Sci-Fi In the Early Days of CGI

Most sci-fi fans have their favorite genre films from each decade. The 1980s had more than their share of them. There would be plenty of votes for the second and third Star Wars releases: The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Star Trek TOS would also crash the party with perhaps the best sci-fi trilogy of all: The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home. There were one-shot candidates as well, including Aliens, Cocoon, Inner Space, War Games, Enemy Mine, and, of course, E.T.

Yes, the ‘80s were a good time for sci-fi. Even more amazing is the fact that most of these films used only physical (practical) effects; CGI was barely a buzzword. But two live-action films from the first half of the decade hinted at what was to come. Tron made an attempt at using computer generated images, though many of the effects were supplemented by animation. But it was another film from the ‘80s that more clearly pointed the way to the future: The Last Starfighter. I first saw it on its initial release in 1984, and even to my then unsophisticated eyeballs the CGI looked a bit cartoonish, which it was. Nevertheless, it worked, and while today some suspension of belief is needed to appreciate it, it can still be enjoyed on its own terms. Someone, or some-ones, put in months of work on computers that were only bit more advanced than today’s $300 laptops—or perhaps even less.

I first discussed this movie in a blog almost two years ago together with other film recommendations. But the recent announcement of its new, upcoming Blu-ray re-release woke up the echoes. Unfortunately it’s a standard Blu-ray, not an Ultra HD that would have been an instant buy for me and justified the posted Amazon price of $27.99. As it is, this is apparently a remastering of the 25th anniversary Blu-ray released in 2009. That version is still available, now at a giveaway price of $5.99, and is the one discussed here. On its initial release it received negative reviews for its video quality, but I don’t entirely agree. It’s hardly a reference-level disc, but on a good 65-inch 4K OLED it looked more than acceptable. Black levels were excellent where needed on the many star-filled space scenes. I’d like to see what they’ve done with the new remastered version, but won’t bite until it comes down to under $20. For now, I’m happy enough with the 2009 release. (The jacket photo shown above is of the latter, due out on October 13th, and slightly different from the artwork shown here.)

The film is also available via paid streaming on Amazon Prime. I sampled the free trailer there and was confronted with some of the worst images I’ve seen in in decades—strictly VHS quality and cropped to 4:3 instead of the film’s original 2.39:1. I have no idea whether or not the full film would look as bad if you select the buy or rent options, but I’m not about to pay to find out. I also found it for free on more than one YouTube site, but with similarly abysmal video-tape-like quality. One of my movie touchstones is that you only see a film once for the first time. I once walked out on an early Star Trek film because the theater’s presentation was bad, and saw it later under better circumstances.

So why my fascination with The Last Starfighter? Because even apart from technical interest in its early use of CGI, it’s a warm, well-written and well-acted, character-driven film. The early-CGI special effects are adequate to tell what is, at heart, a classic coming of age story with universal appeal. The main character, Alex Rogan, is a recent high school graduate stuck in his mother’s trailer park in a one-truck town, doing fix-it-chores for the residents. He has a gorgeous girlfriend, and the park residents are all like family, but he wants to move on and can’t find a way.

But he’s good at the Starfighter console game installed in the park, and soon breaks its scoring record (yes, Gen-Xers, once upon a time video games, apart perhaps for Pong, were accessible mainly in video-game arcades that gobbled up quarters from eager tweens and teens). As it turns out, the game here was put there as by a distant civilization looking for help. They needed skilled Starfighters to defend them against an armada from the Kodan, an evil race that threatens to invade them. The game was a test for likely candidates, a test that Alex passed brilliantly.

If this it all sounds a little hokey, it is. But it’s also irresistible. And apart from a few brief, yucky scenes, mainly an encounter with a Kodan assassin sent to eliminate Alex, it’s perfectly suitable for anyone from 8 to 80. The cast is solid, particularly Robert Preston as Centauri, the agent sent to recruit Alex to the cause. Preston brilliantly repeats his Music Man schtick here, in what was to be his last theatrical film. The script is played for gentle laughs, and nobody did them better than Preston. Another veteran actor, Dan O‘Herlihy, is unrecognizable under a full-head alien mask as Alex’ Gunstar pilot, Grig. In an apparently true story from the IMDB, Preston had never met O’Herlihy until he first saw him on the set in full makeup. When O'Herlihy introduced himself, Preston replied that of course he recognized him because he had "one of those faces." More likely he recognized his voice; O’Herlihy had a booming baratone.

I’m also a huge fan of the film’s score. Director Nick Castle hired composer Craig Safan for the gig. He’s been an active film and TV composer for over 40 years now, though this is the only one of his scores I’m familiar with. When I first saw the movie I was waiting just outside the theater for the prior showing to finish. When I heard the final bars of the score through the door to the auditorium I knew immediately that I’d love the film. I did and I still do. While the movie’s plot is nothing like E.T., its last scenes are reminiscent of the end of that earlier film. It’s climactic closing moments echo the best work of John Williams.

If you haven’t seen The Last Starfighter I highly recommend it. While there have been rumors of a remake, which I’d love to see, as with all such talk from Hollywood (particularly with the current disruptions) I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Thomas J. Norton's picture
The omission of Blade Runner was an oversight and not intentional. But the definition of "true" science fiction is controversial. Purists could convincingly argue that true sci-fi is most common in literature and in movies it's rare. The most recent positive example I can think of is Arrival. By purist standards the Star Wars movies wouldn't qualify, nor would any of the Marvel films, or for the matter any film with a superhero.

But I'm far from alone in my fondness for The Last Starfighter, as any Internet search on movie review sites such as the IMDB or Amazon will confirm. But like any film it's not going to please everyone.

dwmitchell337's picture

Forbidden Planet should be on every list of great Sci-Fi.

Indy Dad DD46's picture

I saw this when I was 7 or 8 on VHS on a tiny screen but loved it. I came across it on VUDU in high def and had almost all the same reactions you did. Still I had to shell out the $5 just for the nostalgia. Picture quality was fine for what it is, and on a 65 inch Sony with full surround setup, it was a great way to really see it compared to all the times on a square 19 inch.
The timing of this article is excellent for me as we just streamed it this last Monday. I could forgive the CGI, and my sons (8 & 12) were amused too. My youngest asked why they were showing the video game all of a sudden, and my oldest said, "It's not the game. It's just bad movie graphics because computers were not good back then." None the less, laughs were had, and we enjoyed a reasonably family-friendly (as far as 80s movies go) movie. The Last Star Fighter qualifies as both Sci-Fi and fun. Thanks for a good article on an old fave.