The Last Starfighter

Jeremy’s still hobnobbing around Austin at the South by Southwest Film Festival, so he doesn’t have time to listen to a commentary track. He’s watching too many movies for the first time. So I’m stepping in to travel in time back to 1984 to have another go at The Last Starfighter.

If you’re a child of the 80s like me, a lot of your movie-going interests were defined by the Star Wars movies. But once those movies wrapped up in the first third of that decade with the prequels (and alleged sequels) more than a dozen years away, a great void was left. I was about thirteen years old when The Last Starfighter came to theaters in the summer of 1984, and it tapped into the same wonder and excitement that the first three Star Wars were about. I was looking for another story about a very average teenager who comes from nowhere special to fight in an interstellar war against some really bad dudes.

The thing that made The Last Starfighter different from every other movie of that decade was its then-groundbreaking and now-rudimentary use of digital effects. Only Tron had been so bold with digital environments before, and The Last Starfighter literally gave us something we hadn’t seen before. The 1999 “Widescreen Collector’s Edition” of The Last Starfighter DVD included a commentary with director Nick Castle and production designer Ron Cobb. Sure, the commentary includes dated 90s references to pagers and the like, and both Castle and Cobb slip into narration mode from time to time, but it offers some neat tidbits of information from the production.

The Last Starfighter (1984)

Commentators: Nick Castle (director) and Ron Cobb (production designer)

  • The opening shot of the planet Rylos against a starfield was originally conceived to begin as part of the Universal logo, but the stuffed shirts at the studio didn’t like the idea of replacing the Earth with another planet. This probably would have gone differently had it been a Warner Bros. production, which is famous for tinkering with its logo at the beginning of films.
  • During the opening back-up from Rylos to Earth during the opening titles, which Cobb refers to as “a cosmic backwards zoom,” Castle points out that the presentation on the DVD (from 1999) is the first time in 15 years it has been presented in the proper format. Here’s to DVD for bringing letterboxing and widescreen to the home video market!
  • Early on, Castle praises the unique idea of the film, which he describes: “A clever idea. Take a regular teenage boy and put him in a heroic situation in a space opera.” From this point on, Castle spends much of the commentary distancing this movie from the Star Wars films (which is hinged on that very idea). Along with Cobb, he is quick to point out the key differences, including the Earth-bound location and the ability of the Gunstar ship to operate in three full dimensions since there’s no concept of “up” and “down” in space.
  • Initially, Alex Rogan was to be from the suburbs, but Castle changed the location to a trailer park for several reasons. The biggest reason was that pretty much every film from that era that involved Steven Spielberg (including E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Poltergeist) used the suburbs as a setting. Secondly, Castle wanted a more isolated location and for Alex to have an extended family that allowed the audience to identify with him and root for him.
  • The iconic “The Last Starfighter” video game that Alex plays (which was planned as a real one but never made it out there during the film’s release) was designed to be different than standard video games with 3D graphics and to look more like a real flight simulator.
  • The characters of Alex and Maggie were originally named Skip and Penny, which Castle had changed because it was too cartoony. Alex was later named after writer Jonathan R. Betuel’s son and his brother Lewis was named after Castle’s son. Castle also later reveals that producer Gary Adelson’s wife (who has a small part as the first Ryan Alex sees at Starfighter Command) is named Maggie, which is likely where Catherine Mary Stewart’s character got her name.
  • Only fifteen minutes into the film, and Castle is still bemoaning his attempts to do something different than Spielberg and Lucas: “You basically back into George Lucas and Steven Spielberg at every corner… You see all those moments come up and you realize, boy, George really knew what he was doing.” For the modern Star Wars haters, please note this commentary was recorded before Episode Ihit theaters.
  • Castle calls the casting of Robert Preston (in his final film role) as Centauri, “one of the greatest castings of the 80s.” He later refers to him as “The Music Man in space” and “the archetypal flim-flam man.” Castle notes that he always considered this story to be like a classic musical without music, which is part of the reason he chose someone so theatrical to play Centauri.
  • A great amount of discussion comes from Centauri’s Star Car, which Cobb designed both as a practical and a visual effect. They built the physical one over a VW engine, covering it with sheet metal. This resulted in a car that didn’t move very fast and sounded terrible. Most of the Star Car driving shots were undercranked with additional space-age sound effects. The digital care was built from the same plans.
  • Cobb chimes in quite a bit during the effects-heavy scenes, particularly the Star Car’s first trip through space to Rylos. He points out that the only film before this that used so much computer-generated imagery was Tron, but he also says with quite a bit of pride that this film was the first movie to use motion blurring when the Star Car makes its descent to Rylos, offering an added level of realism to the effects.
  • The first Rylan that Alex meets is Maggie Adelson, the wife of the film’s producer.
  • When Castle asks where Cobb got the idea to make the Rylans bald with white hair, he suggests it might be because they’re meant to be wise. However, Cobb (as he does with much of the more creative designs in the film) doesn’t have a great answer. Cobb says he designed their look to be more light and heroic, and vaguely cat-like with more hair on the sides of their heads. In the end, Cobb simply says, “We were stuck with it.”
  • The side-story with the Beta unit that took Alex’s place back home was beefed up after test audience responded positively to the humor elements. This led to several key scenes, including Beta taking off his head to fix his ear and the disastrous make-out moment at Silver Lake.
  • The translator that is place on Alex’s collar (on a shirt that he incidentally changes half-way through the film and continues to understand alien languages) is one of several moments during the commentary that Castle and Cobb sheepishly admit to a level of cheesiness or mistakes. “I think we would call it cheesy, now, in the 90s,” Castle says. Later, during the Star Car’s return to Rylos, Cobb points out a shot where you can see the extended set reflected in the windshield. Castle also points out the goofy wig worn by Lance Guest during a reshoot of that scene after Guest had already cut his hair.
  • The character of Grigg, played by Dan O’Herlihy (who plays the corrupt OCP Chairman in Robocop), was based on what Cobb calls “a bundle of fringe lizard characteristics.” The prosthetics that O’Herlihy had to wear were severely limiting, and he had to exaggerate his facial movements to achieve any sort of emotion through them. This gives Grigg a restrained nature, but he’s one of the more expressive characters in the film, in my opinion.
  • The Last Starfighter contains several not-so-subtle allusions to The Wizard of Oz. Castle points out Maggie’s braids and checkered blue shirt back home as well as the floating head of Xur in Starfighter Command. Aren’t you glad they didn’t include a cute dog in this one?
  • When the Rylan spy is tortured and killed, Castle points out, “It hurts when you see someone’s brains fry.” Cobb adds that there was more to this scene, which included the entire head melting away. This was not added to the final cut of the film because of how gruesome it was. At the time of this release, the PG-13 rating hadn’t been developed, so too much graphic violence could trigger an R rating.
  • The largest physical set in this film was Starfighter Command. The largest computer generated set was the seemingly endless Frontier in space.
  • While Cobb was somewhat wishy-washy on what inspired the look of the Rylans, he specifically says the Ko-Dan race was meant to look Satanic. He added horns on their heads, horns on their chins, red skin and even a monocle on Lord Kril. The Ko-Dan crew members were literally “enslaved in the circuits” of the mothership.
  • When the Ko-Dan mothership fires meteors through the hole they ripped open in the Frontier, Cobb points out the silliness of not using actual weapons. “I suppose this was so they could have plausible deniability,” he says, pointing out that they could have just as easily targeted Starfighter Command with lasers, metal projectiles or other ordinance.
  • During the wide shots of Starfighter Command and when Alex’s Gunstar hide in an asteroid, Cobb expresses his frustration with the look of the landscapes. He describes the final look as “melted ice cream,” which did not render well. The technology was there to develop more photorealistic landscapes, but the production could not afford the time it took to render them.
  • In case you know absolutely nothing about special effects, Nick Castle goes into a detailed explanation of how split-screen works at approximately the 47:30 mark. This is half-way through the film, and the commentary starts to really wind down now. Castle starts to show fatigue by narrating what’s happening on screen and explaining the motivation behind the characters. Cobb is a little more animated by this time because we have entered the effects-heavy portion of the film.
  • The Last Starfighter had a very brief 40-day shooting schedule considering it was a science fiction summer release. This included all the time for green screen work in both the Gunstar and the Star Car.
  • In another mea culpa moment, both Castle and Cobb point out that the helmets to the Starfighter uniforms don’t actually close and latch, so they’re not air-tight. They both admit that while they look cool, this is a serious design flaw for space travel.
  • The spaceship used by the second Zando-Zan assassin beast was one of Cobb’s rejected designs from Ridley Scott’s Alien. It was rejected at the concept stage, so it was never built until he used it on The Last Starfighter.
  • After Alex and Grigg defeat the Ko-Dan Armada, the plan was to have a huge celebration by the Star League. (Which would have been another glaring flashback to the original Star Wars, if you ask me.) There wasn’t enough money in the budget to do this, so Castle chose to do a large matte painting featuring a composite of the Gunstar and then cut to studio shots of the characters.
  • When Alex returns home to the Starlight Starbright trailer park, Castle compares this to a child coming home from college, including introducing his family and friends to a foreign buddy (in this case, Grigg) he befriended at school. “This whole section is so corny, but fun. Introducing your alien friend to your folks,” Castle says.
  • As the film rolls into the credits, there’s an explosion of history and discussion about the concept of the movie itself. Both Castle and Cobb point out that this was a giant gamble to do so much in the computer, working on the assumption that they could achieve it. This is what led Castle to hire Cobb, whom he knew through John Carpenter. Cobb had worked on both Dark Star with Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon as well as Alien with O’Bannon. Castle jokes that it could have been “Gumby in Outer Space” if the rendered images didn’t look any better than the intermediate placeholders. “It’s an interesting thing to go into a movie with half the movie as a question mark,” Castle says.

Best in Commentary

  • “He’s looking at the cartoons, obviously.” –Nick Castle commenting on Alex’s brother Lewis ogling at his Playboy magazines.
  • “The Rylan vocabulary is gibberish.” –Nick Castle admitting there was no real language developed for the Rylans, which was different from the Star Wars and Star Trek universes which develop full languages like Huttese and Klingon.
  • “This is where my wife dies.” –Nick Castle on his wife, who plays a Rylan technician at Starfighter Command.

Final Thoughts

The commentary track to The Last Starfighter definitely has its moments. In particular, it’s most entertaining when Castle and Cobb look back with fifteen years more technology behind them and realize how silly some of the elements of the film are. However, these are endearing because (as Castle points out multiple times) it was part of the film’s charm. Things lose steam at about the half-way point, showing how hard it can be to talk over an entire movie and be insightful. If you do want to give it a listen, I’d suggest clocking out around the 50-minute mark and then jump back in for the ending credits.

Still, this was one of my favorite films to watch as a kid, so knowing all the beats to it makes it possible to still enjoy the film while Castle and Cobb chat throughout. Though I do warn you that the comic relief moments with the Beta unit don’t hold up so well after more than 25 years, and they certainly don’t hold up with the commentary playing over them. (Here’s where you can picture me with my head on the table and shaking it back and forth.) There’s no real surprises to be found, but it offers a keen insight into how even higher profile movies were made in 1984.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives


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