Friday, March 14, 2014

Setting the Way-Back Machine. Destination: 1984 Part II

Welcome to the year 2014, or as I prefer to call it, the thirtieth anniversary of 1984. In retrospect, 1984 was a particularly good year for cinematic science fiction, so over the next few months I will be doing a look back at some of the higher points of that year. (DISCLAIMER: As I have pointed out in earlier articles, these are my opinions. Mine, not yours. I take no responsibility for ruining your childhood.)

Up for review this month, The Last Starfighter.

This film is a personal favorite, and easily falls into my top-5 list of favorite science fiction films of all time. A feel-good movie with a simple story and quirky, but likeable characters, this film is perhaps the most influential on me in terms of my writing. My original draft of The Starhawk Chronicles (Written in high school and then only titled Starhawks) was a barely disguised re-write of the Starfighter story. Later drafts would lose the naive innocence of that draft, but the spirit is still there.

 Released in July of 1984, The Last Starfighter is the story of Alex Rogan, a young dreamer seemingly doomed to live out his life in the small southern California trailer park he lives in with his mother and younger brother. One night, after acing the Starfighter game outside the general store, a mysterious stranger arrives looking for him. Alex is then swept up into the middle of a galactic conflict
"to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada." Alex's skills are sorely in need, especially after an act of treachery destroys the Starfighter ranks, leaving him the sole hope of the Star League.

Back on Earth, hijinks ensue as Alex's "replacement", a look-alike android named Beta, goes about pretending to be Alex, causing chaos with both Alex's girlfriend Maggie and the other residents of the Starlight, Starbright trailer park, all the while dodging an alien hit-beast sent to kill the real Alex.

Along with his navigator, a reptilian alien named Grig, Alex takes his Gunstar into battle against the alien fleet alone, barely triumphing with the use of Death Blossom, a secret weapon installed into his prototype Gunstar. Alex returns to Earth to explain his whereabouts and that the Star League needs his help to rebuild the Starfighter ranks. Taking Maggie with him, Alex sets off for further adventures among the stars.

This movie has a lot going for it. The cast, from relative newcomers Lance Guest as Alex and Catherine Mary Stewart as Maggie, to long-time veterans Dan O'Herlihy as Grig and Robert Preston playing galactic con-man/ starfighter recruiter Centauri, are all charming and fit their roles well. Preston is especially a delight, basically reprising his  role from The Music Man, as the fast talking confidence artist who tricks Alex into accompanying him to the planet Rylos. Only Preston could dish out lines like "May the luck of the Seven Pillars of Gulu be with you at all times." and make it both funny and believable at the same time. Sadly, this was also Preston's final feature film before his death in 1987 from lung cancer.
There is great chemistry between Lance Guest and Dan O'Herlihy as Starfighter and his navigator.
While training a seemingly inept Alex on how to use the Gunstar's weapon, Grig implores him to relax, to which Alex quips, "Terrific! I'm about to be killed a million miles from nowhere, with a gung-ho iguana who tells me to relax!" Later when explaining their mutual home lives (Grig lives below ground with his "wifoid" and "griglings") Alex tries explain about being stuck in one place in a mobile home, and Grig responds with "A mobile cave that never went anywhere. Fascinating." O'Herlihy brings a believability to the character, despite being unrecognizable behind his reptilian makeup. Moviegoers would later get to see the man behind the mask in the first two Robocop movies, with O'Herlihy playing the "old man" head of corporate conglomerate OCP.

The Last Starfighter is best known for being the first film to use computer-generated special effects for all its effects shots. Prior to this, CGI had been used before, but limited mostly to, well, computer graphics, such as the war-room holographic display in Return of the Jedi.
 Though primitive by today's standards, (In truth, some video game graphics even exceed this.) the effects at that time were impressive, offering a glimpse of what was to come as movies from Young Sherlock Holmes to Jurassic Park and beyond would jump on the CGI bandwagon first started out by Starfighter. The movie looks like a video game, but considering that Alex's abilities at gaming are what draw him into the Rylan conflict in the first place, the comparison is appropriate.

Also notable, though not at the time, were the number of Star Trek actors that appear in the movie. Meg Wyllie, playing Maggie's grandmother, was one of the mind-controlling aliens in the original pilot The Cage. Wil Wheaton makes a brief, almost unnoticeable appearance as one of the trailer park kids, and Deep Space Nine's Marc Alaimo (Gul Dukat) plays the human form of the interstellar hit-beast sent to kill Alex.

In all, The Last Starfighter is a simple film, a bit of sci-fi fluff, that reflects a somewhat more innocent age of the genre. Most anyone I talk to who has seen it reflect fondly on it, and some of us still hold out for a sequel, though with the age of the film and relatively modest showing at the box-office, this is a long shot at best.

And please Hollywood, no remakes. We like this film just fine.

On our next trip back to 1984, we will jump ahead to 2010, The Year We Make Contact.