Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Last Starfighter

I grew up knowing two brothers who were good friends of mine, and I still keep in touch with them today. The Walshe brothers, Ray and Alan, although 3 grades behind me, went to the same grade school, high school, church, and Alan came to UC Irvine where we roomed together during his last undergrad and my first graduate year. He is now a Norbertine priest and his brother is happily raising two daughters. They have always approached life with great passion. After my first year back from college, in the summer of '84, they told me about a film they had seen called The Last Starfighter and convinced me I had to see it with them again. I would not characterize either of them as science fiction fans, so I knew there must be something extra in this film that they knew I would like, and in fact they were right. Although the film borrowed elements from elsewhere, it is a truly original piece of work, and one that even made it into my collection.

Let's be clear, this film is meant to be fun. Although it borrows the Star Wars concept of an adventure in space thrust upon a lowly young kid who wasn't looking for it, the earth scenes have lots of well placed situational humor and the space scenes with plenty of exaggerated material meant to poke fun at the space adventure genre. Because it is portrayed through the eyes of a teenager in a hillside mobile home community hoping to break away and do something more important with his life, it really has a way of hitting home for the young male audience demographic. [spoiler warning] Just picture a guy who passes the time playing the only video game on the campus and one day hits the high score, only to find out that the game is a recruiting tool planted by one side of a cosmic war in space. His seemingly benign achievement gets him signed on with the good guys. The alien mentors he meets along the way are very colorful and very positive "you can do it" characters. That's just the thing an unsure-of-himself young man needs to help him turn into a courageous hero.

The film has one landmark achievement to its credit, which is that it is the first live action film to use modern CGI for the entire space battle sequences rather than models. A few years earlier, Tron had taken claim to the first all computer generated sequences. But since the objects in Tron existed in a symbolic world, they were not intended to look "real", so the techniques used were better referred to as computer animation. What is meant by modern CGI is the full rendering of objects by a computer into a scene that is meant to mimic real objects, which is what we are so used to seeing today. At the time, it was a very different kind of look, enough to leave an impression.

But it must be emphasized that the effects are just a sidebar. The real charm of the film is the way the story is told and the characters that are met along the way. Robert Preston does a wonderful job as Centauri, the cosmic salesman, in his last performance before he passed away. Is it science fiction? Well, it uses all the traditional elements of sci-fi, but never really takes them completely seriously. It's one of the few films in this genre that I can recommend to both fans and non fans and know they will probably have some fun with it.

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