1985's 'The Last Starfighter' is the epitome of a "cable cult classic." By that, I mean the kind of film that has magically transformed into a beloved classic only by virtue of the fact that it has been played so many damn times over the years on HBO that anyone alive during the '80s knows every single line of dialogue by default. That doesn't save 'The Last Starfighter' from being a bunch of gooey, mawkish, derivative claptrap, but still it's so drenched in nostalgia it's almost impossible to hate.
The story: millions of light-years away, a great frontier was constructed in the universe to protect the Star League of Planets from its enemy, the evil KO-DAN. But now a defector has been given the key to the frontier to the KO-DAN, and Starfighters from throughout the galaxy are needed to defend the peace. One recruiter, the alien scalawag Centauri (Robert Preston), visits Earth to fill his quota of recruits and finds Alex (Lance Guest), an 18-year-old Earthling with an extraordinary talent for video game wizardry. Alex is quickly propelled into the regions of outer space to join aliens from other planets in fighting a war to save the universe.
Coming a bit late in the post-'Star Wars' wave of sci-fi-lite, feel-good family flicks, 'The Last Starfighter' is admittedly pretty bad. Its quaint, Norman Rockwell-esque drama plays like a lame Saturday morning segment of "Great Space Coaster." Alex lives in one of those Disney-fied surburbias that only exists in '80s flicks, yet it's all oddly perfunctory instead of heartwarming. Not faring much better are the movie's cheesily-conceived and executed E-ticket videogame battle sequences, which seem like pre-visualizations even the producers of 'Tron' would’ve tossed aside (even though 'Starfighter' was actually released three years later). This is the kind of well-meaning but predictable pap that critics accused Spielberg of pandering in the '80s -- minus the magic, craft, and artful special effects.
Having said all that, 'The Last Starfighter' is charmingly inoffensive in its ineptness, and there is an undeniable passion in the filmmaking. As directed by Nick Castle (still perhaps best known as "the guy who played Michael Myers" in the original 'Halloween'), it’s clear that he genuinely cares about all this silliness despite his flat-as-a-TV-movie style. Sure, Castle never whisks his camera around with a tenth of the energy of a Spielberg or a Zemeckis, and one wishes for some directorial chutzpah to enliven such threadbare material. But the B-list cast is certainly more than eager to help their director. In particular, Preston and Guest have a nice chemistry, and their scenes together are the brightest in the movie (even if the movie is obviously trying to ape the Michael J. Fox-Christopher Lloyd dynamic from the 'Back to the Future' flicks). I also liked the criminally underused Catherine Mary-Stewart as Alex's girlfriend, even if she is stuck in one of those "chick who makes goo-goo eyes at the hero" thankless roles.
Sarcasm aside, I'd be lying if I said I don't feel a huge pang of sentiment every time I watch 'The Last Starfighter.' The movie's quaint charms will undoubtedly be lost on anyone born after, say, 1992, but for me, there’s a timeless, endearing quality to Atari-level CGI effects, monsters with giant latex heads, and overly-enthusiastic teen actors shouting lines in front of a blue screen. With the film finally retired from HBO's lineup, it’s possible that the film’s last video hurrah may well be this HD DVD, which will undoubtedly sell about twelve copies. Yet, whenever I want to remember that magical time when videogames still only cost a quarter and Lance Guest could actually topline a movie, I'll pop in 'The Last Starfighter,' recite every single line by heart, and just smile.
Okay, so 'The Last Starfighter' is not 'Citizen Kane.' Still, I’m disappointed with the film's HD DVD debut, as this 1080p/VC-1 encode looks little better than a standard-def DVD. To be fair, 'Starfighter' didn't have a huge budget for a studio flick and was apparently shot with an early-'80s gauze process that makes everything look like a soft-focus porno. Add to that the archaic blue screen and matte effects, and the movie is hardly a recipe for high-def nirvana.
That said, it appears very little real effort (if any) went into remastering the flick for high-def. The print is pretty clean with only very slight blemishes and dirt noticeable, but that's about it for the positives the positives. Blacks are weak, with all the non-space scenes noticeably washed out. Colors are also really poor, with most hues looking drained and fleshtones very pale. There are bursts of vividness here or there -- such as the arrival of the Robert Preston character amid a haze of red smoke and, of course, the space battle scenes. On the whole, though, 'Starfighter' looks anemic.
Detail and depth are also wanting. The film never looks three-dimensional, and contrast has no pop. Sharpness is also poor, exacerbated by the soft-focus look of the everyday scenes. The primitive CGI is somewhat better, but with the limitations of the compositing processes of the time, shadow delineation suffers. A mix of problematic source material and seemingly little effort put into remastering, I’m sorry to say that this is one of the worst HD DVD transfers I've reviewed from Universal.
I'll always give credit to a studio for supporting high-resolution audio on a high-def title, but even a surprise Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround mix (48kHz/16-bit) can't do much with limited material like this. The audio on 'The Last Starfighter' is fairly active for an '80s flick, but alas, that's not saying much.
Much of the film is simply stereo. All of the everyday scenes feature next to nil surround presence. The battle scenes are improved, though the discrete effects are clearly processed and limited in fidelity. Transparency is anything but, and sounds are easily localized. Dynamics are fairly good for a movie from 1985, though don't expect 'The Last Starfighter' to compare to 'Transformers.' Low bass sounds like an Atari game (bright, but flat). Dialogue can be reedy and thin, if decently balanced in the mix. All in all, 'The Last Starfighter' is certainly an easy listen, but for me, even in TrueHD, it can't overcome its dated origins.
When 'The Last Starfighter' hit standard-def DVD a few years back, it was a pretty impressive special edition, but compared to today’s more feature-packed releases, this one now feel like a slim package. However, this is case of quality over quantity, and there is a nice sense of reverence and respect to these supplements that shines through. As a long-time fan of ‘The Last Starfighter,’ the extras were definitely the highlight of this HD DVD.
First up is a screen-specific audio commentary with director Nick Castle and production designer Ron Cobb, which is a warm, nostalgic look at the past. Castle provides good detail on the story, characters, casting, and his general approach to the movie, while Cobb brings the technical minutiae, from inspirations for the set design to the integration of the post-production effects. This is a well-balanced commentary that covers all the bases -- a must-listen for fans.
The other major extra is the half-hour "Crossing the Frontier: The Making of 'The Last Starfighter.'" Unusual even for DVD docs these days, the film’s star Lance Guest hosts, giving this a more classy, reverential feel and also keeping the narrative structure clear and linear. Castle and Cobb appear for interviews, but overall this is more effects-focused than the commentary. Though 'The Last Starfighter' is not considered a pioneer on the level of a 'Star Wars' or even a 'Tron,' it does deserve credit for helping to blaze the trail for modern CGI. The sheer amount of manual labor and complexity in these seemingly simple effects is impressive, and "Crossing the Frontier" is a fitting tribute.
The film's Theatrical Teaser and Trailer round out the extras. Like the documentary, the material is presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only. (On the bright side, seeing as the doc was originally produced for laserdisc in 4:3 full screen, the lack of HD video is somewhat more acceptable.)
'The Last Starfighter' still has a lot of nostalgic charm for viewers like me, but I’m willing to admit that it's pretty bad in hindsight. Unfortunately, I found this HD DVD to be a disappointment. I didn't like the transfer at all, and even though there is a Dolby TrueHD track, the source material is just too limited to see much improvement. We do get a couple of nice extras, but they’re nothing you can’t already get on the standard DVD. Die-hard fans will probably want to buy this to complete their collections of 'Last Starfighter' memorabilia, but it's hard not to feel underwhelmed.