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The Last Starfighter

(1984) ** 1/2 Pg
101 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Nick Castle. Cast: Lance Guest, Robert Preston, Dan O'Herlihy, Catherine Mary Stewart, Barbara Bosson.

/content/films/3516/1.jpg"Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by The Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada."

These days, most movies with a healthy budget are expected to appeal to both genders and a broad spectrum of ages, but certain movies hit a sweet spot. For a good example, look back twenty-five years to The Last Starfighter. It's a movie that's good for pretty much only one demographic: boys 8-13. Of course, now that it's twenty-five years old, Nick Castle's charmingly hokey movie probably appeals more to a nostalgic crowd of 33-38 year-old men. The Last Starfighter takes the suburban-working-class-folks-meet-space-aliens paradigm of early Spielberg and marries it to Lucas' Star Wars. On paper, that idea must sound like the most cynical cash-grab ever, and certainly there's an element of naked commercialism. But The Last Starfighter has a kind of aw-shucks, gee-whiz tone that's disarming, for that target audience at the very least.

Lanky Lance Guest (Halloween II) plays Alex Rogan, a teenager living at the Starlite Starbrite Trailer Court in the California mountains. Since his mother (Barbara Bosson of Murder One) runs the place, his wanderlust is inhibited by handyman duties that keep him tied down as his friends go off to the lake. Alex's refrain "I'm going to do something with my life" loses momentum when he learns his pivotal college loan has been rejected, but at least he has an understanding girlfriend in Maggie Gordon (Catherine Mary Stewart) and an escape in the arcade video game "Starfighter." When Alex logs a record-breaking high score, the game's secret comes out. It's no ordinary fictional video game, but a training and diagnostic testing module designed to find earthlings suitable to be Starfighters in the intergalactic Star League in their war against the Ko-Dan Armada.

This news comes courtesy of an alien named Centauri (a delightfully hammy Robert Preston), who attempts to press Alex into immediate service. Whisking Alex off in his Starcar (a slight forerunner of Back to the Future's time-traveling DeLorean), Centauri replaces Alex with an android named Beta (also played, ably, by Guest) so the trailer park folk—and any Ko-Dan spies—will be none the wiser. When Alex finally agrees to embrace his destiny, he's entrusted to the care of Star Navigator First Class Grig (Dan O'Herlihy), an alien whose optimism ("I've always wanted to fight a desperate battle against incredible odds"), wheezing laugh, and scaly appearance lead Alex to call him a "gung-ho iguana."

The warmed-over Star Wars stuff is a bore, but test screenings encouraged Castle to expand the amusing business with Beta back on Earth. O'Herlihy and Preston are invaluable to the film's moderate success, with the latter doing a peppy outer-space variation on his flim-flam artist Professor Henry Hill from The Music Man. Screenwriter Jonathan Betuel doesn't exploit his witty idea as well as he should, but Castle gives the proceedings snap and humor, as in the well-executed shot introducing the landscape and denizens of the trailer park. Though there's precious little depth to The Last Starfighter, it does get literal mileage out of the argument to improve one's station and follow dreams. When Alex laments, "I'm a kid from a trailer park," Centauri counters, "If that's what you think, then that's all you'll ever be."

The Last Starfighter also has historical importance as the first film to employ computer-generated imagery to the end of photo-realism. No doubt inspired by the work done for 1982's video-game fantasy Tron, Digital Productions labored to provide the groundbreaking CGI. The film's special effects are variable: some are highly effective, while the early, rudimentary CGI can be badly dated in spots. But it's all part and parcel of the movie's sci-fi corn, complete with rubber-masked aliens (and, hey, isn't that a pre-Star Trek Wil Wheaton as Louis' friend?). For families looking for a PG-rated outing sure that's harmless for boys and sure to please them, they could do a lot worse than The Last Starfighter.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 8/18/2009

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

In its 25th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray, The Last Starfighter looks awfully good. The only significant flaw is a persistent telecine wobble noticeable mostly during static shots. That bummer aside, this flick looks great for its age, perhaps aided by DNR. I was pleased by the sharpness of the image, especially relative to DVD, and the picture gets good marks for color and black level. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix isn't as dynamic as one might hope, hampered as it is by twenty-five-year-old source material. Still, the movie has never sounded better and probably shouldn't sound better than this.

The Blu-ray reproduces the previous DVD bonus features and goes one better with a newly produced documentary. For starters, there's a feature commentary with director Nick Castle and production designer Ron Cobb, who warmly recall the experience of getting the film off the ground and fighting for their vision.

The brand-new retrospective doc "Heroes of the Screen" (24:19, HD) features fresh interviews with Castle, Guest, Catherine Mary Stewart, screenwriter Jonathan Betuel, producer Gary Adelson, composer Craig Safan, visual effects man Jeff Okun, and storyboard artist Paul Power. They recount anecdotes about working on the film, with an emphasis on the special effects challenges.

"Crossing the Frontier: Making The Last Starfighter" (32:02, SD), hosted by Guest, is the earlier retrospective doc from the previous DVD, and it's very nicely put together. Participants include Betuel, Adelson, Castle, art director James D. Bissell, Robert Preston (vintage), associate producer John H. Whitney Jr. (vintage and contemporary), technical executive Gary Demos, Cobb, Okun, senior drafter/encoder Kevin Rafferty, illustrator Rick Sternbach, software developer Larry Yaeger, composer Craig Safan, ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren, and ILM visual effects supervisor John Knoll.

Rounding out the disc are an Image Gallery, "Teaser Trailer" (1:33, SD), "Theatrical Trailer" (2:47, SD) and the usual Universal features My Scenes, BD-Live, and D-BOX Motion Enabling.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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