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 Halloween. 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.
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.
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.
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: The Year We Make Contact, a 1984 sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey. Digital Productions also create 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. Gary Demos had himself 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 Whitney, Jr. 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. Their weapons of choice 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 wireframe models.
While every piece of outer space hardware in The Last Starfighter 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. With its soft padded benches surrounding the core of the computer, 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 the Starfighter production. In all, the CGI effects work comes with a price tag for the production in excess of $2 million.
As for the overall 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).