RE:View – The Last Starfighter (Part I)The Dark Herald
Take Note: and take heart, Lady Hawke will be my next RE:View.
No generation ever had bigger promises made to it than Gen-X.
The world we were supposed to inherit would be beyond imagining. America would be even greater and more powerful than it had ever been. The average life expectancy would be 180 years old. We would definitely be getting farther ahead than our parents had gotten in life. Our first cars would be able to fly. And a lot of us were expected to be living and working on the moon.
No member of Generation-X has ever set foot on the moon.
That things were going to be amazing for us in a way that had never happened before was a refrain we were being fed constantly through grade school. We were hearing it a lot less in junior high. And those promises had ended completely long before we hit our senior year.
The Challenger’s explosion was the end of those dreams.
Still, we found others. And they were unique to my generation.
After two lousy decades helmed by the Boomers, we took the reins in the Eighties and made it the best decade since Elvis was thin. The music stopped sucking, we made comic books grow up, we forced the repeal of the 55 MPH speed limit, what we couldn’t do with spaceships we did with computers and we became the first video game generation.
There is no getting past it. Arcade culture was pretty much our defining trait. When those life devouring machines first showed up, we created a national shortage of quarters, feeding our addiction. We made our offerings to the god Atari at oddly shaped alters and literally started changing how our brains were developing because our eye-hand coordination was constantly being taken to its absolute limit. We would gather around a highly skilled stranger, talk about his tactics with each other, and form friendships that wouldn’t have happened without those machines. Arcades were very social that modern gaming just can’t be.
The Last Starfighter had an absolutely brilliant marketing campaign. It spoke to Generation-X. “Alex Rogan didn’t go looking for his dreams. His dreams came looking for him.” We were at the point where we had given up on those big dreams. Having them come roaring back to life and snatching us up and away from our lives was a pitch-perfect sell to us.
The film credits started with full-frame shot off an alien planet, while the film’s soundtrack does an opening fanfare. The view then it pulls back as the opening credits roll as the triumphant march of the Last Starfighter suite begins to play in earnest.
A roil of stars with the light diffused into the red as you travel backward from the start point faster than light speeds. The speed slows down as the familiar Saturn and the earth’s moon move past your field of vision. You have arrived at Earth and the camera shot swoops down to the planet’s surface and arrives at the rather disappointing destination of the Starlite Starbrite Trailer Court.
I can’t praise the music score enough. Craig Safan absolutely crushed it. Most of his work was in television and you’re probably familiar with some of it, he did the theme for Cheers for example. But this was Safan’s one chance run with the brakes off. And he did his level best to produce something as close as he could get to John Williams’ Star Wars opening (with the budget he had). And he came pretty close, it’s instantly recognizable. If you are in the kitchen and you hear that music start-up in the TV room you know The Last Starfighter just came on.
The soundtrack makes up for the film’s most glaring weakness, it’s absolutely primitive CGI effects.
I need to give a little cultural background at this point to my younger readers. A trailer court wasn’t quite the same thing as a trailer park. There was no such thing as a trailer-camper before the 1930s. Cars just didn’t have the towing capacity. They did in the 30s and there was quite the craze for it at the time. That mania was brought to a shuddering halt by World War Two. But it did make a fast comeback during the 1950s. Part of the reason that it was so popular was that tourist hotels were a very hit or miss proposition before Holiday Inn came along. It was actually smarter to bring your own hotel room with you. However, you absolutely could not, not, NOT leave a camper in a 1950s driveway. You had to rent a space at a trailer park. They immediately started getting a bad reputation because if you and your neighbor’s wife wanted to bang, your best hope of doing that discreetly was at the trailer park.
The trailer court was the campground you hauled your trailer to when on vacation.
In 1984 trailer parks were starting to look like what they are today, but they weren’t there yet.
Starlite Starbrite Trailer Court had a sign from the 1950s that indicated it had been a trailer campground back then. But now the campers were housing people with broken-down lives and broken-down dreams. The campers weren’t ever going to move again and neither were the people inside them. One of the first people you see is an old lady shouting that the electric was out again and she was going to miss her Soaps. She needed Alex to come to fix it.
There is a nice long shot that follows Maggie the Love Interest as she banters with the park’s residents. It’s actually not that bad of a place. Things are clean and people are polite to each other. Folks are poor at the Starlite Starbrite but “nobody is so poor that they can’t afford to pick up their own yard.” Maggie is wearing shorts and a sweatshirt with a towel over one shoulder, indicating she is going to the lake. Her other shoulder is naked in Flash Dance fashion and is forcibly reminding me why I loved girls from the 1980s so much. (*The Dark Herald sighs wistfully*)
She was played by perirenal 1980s movie-girlfriend, Catherine Mary Stewart. She had the Mary-Anne quality. She came across as the pretty girl who was average-slob-approachable. You felt like you didn’t have to be the best-looking Chad in the world to have a chance with her. That’s a good trick for an actress. She was in a few Eighties science fiction films after Starfighter and had something of a nerd following for a while. Her biggest hit was Weekend at Bernie’s.
Maggie says, “hi” to a woman in a dinner waitresses dress, who is standing by the door of a house with a manager sign on it. Maggie wants to know where Alex is. The woman who is apparently his mother says, “where do you think?”
That was a great little scene with a ton of showing and not telling. In a few seconds, you knew almost everything about this woman. She probably owned the trailer court, and it made such a small profit that she had to work as a waitress on the side. Her son is doing the handyman stuff, so her husband is not in the picture, she is more likely a widow than divorced. This was very skillful writing.
Alex as it turns out is playing an arcade game called Starfighter and it had graphics that left Atari’s in the dust. Honestly, there should have been a row of quarters that went across the top of the machine and wrapped around the snack shack it was outside of. Alex should have had a lot more competition for it.
His unusually high skill is remarked on by his little brother. Maggie and the rest of his friends are ready to go to the lake and are not being arrested by the cops for riding in the back of a pickup truck. (sigh)
Alex abandons his game and runs to check the mail before climbing aboard. His Alpha friend Blake belittles him for trying to get to college (and in consequence rise out Blake’s local hierarchy). It felt natural enough. Blake didn’t come across as the gamma version of an Alpha bully. It was just that Blake was never going to be more than the local redneck King, and he would hold in contempt those things that he could never attain.
Alex was clearly a Delta Male but an ambitious one. Before he can head off with his friends his mother catches up with him and tells him he needs to fix Elvira’s fuse box. His friends take off and he walks into a montage. You hear a bunch of voices asking him if he can help with this or that throughout the course of the day. At the end of the montage, he sits down at the day’s end. He’s clearly beat.
Then there is a fantastic little scene where he is sitting in his chair watching a mobile of planets blown into motion by a breeze. He looks up at them as they dance in their orbits, out of reach from where he is sitting. He is overhearing conversations of the old people in the park and he has heard them so many times he is mouthing the words along with them. Great stuff!
He bolts out the chair and goes to the Starfighter game. It’s the one place that he knows he is exceptional. It’s the one place where he matters. That night he breaks the world high score on it.
He is still bouncing up and down when he runs into his mother, who has a dour look on her face, and hands him “the envelope.” The one that contains the wreckage of dreams of getting out the Starlight Starbrite trailer court.
Consequently, it’s not that crazy when a 1950s conman pulls up beside him in a Space DeLorean and tells him to step inside, he’s got a proposition for the kid that broke the record on Starfighter. What did Alex have to lose? He was eighteen and his life was over.
Centauri was played by Robert Preston, who had been an in-demand actor for his turn on Music Man a few decades ago. He was playing that part again. The lovable rogue trickster with a heart of gold. He drives the Space DeLorean off a cliff and then flies it away into the starry infinite.
And I appear to be out of time.
This is now a two parter and we are at the end of part one.