['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a bi-weekly column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s selection is another gem from the 80s, one that's sure to appeal to any shmups aficionado...]

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/laststarfighter1.jpg

Last week we looked at Tron, which featured a person forced to tap at his prowess at the arcade in a scenario that mirrors a video game, except its "for real". Pretty much the same thing here, plus its also from the 80s, and another cult classic of sorts. It's...

The Last Starfighter

Let's just dive head-first into the plot.

The film immediately opens up in a dusty old trailer park in the middle of Nowheresville. Among the assorted wacky elderly residents is young, able-bodied and free spirited Alex, who's basically Luke Skywalker: dreams of something better, primarily a chance of scenery, maybe some adventure, but is stuck where he is, forced to waste his time and talents. But when opportunity finally comes knocking...

After yet another day in which hanging with friends (and girlfriend) must take a back seat to fixing stuff around the park, Alex decides to blow some steam with yet another game of Starflighter, a sci-fi dog-fight shoot 'em up (or more commonly known by the kids today as a "shmup"). And like virtually every other video game portrayed in a movie, the graphics are unbelievably great.

Alex is pretty good at the game, but tonight, he's extra good, and once it appears that he's about to shatter the record, everyone in the park gets all excited and decides to see history happen. Though once again, virtually everyone in the park are all old people, and even though everyone reading this is perhaps an avid gamer, one has to wonder if any of us will truly give a damn about a video games, at least enough to get really excited, when we're all in our late seventies and wearing adult diapers.

The One Man Army

The high score is achieved, and Alex is on cloud nine afterwards, till mom presents a letter informing him that the loan to some big city college, aka his ticket outta there, has been denied. Then, while feeling sorry for himself, a crazy looking future car shows up and behind the wheel is Centari (portrayed by classical stage and film actor Robert Preston, in his final big screen role), the inventor of the game Starfighter, and who's looking for the person that just broke the record. Alex gets in, and next thing you know, he's going down the highway at about 300 miles an hour, and then he's in outer space, accompanied by vintage early 80s CGI graphics (which were created with old Cray super-computer).

Alex arrives at a military base on the planet Rylos, and eventually learns that he's been enlisted by the Star League to help fight Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada... just like the video game! Actually, the arcade game was simply a tool to find out who on Earth has what it takes to actually defend the universe (even though its pointed out that Earth and its inhabitants are neither advanced, smart, or simply cool enough to be part of the Star League, at least not yet). So Alex eventually finds himself among other hopeful saviors of the universe, who comes from all corners of the galaxy, in the obligatory Mos Eisley-like scene (again, just like Tron).

But once again, Alex is Luke, so he freaks out at the chance for high adventure once it finally presents itself, nor does he man up when he sees the huge floating head of Xur, the spoiled rotten brat son of the benevolent leader turned traitor, talk crap and gruesomely kill a good guy spy for show.

Centari takes Alex back home, but instead of things being nice and normal, Alex meets with his robotic doppelganger, known as the Beta Unit, which the Star League left behind as "a courtesy".

Also in town is some alien bounty hunter after Alex's head, which results in a shootout in which Centari (whom Alex calls back to bitch out, mostly about his robot double) is shot and wounded. Once he discovers that more aliens are sure to come to snuff him, Alex reluctantly agrees to go back and fight the good fight. But when he returns to Rylos, the base has been destroyed, and he also discovers that the entire fleet (the ships btw are called Gunstars, though there seems to be no connection between the film and the seminal Treasure platformer), have all been destroyed.

So Alex is indeed the last starfighter, and its only himself, his trusty, warm-hearted, happy-go lucky alien pilot Grig (portrayed with much zest by Dan O'Herlihy, whom many might know as the evil corporate bad guy from Robocop 1 &2), and one single ship, which of course is a one-of-a-kind, souped up prototype Gunstar, versus an entire enemy fleet.

A Familiar Story

Pretty ridiculous plot. isn't it? Well... not really. At least, not to anyone that's familiar with shmups. Because its the same basic plot for every spaceship combat game from the past twenty plus years. The Last Starfighter is basically Gradius: The Movie, or R Type: The Movie, or Thunder Force: The Movie. The Gunstar itself is actually quite close to what we see in shmups these days; it most closely resembles the ship from Silpheed...

The rest of the film follows Alex and Grig's attempt at outsmarting an entire enemy fleet, with Alex whining every step of the way about the impossible odds. Not only is he very Skywalker-like, but Alex is virtually every hero from every jRPG from Final Fantasy 7-on, so the film is on the ball video game-wise in more than just one aspect.

At one point, they hide and wait inside an asteroid, in another "boy, this is just like Star Wars" moment, with this one taking a cue from Empire Strikes back (earlier Alex goes into light speed with pretty the same exact special effect as well, though not nearly as nice), and there's a scene where Grig talks about his "wifeoid" and 6,000 kids which ranks as one of the film's finest moments.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Beta Alex tries his best to fill the original's shoes by learning how to laugh (in a somewhat Star Trek: The Next Generation-like moment) and making out with Alex's girlfriend, which he refers to as "gland games", while also dealing with additional bounty hunting goons.

Shoot The Core

Anyway, Alex manages to wipe out the entire enemy fleet with one fatal berserker attack, or super bomb, which in the movie is called the Death Blossom. Again, quite consistent with shmups. In fact, the only thing missing from the movie are power pick ups left behind by destroyed enemies.

With the Armada wiped out, that just leaves the final boss ship, which goes down of course, and the universe is saved, with Alex as the universe's ultimate hero. He's given the chance to shape the future of the Space League, and since this is the 80's, not only does he accept, but he also returns to Earth to ask his girlfriend to be by his side and she says yes as well (if this story took place now, Alex would probably walk away from such responsibilities and the ending would be bittersweet, even a tiny bit emo).

Alex rides off to the stars, the man he wanted to be in the beginning of the movie, though both him and the audience had to sit through at least half a dozen speeches from assorted characters exclaiming that one must step up and seize opportunity when it rears its head.

Final Score

Overall, a solid, if a bit unspectacular film, and far from profound, but given that most contemporary motion pictures that deal with video games are far from solid, by default The Last Starfighter resides square in the middle of the "not so bad" category of films of its kind. Granted, it’s extremely predictable and tries way too hard to be Star Wars in many respects (though the area of ship design should not be faulted since folks who worked on that series worked on this film as well).

But thanks in part to the combination of some charming acting (primarily from O'Herlihy) and it being a product of its time (with that fine early 80s film stock and hair), the movie is not at all bad and totally worth checking out, especially if one is a shmups fan because, once more, it pretty has the same exact plot as every game in the genre.

...though whether one who puts up with such a flimsy story in their games would want to see it played out in a film is entirely debatable...

BTW:

It goes without saying that the film has had some lasting power, since its constantly been referenced over the years; most folks know about the South Park parody from last year, but the Clerk animated series took some cues from it as well, as has Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The whole idea of a video game used as recruitment tool was even used in Japan for Denji Sentai Megaranger, aka Power Rangers in Space here in America. Oh, the same goes for the US too.

There was even an off-Broadway play based off the movie that ran in New York City in late 2004 to some minor acclaim. And anyone knows that any film from the 80's isn't officially "cool" until its been made into musical (see: The Evil Dead, The Karate Kid. and The Goonies, to name a few).

FYI:

Near the end of the credits, it says an actual Last Starfighter game is available from Atari, and there was one in development, for the arcades actually, but it never materialized. But one was eventually developed for their home computers, though it was originally an entirely different game called Orbiter, which was changed to resemble the movie, and then those elements had to be stripped away, due to the sale of Atari according to a few sources. In the end, it became Star Raiders 2.

But, now everyone can finally play the same game from the movie (kind of) courtesy of Rogue Synapse, which has attempted to create something very similar to what was featured in the movie. They've even tried to create a full-realized version of Space Paranoids from Tron.

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]