In anticipation for the release of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One this Thursday (March 29), we’ll be taking a look back at various inspirations for the film’s author, writer Ernest Cline, and also seeking out other ’80s-related delights for your entertainment.
Out of all the formative texts mined for sci-fi gold by Ready Player One author Ernest Cline, the most important might be 1984’s The Last Starfighter, directed by Nick Castle (who, amongst other directing credits like Major Payne or The Boy Who Could Fly, is perhaps best known for playing “The Shape” in John Carpenter’s Halloween and its new iteration coming later this year). It tells the tale of a poor young man who dreams of adventure, and who is given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to embark on one, thanks to a particularly useless skill set.
It’s standard hero’s journey fare, aside from that last bit, which is why I imagine it’s stuck around as much as it has, being the kind of wish fulfillment fantasy of anyone whose parents unplugged the TV in order to force them to do homework, insisting to you that “video games are a waste of time.” Well, you think in response, once I’m out in space plugging aliens and saving the galaxy in an intergalactic war using the exact same controls as I do in my game, you’ll feel real stupid, Mom and Dad. It scratches that particular itch in the back of your head — the one where you need to feel that your hobbies are useful and worthwhile — and was, I imagine, one of the first escapist fantasies to do that for the first generation of video gamers (the other being WarGames, perhaps). Yet The Last Starfighter is also the kind of thing that might be best left to the past, if any indication comes from a recent viewing.
Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is a teenage trailer-park handyman looking to escape the confines of his small park and go on grand adventures. His friends chide him for it, and his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart, who will be appearing later on in this series) just wants him to be comfortable with what he has, even if he isn’t able to go off to the city for college. He spends much of his free time playing a video game called Starfighter in a cabinet set up outside of the local diner. He’s damn good at it, too, and one night, after receiving some terrible news about his college loan being denied, when he believes his dreams are trashed, the cabinet begins behaving weirdly. Soon enough, there’s a weird old man in a suped-up car pulling up to his doorstep, who says that his name is Centauri (Robert Preston, conning his way through one final feature film role), that he invented the game, and that he’d like to take him to meet some people. The car sprouts jet engines, and the next thing you know, the two of them are in space, on their way to the headquarters of the Star League, where a bunch of aliens with protruding foreheads and bald foreheads are calculating their next strike against the evil Xur (Norman Snow), who plans to enslave and conquer the universe.
Alex has been selected to become a Starfighter, a pilot/gunner of immense skill, as there are only 15 or so in the entire Galaxy. Rogan’s understandably a little freaked out by all of this, and demands that Centauri take him back home to his trailer park on Earth. The Star League can’t believe that an Earthling is refusing one of their highest honors, but they let him head home anyways. Of course Alex changes his mind, after a gang of aliens come for him and his android double, Beta. But his change of heart might have come too late: Xur has already decimated the ranks of Starfighters in a surprise attack, and only one other co-pilot/navigator, the reptilian Grig (Dan O’Herlihy), has survived. So it’s up to the two of them to stop the invasion of the Star Force’s capital planet, Rylos. And even though the movie’s older than I am, I won’t totally tell you the ending, though I bet you can guess it for yourself. The whole thing feels a bit like a Kurt Russell-starring Disney movie from the ’60s and ’70s, and there’s an earnest cheapness about it which can’t totally sustain itself for a full hour and 40 minutes.
It’s easy to see why this particular film would have been important to a nerd like Cline in their formative years: It’s essentially the same premise that every heroic story has been telling since Gilgamesh (as Joesph Campbell has so helpfully illustrated in his work), but this time, it’s set in a close-knit trailer park and involves a video game as the sorting hat or what have you. It’s a fun hook, and one that’s been used to truly great ends by an author like Phillip K. Dick, and it’s by far the best thing about The Last Starfighter. There’s even a somewhat clever nod to this in one sequence, as Centuari and Grig chat about the “Excalibur” selection, which presumably tried to recruit humans back in Arthurian times. This also has the dubious honor of being the only time where the exposition doesn’t really grate on the viewer, or where a mystery or question is allowed to stand on its own before an actor rolls into the picture to blow it up for us with the most boring resolutions in ’80s Sci-Fi. The central conflict doesn’t have any weight, given that we’re introduced to this father-son galactic conflict with what is essentially a phonejacking, and also that Xur might be the least interesting villain this side of the MCU. He’s not a dynamic antagonist, his motivations are unclear, and his introductory conversation with his dad, in which his father quickly reminds him that he’s disowned him at the onset is about as intimidating as a switchblade-wielding peach.
These are all things wrongly learned by Cline, ones that he applied to his own narrative(s) without having picked up on all the things that the film does right. Its portrait of life on Earth is charming in a Spielbergian way without feeling totally cloying: The trailer park feels pulled out of Capra, with its legion of gung-ho residents willing to cheer on a neighborhood kid as he goes for the high score in a video game outside of the diner and gun-toting grannies perfectly happy with letting their granddaughters go off on interstellar adventures. In fact, the stuff with Beta is so compelling, perhaps because Guest is so good at playing uncomfortable and awkward as opposed to the stoic aloofness that defines Alex, that I honestly wish they’d just made that movie, about a kid replaced by an android who has to learn how to be human again.
The scene in which Beta tries to patch up his “relationship” with Maggie by listening to the apologies of an adulterous friend and repeating them verbatim has a life and vigor in it that the rest of the film doesn’t, perhaps because it’s totally free of the horseshit fuel that this movie runs on. The effects, as well, are advanced for their time and are surprisingly good, given how just two years earlier Tron had to be fully and traditionally animated because the tech wasn’t there yet, but they aren’t futureproofed in the way that model work and other of-era SFX are, so there’s a clumsiness there. You have to think George Lucas wasn’t quaking in his boots when he saw this, but it’s a definite start point for most modern CG.
That said, this is a film that anticipated a massive shift in culture, in which a sort of rag-tag but popular entertainment began to accrue social capital despite early economic setbacks and began to conquer even larger shares of the national consciousness. The Nintendo Entertainment System was a year out from hitting North American shelves, and was about to become impossibly popular in a form that didn’t require you to stand out in front of a diner exposed to the elements. It’s often been a geek’s fantasy to see this film remade and, though Cline’s terrible second novel, Armada, feels like a path for that to get to the screen without having to deal with all of the hoopla surrounding it, that novel is still a pale imitation of what could be.
The film’s writer, Jonathan R. Betuel (also the writer-director of the infamous Whoopi Goldberg-dinosaur buddy comedy Theodore Rex), owns the rights and, after years of denying the likes of Seth Rogen and Steven Spielberg the rights to remake or continue it, now wants to continue the story in an unrelated television series. Who knows if that will ever make it to air, but The Last Starfighter is the kind of movie that deserves to be left in the past, surrounded by the warm haze of geeky memories.