A still from The Last Starfighter

A crowd gathers behind Alex

Games on Film II: The Last Starfighter - Video Game Warrior

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Universal Pictures 1984

Greetings, Starfighter

Poster for The Last Starfighter, a video game themed movie by Universal 1984

Poster for The Last Starfighter

While The Last Starfighter could be argued to be a fairly slight film, at least in terms of pop-culture contributions, it is still a fun movie that holds historical sway as having the most CGI effects of any film up to that time. Released in 1984, It contains 27 minutes of computer effects out of a 101 minute total running time. What’s more, the first photo-realistic CGI is presented here, rendering it nearly indistinguishable from actual real-life props. It is also a guilty pleasure, with a goofy plot that exudes so much exuberance and fun as it unspools that you can’t help but enjoy yourself in the process.

With its fatherless young man who longs to leave his trailer park home and move on to something bigger, it does feel a bit like a low-rent Steven Spielberg project. The film is directed by Nick Castle, having just come off helming the little-seen movie TAG: The Assassination Game. Castle is the son of Nick Castle, Sr, a famous choreographer through the golden age of the movie musical.  The younger Castle started out in Hollywood as a writer, co-writing the Kurt Russell classic Escape from New York with his friend, director John Carpenter, and had worked on Carpenter’s first feature film, the 1974 SF comedy Dark Star. He was also the first person to portray relentless homicidal maniac Micheal Myers in Carpenter’s 1978 smash hit horror film Haloween. The screenwriter for Starfighter is Jonathan Betuel, who writes it as a spec script while a junior copywriter at an ad agency in NYC. After selling the script to Universal, he spends six months collaborating in story sessions with Castle, hammering out 14 drafts.

This man turns out to be a huckster from outer space named Centauri, and he whisks Alex away in his flying Starcar to be conscripted to defend the universe against encroaching tyrants.

 

Lance Guest appears in his first starring role, playing Alex Rogan. Rogan is seemingly doomed to toil out his days as a handyman in his trailer park prison, robbed of his dreams to go off to college and leave the double-wides behind forever. His only escape from his plight is obsessively playing an arcade game located in the park, Starfighter. After beating the high score one night in a playing frenzy, with the inhabitants of the park gathered behind him cheering, Alex is later approached by the inventor of the game, played by Robert Preston. This man turns out to be a huckster from outer space named Centauri, and he whisks Alex away in his flying Starcar to be conscripted to defend the universe against encroaching tyrants. Initially refusing the invitation, a sneak attack on the Starfighter facility convinces Alex that no one in the universe, including his family and friends and all of Earth, will be safe unless he steps up and helps defeat the menace.

Video Game Warriors

Guest is certainly not the world’s greatest actor, but here the material serves him well; first asking him to portray a disaffected, slightly sullen youth, and later to gawp at the technical marvels around him. Funnily enough, where Guest shines the most are the comical segments where he plays a robot, a “beta” unit that looks exactly like Rogan and has taken his place back on Earth, in order to lure out alien bounty hunters out to eliminate the last Starfighter. These segments so enamour test audiences that additional scenes with the beta unit are shot after principal photography has wrapped.

Still of Dan O'Herlihy as Grig from The Last Starfighter, a video game themed film by Universal 1984

Dan O’Herlihy as Grig

 

The two best performances definitely come from Preston, as well as Dan O’Herlihy as the lizardly navigator Grig.  Completely unrecognizable under heavy makeup, O’Herlihy lends a dignified, yet slightly zany air to the scaly-skinned spaceship pilot. A character actor with a long resume, he somehow manages to deliver a complete performance with his face fully obscured except for his eyes. Preston is wonderfully charming as the roguish Centauri, and later Preston would confirm that he based the character on “Professor” Harold Hill, the role he famously played in The Music Man, first in the smash Broadway play in 1957, and then reprising the role in the 1962 movie version. The role is so iconic, and Preston hewing so close to it here, that you almost expect him to break out in song any minute: “You got trouble right here in Trailer City/ With a capital T/ And that rhymes with P/ And that stands for PONG!”. Matthew Broderick, a name we shall see again soon, takes on the Harold Hill role in a Disney TV-movie version in 2003, produced as a 3-hour episode of The Wonderful World of Disney. Along to provide some eye-candy is perennial 80′s sweetheart Catherine Mary Stewart, who plays her part as Alex’s girlfriend Maggie with typical big-haired aplomb. Stewart has another potential SF cult film out this year with Night of the Comet. The weakest link in the film, that perhaps fatally undermines the entire endeavor, is bad guy Xur, leading the Ko-Dan Armada against the Star League. Actor Norman Snow makes a go of it but comes off more like a petulant child than a dangerous threat to the entire universe. It kind of cuts the legs out from your attempts to personify evil, when your second in command rolls its eyes every time you enter the scene.

 

Still featuring the Gunstar from The Last Starfighter, a video game themed movie by Universal 1984

The Gunstar

Serious Ordinance

Production of the film begins in 1982. The photo-real CGI in the film is produced by Digital Productions, founded by John Whitney, Jr. and Gary Demos, after departing from effects house Triple-I soon before production starts on Tron. Their CGI work can also be seen creating the turbulent atmosphere of Jupiter in Peter Hyams’ 2010, a 1984 sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey. Digital Productions also created the multiplying monoliths that eventually devour Jupiter in 2010.

The junior Whitney has a solid pedigree for computer graphics work; his father John Whitney formed a company in 1960 called Motion Graphics Incorporated, producing animations using an analog computer of his own design, built out of a converted WWII M-5 anti-aircraft gun sight. Demos himself had been fascinated by the work of the elder Whitney, who taught classes at CalTech while Demos was attending school there in 1970. He met the junior Whitney while working at Evans & Sutherland. Together they helped pioneer computer effects in short sequences in films such as Westworld (1973). They continue their exploration of melding computer effects and film by helping form the entertainment division of Triple-I. The weapons they use to produce the computer effects for The Last Starfighter are a VAX 11/782 mainframe computer designed by Digital Equipment Corporation, on which a first rough wire-frame render is produced. A Cray X-MP supercomputer is used to produce the final render, coloring and shading the surface of the CGI.

While every piece of outer space hardware in the movie is CGI, the most important piece of ordinance is the Gunstar, the ship that Alex and Grig use to take on the Armada. The Gunstar is comprised of 750,000 polygons and takes a 30 member team almost three months to encode into the computer. The X-MP is, at the time, the world’s fastest computer, with two paralleled central processing units running at 105 MHz. It also supports 16 MB of main memory. It also certainly looks like one of the most comfortable computers ever made. A top of the line X-MP runs around 15 million dollars and comes with its own team of “cray-ons”, an on-site maintenance crew from Cray that keeps the beast running and costs $25,000 a month in maintenance fees. Crays are known for their dramatic, futuristic appearance, and an X-MP can actually be briefly seen in Tron, zipping by in the foreground in the scene where Flynn and Lori are sneaking their way to her workstation after breaking into the Encom labs. In order to produce the highest resolution images possible, the CGI surfaces are limited to phong shading only, without texture mapping. Named after developer Bui Tuong Phong, this shading technique allows shiny reflective surfaces that are limited to being smooth and without texture. The computer-generated graphics are then recorded onto film by digital film printers, developed by Demos while at Triple-I and leased by Digital Productions for Starfighter. In all, the CGI effects work comes with a price tag for the production in excess of $2 million.

As for the look of the film’s otherworldly qualities, that is left to the auspices of designer Ron Cobb, who got his start doing the shoestring effects for John Carpenter’s debut feature Dark Star and subsequently designed the SFX concepts for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Alien, Star Wars and more.

When The Last Starfighter is released on July 13, 1984, it is a modest success, ultimately raking in $28,733,290 against its $15 million budget. That places it 31st in money earners for 1984, sandwiched between Starman and Cannonball Run II. Of course, it IS going up against such summer movie blockbusters as Ghostbusters, Gremlins, and The Karate Kid. Nick Castle goes on to direct such films as The Boy Who Could Fly, Dennis the Menace, and Major Payne, as well as contribute to the screenplay for Spielberg’s retelling of the Peter Pan mythos called Hook (1991). Screenwriter Jonathan Betuel would write and direct a movie in a similar vein to Starfighter for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, titled My Science Project (1985).

Arcade Game MIA

The film teases its video game playing audience with an ad for a real The Last Starfighter arcade game by Atari, Inc., both in the end credits and in posters. This game, however, never materializes. At the time of the movie’s development, Ted Michon is consulting for Atari through the company Technical Magic and has developed a bitmap graphics system with a polygon fill engine, and it is this system that Atari enlists to create the Starfighter game it has license from Universal. It also is an early adopter of the vaunted 68000 CPU from Motorola, also found in many advanced computers of the era, such as the Apple Macintosh and Commodore Amiga. The gameplay closely follows the movie’s plot and CGI sequences. Players would follow the same progression as Alex Rogan, where they would start off shooting target buoys, and scale up to taking on the enemy armada single-handedly. It would also feature a Death-Blossom mode, a nod to the film Gunstar’s ability to eliminate all of the enemies on the screen at once in an intense spinning burst of laser fire. Control of the Gunstar would be facilitated by the same flight-yoke joystick used in the Star Wars vector arcade game by Atari, itself appropriated from the military Battlezone project developed for the U.S. Army by the company. Built as a prototype arcade game system, it ran complete, although slow and buggy, on the bench. No cabinet was designed, and Atari brass eventually scrubs the game with the game about 75% complete. The failure of the movie to catch on with the public, as well as spiraling development costs that would have pegged the price tag to sell the game at $10,000 dollars a unit, spooked Atari management, along with the collapse of the home video game market. As well, Atari was leery of spending big license fees on yet another movie adaptation. The closest that the public gets to playing The Last Starfighter for themselves are the arcade game graphics from the movie, based on initial designs of the Atari coin-op game.

JUMP: Video of gameplay from a home-brew version of the movie’s Starfighter game

 

On the Home Front

Home versions of games based on the movie seem a natural fit, and there are versions planned for the Atari 5200 Supersystem gaming console, as well as the Atari 800 home computer. None of these end up released as Starfighter games. The 5200/800 version is slightly retooled and released as Star Raiders II, a sequel to the euphonious Star Raiders game released for the Atari 8-bit computer series in 1979, and the 2600 in 1982. Tod Frye, infamously the programmer of the atrocious 2600 version of Pac-Man, begins work on an official The Last Starfighter game for the 2600, but is pulled away to other higher-profile projects. Another game under development, called Universe and programmed by Douglas Neubauer, who also did the original Atari 8-bit and 2600 versions of Star Raiders, is appropriated by Atari brass for the movie license. The game has little in common with the movie plot and ends up scrapped when the movie fails to perform as expected at the box office. When a newly formed Atari, Corp., under the auspices of Jack Tramiel, decide to resurrect old 2600 projects, the former Last Starfighter game sees light on the 2600 as Solaris, in 1986, long after the heyday of the console, as yet another entry in the Star Raiders cannon. In 1990, six years after the film has come and gone, Mindscape sees fit to release a game titled The Last Starfighter, for Nintendo’s then-ubiquitous NES console. While one might be left guessing exactly what Mindscape thinks they’re hitching their wagon to, the game is actually a rebranded version of side-scrolling shooter Uridium, originally released for the Commodore 64 and other computers of the era by Mindscape in 1986. While the actual gameplay and most of the graphics bear no relation at all to the movie, the intro screen, some sprites, and music are re-tooled to fit with the movie license.

 

Starfighter Faces the Music

Having come from musical stock, with his father a renowned Hollywood choreographer, Nick Castle mused in the pages of Starlog magazine that The Last Starfighter could very well have worked as a musical. This, in fact, does become the case when the movie is re-tooled as an Off-Broadway musical in 2004, presented at the Storm Theatre in NYC. The music and lyrics are by Skip Kennon aka Walter Edgar Kennon, who had previously tackled the musicalization of a favourite SF work with Jack Finney’s Time and Again. The Last Starfighter seems like a natural fit for a musical to Fred Landau, who writes a book around the premise. A “book” in theatre terms being the stage script. Like Castle, Landau sees musical elements within the film; a young man longing to head out on his own but trapped by his duties, a sudden chance for greatness offered by a stranger, and the young man forced to step up and discover the greatness in himself. That, and the presence of Robert Preston in full Music Man mode makes a musical seem like a no-brainer. In order to scale an effects-ridden SF film down to the Earthly confines of the Storm Theatre, the musical morphs the story into a re-enactment of the events that occurred by the denizens of the Starlight Starbright Trailer park, to a bunch of gawkers (the audience) who have come to see where the press is reporting that a UFO landed. A picnic table stands in as Centauri’s Starcar, as well as the Gunstar spaceship. The performance at the Storm is followed by a scaled-down reading of the material at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2006, and another full production the next year at the same festival.

Rumours of a movie sequel, simply titled Starfighter, crop up in 2008, indicating that a sort of “son of Starfighter” plot is being developed by production house George Paige and Associates. This project is no longer with that company. It also does not appear on the roster of Universal, or the independent production house Relativity Media, which had been attached to the film under George Paige’s company. The original still lives on, however, with DVD and Blu-Ray 25th-anniversary editions released in 2009. The Last Starfighter might not have burned up the box office, but did help show the way for more extensive and higher detailed CGI work in movie-making. The other dazzling aspect of the film is Robert Preston, and it serves as a fitting bookend to his career, with him channeling the Harold Hill role that put him over the top so many years ago. It would be Preston’s last role on film, as he succumbs to lung cancer in 1987, at the age of 68. The Last Starfighter remains as a charming ride through the stars with Alex, Centauri, and Grig.  logo_stop

 


Sources (inert links are kept for historical purposes)



Kilday, Gregg. “The Last Starfighter: A Supercomputer Creation.” Enter, 1994, pp. 22–25. Alex’s adventures are accompanied by approximately 25 minutes of computer animation. Produced by Digital at a cost of more than $2 million, these 25 minutes mark a major advance in computer graphics in movies.
Deanna Newcombi. Dan O’Herlihy as The Old Man, Robocop. N.d. Starlog. 131st ed. Vol. 11. New York: O’Quinn Studios, 1987. 59. Print. Image of Dan O’Herlihy as The Old Man in Robocop
AMC filmsite – Visual and Special Effects Film Milestones – www.filmsite.org/visualeffects11.html
Image of Nick Castle, and other information from Starlog, “Nick Castle”, by Brian Lowry, pgs. 62-63, 65 Oct 1984
atariprotos.com – Solaris – www.atariprotos.com/2600/software/solaris/solaris.htm
The Last Starfighter FAQ – everything2.com/title/The+Last+Starfighter
The Last Starfighter Entry on KLOV – www.arcade-museum.com/game_detail.php?game_id=8394
The Last Starfighter Movie and Video Game FAQ V2.6 – www.rookscastle.com/videos/laststar.html
Side-By-Side Comparison: Star Raiders II Vs. The Last Starfighter, by Pierre-Andre
Rogue Synapse – The Last Starfighter Resources Page – www.roguesynapse.com/games/last_starfighter.php
MovieWallpaper.net – bit.ly/hvHBJk
Universal City Studios. Dan O’Herlihy In Costume. N.d. Starlog. 131st ed. Vol. 11. New York: O’Quinn Studios, 1988. 60. Print. Image of Dan O’Herlihy in TLS costume, no makeup
KLOV – The Last Starfighter – www.arcade-museum.com/game_detail.php?game_id=8394
Image of Jonathan Betuel, and other information from Starlog, “Jonathan Betuel, SF Fan, SF Filmaker”, by Brian Lowry, pgs. 16-18, Jun 1985
AGH – Side-By-Side Compariosn: Star Raiders II Vs. The Last Starfighter, by Pierre-Andre – bit.ly/e4cLVF
Wikipedia – The Last Starfighter (musical) – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Starfighter_(musical)
The Last Starfighter: A New Musical on Myspace Music – mysp.ac/fxZmxi
Musicalteca: RECORDING: THE MUSIC MAN (2003 Soundtrack Tv Cast) – bit.ly/eUTN23
Web Mythology: VAX History – www.webmythology.com/VAXhistory.asp
Star Robert Preston (C) and cast members in “The Music Man”, by Eliot Elisofon, LIFE magazine 1958 – bit.ly/gBEp5l
Az utolsó csillagharcos (The Last Starfighter) – bit.ly/gAFNEU
Wikipedia – Star Raiders 2 – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Raiders_2
A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation, Section 6 – design.osu.edu/carlson/history/lesson6.html
Amoeblog – Films and Video Games – bit.ly/cDmXNe
Cinema Blend – Son Of The Last Starfighter!, by Josh Tyler Feb. 27, 2008 – bit.ly/2MO0gl
Thanks to Skip Kennon for permission to include “Out Of This World” in this article.
Thanks to Fred Landau for additional images and information.

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Comments >>

  1. avatarFred Landau

    Thanks so much for the mention of the musical. We were so happy that Jonathan Betuel trusted us with musicalizing his material.

    One of the happy experiences was doing a festival in the Seattle area (Issaquah’s Village Theatre). Totally by coincidence, Lance Guest was starring in one of the other shows in the same festival. It was always promoted that Jon Betuel would join us onstage for the audience talkback, but Lance Guest joined us onstage, too, even though he had to rest up for his show and was still in the middle of rehearsing.

    Reply

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