08 May 2014

FWS: Forgotten Classics: THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984)

The 1980's science fiction would owe much to the popularity of Star Wars and Star Trek that shaped the types of sci-fi works that were published or produced, and one among these was 1984's The Last Starfighter. While some may write off this little military science fiction as one of the many clones of Star Wars, it had heart, a clever little story, and an awesome space fighter in the Gunstar. When this film came out, I was eight, and deeply in love with science fiction and the stars in the Alabama sky, and this film spoke to me. While I've not seen this film in twenty years, I decided it was high time that FWS discuss The Last Starfighter in this installment of Fogotten Classics. So, here we go, joining the Star League to defend the frontier against the Ko-Dan Armada.

The Plot of The Last Starfighter
Most overviews of the central plot of the film are very similar, but I thought I would do things differently. There are two major powers in the Milky Way galaxy, the diplomatic loose military and economic confederation known as the Star League that spans thousands of worlds and composed of dozens of alien sentient races. At the center of the Star League is the founding planet, Rylos. Rylans pride themselves on being a united species that abandoned war, and spread their message to the stars, allowing the Star League to form. During the formation of the Star League generations ago, the Ko-Dan Empire emerged. The Ko-Dan are an aggressive alien race that turned down the offers of peace by the Rylans, and attacked the infant Star League. While relaying on other alien races to fight, the Rylans constructed a force shield system, called the Frontier, allowing for the Star League to generate a force field for hundreds light years, sealing out the Ko-Dan from the Star League.
For hundreds of years, there have been out skirmish...until Xur arrived. Xur is the youngest son of the current commander of the Starfighter Command, Ambassador Enduran. At first, Xur hated the Ko-Dan, and often debated with his father and others, that the Star League needed to adopt a more "offensive" posture, constructing a real military to defend the worlds of the Star League, with Rylos at the helm. The majority said the Frontier shield was their salvation against primitive warfare. However, there was a minority on Rylos that warmed to Xur's message, and formed a political movement on Rylos. After protests and discovery of Xur forming an army, the justice system cracked down on Xur's cult, and jailed many, Xur was exiled from the Star League, beyond the Frontier.
There, he encountered the Ko-Dan and made a deal with the Emperor. He would be installed as leader of Rylos, for the secrets of the force shield, which he managed to get from contacts in his cult back on the homeworld. With Rylos his, Xur would give the rest of the Star League, and future candidate worlds, like Earth, over to the Ko-Dan. With the Ko-Dan invasion and enslave of the candidate world of Sauria, and her reptilian people, the Saurians, the Star League switched into warring footing, and recruited more pilots and gunners for their Gunstars. Starfighter Command even contracted with independent recruiters, like Centauri.
Hundreds of light-years away on Earth, Alex Rogan as just graduated from high school, and is dreaming about the day he and his girlfriend can leave their trailer park in the mountains of southern California that he shares with his single working mother and his little brother Lewis. When not working as a general handyman for the trailer park manager, he applies for college loans and plays the trailer park's only video game, "Starfighter". One night, after working instead of hanging out at a lake with his girlfriend Maggie, he breaks the record on the game with the entire trailer park watching. That night, an odd looking car stops by the trailer park with a fast talking older man looking for Alex. The moment Alex steps into Centauri's star-car, his life would change forever.

The Historical Context of The Last Starfighter 
FWS has discussed many times on Forgotten Classics about the impact of Star Wars/Star Trek on science fiction in the 1980’s, and it is not being understated . The existence of The Last Starfighter is solely due to studios being willing to commit the money and resources to sci-fi movies. While sci-fi movies were nothing new, their quality and status was first raised by ST, and then blown into orbit by Star Wars in 1977. Studios moved forward with high-quality sci-fi flicks, hoping to cash in on the popularity of Star Wars. Back in 1984, when The Last Starfighter rolled into theaters, the SW effect and their many clones were beginning to lose their appeal and luster. We have to remember that SW had a direct impact on the development, marketing, and theme of The Last Starfighter. SW was not just a cheap sci-fi flick that appealed to teenagers at the drive-in more focused on rolling the bases than watching the rubber monster get blasted by ray-gun. SW changed that, and was a film that appealed to all generations and ages. In short, George Lucas was a fucking genius (but not after he made the prequels!). The Last Starfighter was hoping to be a sci-fi film that garnered the same level of acceptance by the creators and the studio.
Another factor in the time period when The Last Starfighter was release was the so-called “Arcade Culture” of the early 1980’s. From the appearance of Space Invaders in 1978 to the agreed upon end of the Golden Age of Arcades around ‘86, they were the places to be on a Friday and Saturday night. If you did not live in that time, than just watch the opening to TRON when they are at Flynn’s, and you will see how it used to be back in the day, baby! Even living in a small town in Alabama back when The Last Starfighter came out, the local arcade was packed with young people in their ringer tees and Nikes. Due to the popularity, I was only allowed to go on Saturday afternoons. This element of 1980’s society not only gave screenwriter Jonathan R. Betuel the genesis of the The Last Starfighter story, but also a unique merchandising tie-in with a video game based on the video game seen in the film. Freaky.

Something of 1980’s culture that is hinted at and that the studio hoped to pay on was the obsession with space travel. While the 1960’s Space Race, established the space crazy, it had tapered off in the 1970’s, but was re-energized when the launch of the Space Shuttle in 1981. Really until the Challenger Disaster in 1986, America was fascinated with NASA and the space program, and for a kid like me, it was like fucking crack. When we see Alex and Lewis have adored their room with all manner of space-themed items…looked like my bedroom from 1984 as well! this sense of progress on an cheap and easy space launch program, fueled me to envision that when I was at the age I am now, there would be Lunar bases, Mars colonies, and hotels in orbit. Man, the reality of 2014 is such a series of disappointments!

The Computer Generated Effects of The Last Starfighter
One of the elements that The Last Starfighter is known for then and today, is the groundbreaking use of computerized generated effects. While most audiences of the day would have been familiar TRON and its use of CGI married with traditional film and flesh & blood actors, The Last Starfighter would approach the use of CGI differently than TRON, which used CGI to transport the audience from the physical world to the electric world of the computer. The Last Starfighter was using CGI to take the place of more traditional SFX, which made The Last Starfighter unique. Digital Productions was hired to created the world of The Last Starfighter due to their company's goal of making photo-realistic simulation CGI effects. The hardware was the then state-of-the-art Cray X-MP supercomputer, and were the most of powerful computers in the world at the time and cost about $15 million and weighted in at 15,000 pounds. The main reason why the studio went with CGI instead of the SFX laid down by ILM, was to be different. We have to remember that audiences at the time had seen well done space battle with movies like The Return of the Jedi and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, and for a semi-Star Wars clone, The Last Starfighter would have to be different, and CGI was that ticket.
The production crew had six months to get the CGI SFX done, and it was believed by some of the visual effects coordinator that there wasn't the time for Digital Productions to get the CGI effects done. However, the director and producers were locked into the idea of CGI for the film, and moved forwards, but simplified the effects to streamline the production. Digital Productions developed software, trained staff to gear up for The Last Starfighter. Ron Cobb would created the iconic Gunstar space fighter, and his designs were drafted into the Cray X-MP via early digitization.
This was process was taxing, and took time to get the design into a 3-D computer vector model with real-time payback. The staff of Digital Productions slept at the foot of Clay, pulling long nights working at the CGI. The Last Starfighter would forge new abilities in CGI SFX, and build the foundations with new methods and software. Despite the advanced nature of the Clay X-MP supercomputer, this film nearly destroyed the supercomputer several times. At the end of the day, how much did all of this cost? In terms of 1983/84 money, the 25 minutes of computerized generated effects cost an estimated $3 million with a film on a budget $15 million.

Wasn't There an The Last Starfigther Video Game? 
The Last Starfighter is a film about a teenager who plays a video game and it opens the galaxy for him, and it seemed natural, especially considered the time period, that a video game would follow. When The Last Starfighter came out, the film even promised an ATARI video game during the closing credits, but no arrived, and the idea slipped into dusty video game memories. However, there were rumors of a arcade version like what was seen in the film existing in big cities and even overseas. I heard these rumors when I was in the 1st Grade, and they still exist in some dark corners of the internet So, what ever happened to The Last Starfighter video games that we were promised? Here is a list of the systems that would have hosted the promised game and what happened to those titles, and the actually branded The Last Starfighter video games that did arrive.

The ATARI Arcade Cabinet Prototype
Here it is, the promised arcade cabinet game of the film, and it was the stuff of legend back in the day. In 1983, with The Last Starfighter being filmed, ATARI had secured the rights to producing a line of video games, for both the at home and arcade markets. The project under Chris J. Horseman, met with the studios’ approval in December 1983, and the project moved forward. According to the actually written 38 page ATARI proposal on The Last Starfighter arcade game, it was going to be manufacturing in sit-down and stand-up models and the company seemed serious that they going to do their best, given the technological limitations, to replicate what was seen on-screen. Adding to this desire to replicate the film's space combat screnes and given some of the terms used for the sit-down models, there could have been interactive movement version, like After Burner
There would have been several missions, including a standard start-up tutorial mode, with the player engaging targeting drones. One mission would have the player hunting down Xurian modified cargo ships, similar to the events in the movie, all the way to the mission to destroy the Ko-Dan command & control mother ship. According to the timeline in the proposal, the goal was summer of 1984 for first major tests for the systems and gameplay, with a commercial rollout by late summer of 1984, after the film was in theaters. ATARI had a limited window to capitalize on the film's theatrical run, and since the hardware was not an ATARI product and there was some concern when the software and hardware was bought together in March of 1984, how they would function. 
From the limited information, ATARI had developed some of the software, which can been seen on Youtube today, and it looked promising. The Last Starfighter was being developed alongside another 3D polygon arcade game called Air Race. Either one would ever see the light of day, and the rumored single prototype cabinet as never been seen. So why did this happen? Two factors are responsible for killing the arcade game. One was the crash of the American video game industry between 1983 and 1984, which wounded ATARI greatly, forcing a restructure and refocus on the core business. Second was the price tag for The Last Starfighter arcade cabinet game, which was about $10,000 per unit. To put that into context, the very popular ATARI Star Wars arcade game was $2,295 per unit, and Spy Hunter was even cheaper than that. ATARI management was worried that due to the extreme price and semi-popularity of the film, that retailers would simply not buy the machines. If ATARI had moved forward with the rumored single prototype that existed, The Last Starfighter arcade game cabinet would have run on a Motorola 6800 CPU, used the old Star Wars arcade game controls, and been ATARI's first arcade game that used 3D polygons. The honor of ATARI's first arcade game to use 3D polygons was I, Robot from 1984, a rare day that was in my local arcade in Bartlesville, and I played from time to time. Weird game.     

The ATARI 2600
The flagship home console gaming system under the ATARI brand was the iconic 2600. From its launch in 1977 to its discontinuation in 1992, it sold 30 million units, and is the longest produced video game system of all time. Back in 1983, the assumed future popularity of the incoming The Last Starfighter movie, ATARI needed a game for this system. The man who created and programmed the original Star Raiders, Doug Neubauer, was tapped to create this tie-in specifically for the ATARI 2600. He was flown out to California to watch the film, and design a game in summer of 1984. Several events happened that ended The Last Starfighter on the 2600, the buying out of ATARI, the Video Game Crash, and limited success of the movie. When ATARI returned to cracking out 2600 games in 1986, Doug was given another call, and the game was retitled “Solaris” and rolled out on the revamped 2600 and the new 7800. I actually owned this game for my 7800 back in the day, and never beat it. At the time, I had no idea, nor did anyone else that my Solaris game was actually The Last Starfighter.

The ATARI 5200
The original ATARI 2600 system was released in 1977, and was a massive success for the company. At the time, ATARI believed that the 2600 had about a three year lifespan against competitors and the advancement of computer technology. By 1982, the year my brother and I got our 2600, ATARI would roll out its replacement, the 5200. Out of all the gamers I've known through the years, I have never known a single one to own an 5200. This system was massive in size due to in-game storage unit for the controller. Then there was the price. In 1982, an 2600 was selling for $199, and the 5200 was sold initially for $330. While the 5200 featuring better gaming graphics aided with elements from the ATARI 400 and 800 computers, enhanced abilities with a multi-function controller, the game library was limited (especially compared to the 2600), the controllers simply sucked, and gamers failed to abandon their 2600s for 5200s.
By 1984, the 5200 was gone due to poor sales and the crash of the video game industry. Only one million units were sold in the 5200's two year life cycle, when compared to millions more sales for the older 2600. Back when the system was into its first full year, ATARI believed that The Last Starfighter movie could make for a great space shooter on their 5200 system. During this time, a game called "Orbiter" was about 35% finished, and ATARI took the embryonic space shooter game, and altered if for their The Last Starfighter game adaption.
Instead of the in-movie video game format, the 5200 The Last Starfighter took Orbiter's space shooter/strategy format that allowed players to defend their home planetary system from alien invades with maps and orbital combat and tailored it to the movie's fictional universe. Now, the solar system was Rylos, and the alien invaders were the Ko-Dan. However, the game was never released, and instead, it was altered again to serve as the sequel to the successful 1978 Star Raiders that ran on the ATARI 400 and 800 computers (it was ported to the 2600 in 1982, but it was an ugly dog). Key gaming elements were changed to wipe The Last Starfighter from the gaming environment and Star Raiders II was released in 1986 on various 8-bit ATARI computers. Why was the 5200 game never released? There is no hard data on why ATARI decided to abandon the game, some point to the demise of the 5200 system and the crash of the video game industry, along with moderate success of the movie.       

To most of us, the name ATARI stands for the classic wood-and-plastic home consoles. However, for much of ATARI’s history, they build home computers and games to complete with the Commodore 64s and other PCs of the day. These games were of a higher level than their home console systems, and if there had been a Starfighter game, the ATARI XE and XL computer systems would have received their own port. Much like, the ATARI 5200, The Last Starfighter game project was canceled just before release, and the program was rebranded Star Raiders II with some minor cosmetic changes and released in 1986 on the ATARI 8-bit computer systems XE and XL.      

The ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64
Much like the ATARI gaming computers of the XE/XL, the industry leaders, the Commodore 64 in the United States and the ZX Spectrum in the United Kingdom were both expected to the get The Last Starfighter space shooter designed from the bones of Orbiter. However, just like what happened on the ATARI machines, the same was true of these computer gaming systems. The Last Starfighter was rebranded as Star Raiders II and released to moderate reviews in 1986.

The glory of 8-bit gaming was founded for entire generation in the grey box that was the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and The Last Starfighter came to the grey box in 1990. The NES had its share of oddball titles that harkened back to older movies, like Mad Max and Dirty Harry, but 1990’s The Last Starfighter was just wrong. When I researched this game, most reviewers asked why it took 4 years for this game to come after the release date and way before it was a cool retro 1980’s movie. Worst of all, it was not anything like the in-movie video game, nor the events seen in the film. This side-scroll game featured an Gunstar like space fighter attempting to plant a bomb on an alien mother ship while combating incoming fire and Ko-Dan deck fighters. Modern reviews match up to the reviews of 1990, in saying that the game is simply broken, unforgiving, and lacking any spirit. It turns out that this 1990 turd was a re-branded Uridium space side-scrolling-shooter from 1986 that was ported to gaming computers of the time. With the leap in home gaming console by the time of the NES, Uridium was modified with some The Last Starfighter themes by software publisher Mindscape, and put back out to the misery of gamers back in the day, and the shameful tie-in into a great sci-fi flick.   

The Rouge Synapse Arcade Cabinet
With the 25th anniversary of The Last Starfighter approaching, the studio decided on releasing a special edition DVD. For this, a new documentary on the making of the film was produced, called Crossing the Frontier with host Lance Guest. One of the set pieces for the documentary was the iconic Starfighter arcade cabinet of the film. Since the original was destroyed, Dallas-based Rouge Synapse, was tapped for constructing a custom cabinets for Starflighter. While Lance Guest talked about the film, the arcade screen flashed with footage from the gaming sequences in the film. It was not a working arcade cabinet. Later and with permission, Rouge Synapse would release a freeware The Last Starfighter downloadable PC game that behaved and looked like the in-movie game. Most experienced players can blow through the entire game in about 10-20 minutes, and all seem based off scenes in the film and the proposed ATARI arcade cabinet mission plans. I would be cool if Rouge Synapse offered a functioning Starfighter arcade for sale! 

Watching This Movie Today...Does It Hold Up?

Up until I bought the 25th anniversary edition DVD at my local Dallas Movie Trade World, I had not seen The Last Starfighter since maybe around the summer of 1987 or 1988. While I maintained fond memories of the film since I originally saw it in 1984, the film was never one I tracked down and re-watched over and over. So, how does it hold up after seeing with adult eyes? First off, I will not bash TLS any more than I would bash TRON for the very dated CGI SFX. For the time, both TRON and The Last Starfighter were groundbreaking in CGI effects, and lead to the level of effects we have today. The CGI SFX we see in TRON, The Last Starfighter, the Dire Straits “Money For Nothing” music video and Max Headroom were state-of-art then, but now can easily be reproduced at home with off-the-shelf software. While ROBOTECH, G-Force, and Captain Power have not held up to adult scrutiny in my eyes, TLS was a welcome surprise! For some big fans of the film, they have rewatched this film throughout their lives, allowing for the film to stay “current” in their eyes, like most of us did with Star Trek, Star Wars, or ALIENS. For me, The Last Starfighter was still an 1980’s fading memory, but it was clearly MSF, and therefore the domain of FWS.
After re-watching The Last Starfighter twice for this blogpost (the suffering I do for you people!), I can say this film is a charmer with a simple plot that still works with all of the magic that he had during the original viewing. All of it works, and blends well, while remaining light and general audience friendly. While The Last Starfighter could be remade darker and more serious, it works here, especially for the time that it was made. My adult mind still as questions about the Ko-Dan Empire, the Star League, and Xur, but it was the final battle that troubled me the most. The film builds up the mighty Ko-Dan Empire and its deadly armada, and while the last Gunstar certainly uses stealth tactics to avoid the bulk of the armada, the end battle seems a little light on gravity and presence, and ends too quickly. Some fans believe that rushed ending was due to the expensive of the CGI SFX.

The Aborted Galoob Toyline
Star Wars set the example to the film and toy industries that toys and other merchandise should part of the overall strategy to market a successful film. After the booming success of the Kenner SW toyline, Universal and Lorimar eyeballed The Last Starfighter for toyline to capitalize on the generation that grew up playing with SW toys (like me!). Galoob, who also responsible for the original ST:TNG 1987 toyline, was tapped for The Last Starfighter toys. Galoob’s strategy was to package two The  Last Starfighter character 3 ¾ inch action figures for retail. Overall, 12 figures would have been produced, ranging from Terrans, to Ko-Dan, to Star League. In the promo sheet for retails to preview the prototype figures, there is a hint of a Gunstar play-vehicle. Originally, I thought that it was a static imagine taken from the film, but when I examined it closer, there is was, the toy of my 1980’s dreams: a fucking Gunstar toy…and since it looks like would fit two figures, this thing would have been big. I want this, even today, I want this.
So, if the movie is beloved by people of my generation, than why are there no The Last Starfighter  Galoob toys? 
From the very brief information from the article in Tomart’s Action Figure Digest, the retails did not support Galoob with orders or promises of shelf space in 1983 when previewed for them, and Galoob was forced to cancel the toyline just before the film hit theaters. Once the film was making money at the box office and opened to positive reviews, some nine months after the pitch meeting, retailers contacted Galoob about putting the toys into stores; however there was no time for production and sales during the window of The Last Starfighter theatrical release. There is no word on the fate of the prototypes figures, nor any hard information on the rumored Gunstar, Ko-Dan fighter, and Centaur Star-car vehicles. The only toys that were made for the film were the normal comic book adaption, the novel adaption, a lunchbox, and a Zando-Zan hit-beast plastic Halloween mask, a board tunnel-combat game, and a coloring book (which I remember and had. Yes. I had the The Last Starfighter coloring book). Oddly, despite the massive geek love for the Gunstar, there are very few plastic models of the one of the most iconic (and awesome!) fictional space fighters of all time! 

The Gunstar Fighter
The very symbol of the film and the Star League is the deep space Gunstar class space fighter, and is an icon of sci-fi design, and normal ranks up there with the X-Wing on sci-fi geek lists (including my own!). The ship itself was envisioned and drafted by veteran sci-fi concept artist Ron Cobb, who worked on ALIEN. Unlike most sci-fi films of the time, the Gunstar was not a physical model (save for a few study rudimentary models), and only existed in digital realm. Ron Cobb and others that worked on The Last Starfighter designed the Gunstar to operate in outer space, with more correct design and operations than other space fighter. Today, the Gunstar ranks on many lists as one best space fighters in science fiction, and is an icon. Sadly, a toy Gunstar was never produced, but that as not stopped fans from forging their own Gunstars out of Legos, and homebrew kits. In a few weeks, FWS will be posting a blog article on the GS-S10 Gunstar class heavy space fighter from the fictional universe POV.  

Is The Last Starfighter Really an "Forgotten Classic"?
Unlike other Forgotten Classic blogpost of the past here on FWS, The Last Starfighter is not completely forgotten like Dynamo Joe, and a quick internet search will confirm that fact. Type the movie title into Google, and it will return a massive amount of entries, video reviews, and discussions. So, why did I place The Last Starfighter under the Forgotten Classic header? To me, the forgotten aspect is not that The Last Starfighter exist, or was a general audience sci-fi film marketed to fill the gap of SW, but that it was also a live-action military science fiction film. Unlike SW and ST, which were only partly military science fiction, The Last Starfighter is 100% part of the genre, and presents itself without much compilation or complexity noted in the works of ST and/or SW. Part of what helps The last Starfighter from disappearing from the cultural radar is the badass Gunstar…more of that below. fans of the film, they have rewatched this film throughout their lives, allowing for the film to stay “current” in their eyes, like most of us did with Star Trek, Star Wars, or ALIENS. For me, The Last Starfighter was still an 1980’s fading memory, but it was clearly MSF, and therefore the domain of FWS.

What Happened to The Last Starfighter?
For most people I've talked to about The Last Starfighter, they always get that glowing smile, and fondly say: “I love that film!” IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes all feature very favorable ratings for the film and all this speaks to the longevity of the film, but it was the Star Wars hit that the studio hoped for. The film had an estimated budget of $15 million dollars, it opened on 1200 screens with about $6 million in opening weekend (July 15th, 1984) ticket sales, and at the end of its theatrical run, The Last Starfighter made $28.7 million. 
Given that the film was released in 1984, the home rental and video sales market did not really exist until several years later. This was a moderate hit, and while it make back its investment with a profit, all accounts speak of the studio being disappointing, and cancelling any hopes of a sequel, if there was a story to follow. The Starfighter would join the ranks of good 1980's sci-fi movies that were forgotten due to the high amount of quality science fiction movies being cracked out during the 1980's. These were films like Enemy Mine, Explorers, and Batteries Not Included. Today, with the internet and the release of the 25th anniversary DVD, the film is alive and well in the hearts and minds of those of us that relished the trip to Rylos when we were children, and relive the experience today.

Will There Be a Remake or Sequel?
 According to story filed by Clint for Moviehole.com back in 2011, he met the director of TLS and the two major stars at a con, and asked the director if the rumors were true of a sequel. Director Nick Castle confirmed that there is a sequel on the horizon for TLS, and he is going to direct it. The film was nearly greenlit around 2008/2009, but was hauled. The story, according to Castle, was going to be about the son or daughter of Alex and Maggie, who is raised to be a Starfighter gunner or pilot on the planet of Ryolos. Since that story was published in 2011, nothing has come of it. There is also talk of a remake as well, but that is also stuck in developmental hell. In 2010, talented artist Shawn Weixelman of Alaska created one hell of a Gunstar “version 2.0” for a possible sequel or remake that is more organic that the original. Some stunning work!     

Next Time on FWS...
Writing with a genre is always tough to make your mark, especially in the popular genre of today: the zombie apocalypse. However, authors Forrest Parham and H.A.L Wagner have combined the genre of the zombie apocalypse with elements of military science fiction, APS-wearing special forces soldiers, and an A.I. apocalypse, to forge the new e-book series called The Five being published by Forker Media. FWS is reviewing the first installment of The Five series, Episode I: Salvation's Curse for another installment of FWS Book Reviews!


  1. Your topic is good, but your typos are distracting. Get a buddy to proof read and or edit.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I should have done a better job, I will be taking down the blogpost and reediting Thanks for the heads up

  4. The muscial score by Craig Safan.....amazing. Michael Bay and J J Abrahms can only dream to be as imaginative.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.