle was having a Lucasgasm as he made Starfighter on the heels of Return of the Jedi, which was released in 1983.

There’s been a lot of fuss about how A New Hope was just a warped retelling of Arthurian legend in 1930s serial trappings. But Starfighter takes it one step further and does the old Sword In The Stone literary formula with an extra layer of — well, let’s call it homage. It’s very much the same as American Dad copying The Family Guy copying The Simpsons.

Synopsis

Luke Skywalker — I mean Alex Rogan — wants to escape his simplistic trailer park life on Tatooine in the boonies and leave to make his way at the Academy college.

A natural at womp-hunting in his T-16 a video game called Starfighter — which turns out to be a training simulator for a freedom-loving alien democracy called the Rebel Alliance the Star League — Alex finds himself whisked into space by a wise old man named Obi-Wan Kenobi Centauri and drafted into service against the evil Empire Xur.

The Starfighter arcade game even has what looks remarkably like an Alliance logo on the side.

At first, Alex refuses at first to join the Rebellion the Star League, until he visits home and finds his family in danger (“these blast points are too accurate for Sand People”).

He gains renewed courage to fight when Centauri — who briefly mentions his connection to the Excalibur myth (lightsabers ahoy) — dies (like Obi-Wan). Alex boards an X-Wing a Gunstar fighter and rushes to confront the Death Star Xur command ship threatening to destroy the peaceful planet of Alderaan Rylos Yavin 4.

Don’t worry, though, because Old Ben Centauri manages to resurrect himself by the end.

What’s design got to do, got to do with it?

It’s no surprise that, scrolling through the film’s credits, I spotted Star Wars concept artist and designer Ron Cobb’s name attached to The Last Starfighter, too. Maybe that explains the mouse droid I sighted on Rylos, the Zandozian assassin who lost an arm in a shoot-out with Obi-Wan Centauri, the half-Cylon-half-stormtrooper baddies on Xur’s command ship, and the exploding-Death Star pyrotechnics when said ship crashes into a moon.

That doesn’t explain, though, the design for the Star Car — Centuari’s flying DeLorean look-alike. Remember, Starfighter was released in 1984, one year before Doc Brown and the flux capacitor came along. True, Centauri’s wheels didn’t rotate to a horizontal position on takeoff, but the coincidence is still unsettling.

There’s also some Tron-ish business going on, though Castle managed to surpass Disney with an impressive technological milestone. Starfighter was the first film to use computer generated special effects (almost) exclusively, and for the most part convincingly — at least for the time period. Shots inside the asteroid during the build-up to the final sequence were incredibly gash because of the texture-mapping’s organic nature, but straight, angular surfaces of ships and bases and such were impressive.

What about Tron? See, that movie cheated. Most of the “computer generated” effects were actually rotoscoped over life-action shots on film, rather than drawn or created with an algorhythm.

Castle and company used a Cray X-MP supercomputer, which was the fastest in the world until 1985, to render the 300 scenes containing polygon goodness in Starfighter. That kind of processing power was necessary to churn out the 250,000 polygons-per-frame required for the movie.

Star power

We’re talking Skull and Bones, here, people. Everyone connected to this film became wildly popular.

Lance Guest, who played Alex, went on to be the star of Stepsister from the Planet Weird, Hart to Hart: Hart to Hart Return, Jaws: The Revenge, and Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom, as well as some very touching ABC After School Specials.

Catherine Mary Stewart, who played Alex’s girlfriend, Maggie = haaaawt. She was the Hollywood bombshell who made critics rave over Weekend at Bernie’s, The Witches of Eastwick, and Samurai Cowboy (Bebop-ploo?).

Dan O’Herlihy, the turtle-headed iguana alien Grig, was knighted for his work in Robocop, Robocop 2, and Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

Centauri, a.k.a. Robert Preston, died of lung cancer in 1986.

Wil Wheaton‘s lines were cut, but he can be seen briefly among Alex’s trailer trash friends. Marc Alaimo, who went on to play Cardassian megalomaniac Gul Dukat on Star Trek: DS9, had a 20-second role as an alien assassin cloaked in the form of a human hitchhiker.

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