In an era where Spielbergian wishfullfilment was at its most potent, Nick Castles’ coming-of-age sci-fi adventure The Last Starfighter presented the ultimate far-flung fantasy inspired by the burgeoning video game world. The arcade boom began in the late seventies and so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood capitalised on the phenomenon. In 1982 the ground-breaking digital sci-fi jaunt Tron arrived, and then two years later an arcade game itself became the hook for The Last Starfighter.
The coin-op in question is known simply as ‘Starfighter’ and sits inconspicuously in the grounds of a trailer park in some far flung suburb of Middle America. College-age resident Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) lives with his younger brother and mum there, but is desperate to escape with girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and make something of himself in the world. Unbeknownst to Alex the space adventure he’s forever playing – and about to break the world record on – is actually an interplanetary recruitment tool, the gameplay mirroring your standard dogfight amongst the stars, with the joystick controls replicating those found in an actually spacecraft. Before Alex can decide if he wants to join the good fight, he’s whipped up into the cosmos by the game’s creator, Centauri (Robert Preston) while an android replica of himself is left back in earth to avoid arousing suspicion.
From that outlandish premise comes an immensely entertaining and big-hearted space adventure which might have lacked a little of the scope and budget of the Star Wars offerings of that era, but more than makes up with the inventiveness and cynicism-free attitude on display. Like Tron, The Last Starfighter also showcased cinema’s earliest dalliances with the nascent CGI tool. One look at those early space-set digital effects shots, and it’s obvious just how far we’ve come with the technology. But while many of the images have understandably dated somewhat, what you’re seeing on screen is still the visionary efforts of those early pioneers of the medium, and the results have an undeniably polished and professional finish to them, coming across more like textured partially-rendered previs work in the modern context.
The Last Starfighter was a modest success upon release, but it has since gone on to occupy a special place in the heart of those young sci-fi fans who caught it during the time of its initial release, and largely via the home video market. Tellingly, even Steven Spielberg’s name was once bandied around as someone who had expressed interest in remaking the property, although he probably itched that scratch with 2018’s Ready Player One. As recent as last year, British-born Hollywood screenwriter Gary Whitta announced as he was beavering away on a new version with the original film’s writer, Jonathan Betuel. Who knows what kind of contemporary spin they’d put on it? Could it be an introverted and obsessive gamer who receives the ultimate accolade, whilst chained to his sofa? Whatever becomes of it, The Last Starfighter lives on as a superior variant on that oft-told Luke Skywalker-like hero’s journey trajectory.