Any boy who grew up in the 1970s or 80s understands the impact that Star Wars had on our generation and the way we lived. For us, the school playground at recess and the backyards & basements of our homes were not merely steel structures, expanses of grass and cement or cozy rooms, but were in fact the corridors of the Death Star, the forest of Endor in the summer and the icy sprawl of Hoth in winter. That fictional universe somehow meshed with ours and we played and lived in it as if it were as real as the gravel beneath our size-5 shoes. It seemed to call us to a sense of adventure beyond our reality, but we reached out for anyway and pulled it close.
So it was, in the context of this frame of mind for me as a 9-year-old boy in 1984 that another little story captured my imagination as well. This one was different, in that it didn't take place exclusively in a galaxy far, far away, but brought that other galaxy and our own planet, the Heavens and the Earth as it were, together. By telling the tale of a boy who lives in a trailer park on Earth and is carried off to outer space and back again, it also showed how these two worlds depended on each other, and brought the adventure home. It suggested the reality of that other world was not as far away as it seemed. That story was told in The Last Starfighter, which I first saw in a tiny theater with my dad in Traverse City, Michigan, one hot summer day in 1984 with a bag of Twizzlers in my hand. It blew me away, and 30 years later, it's still one of those films that found its way into my DNA and stayed there.
But why else did this film speak to me as a young boy, and why am I compelled to stay up late writing about it today? The computer-generated effects, though ground-breaking for their time, are dated compared to what we see these days. Like many films of the 80s, it's cheesy and campy, the villains are not particularly threatening and they have a few silly one-liners of dialogue like "What do we do?" "We die." And of course there's Grig's ridiculous wheezy laugh. Many critics have written it off as another Star Wars rip-off, and this may be true, but as Gene Siskel admitted while agreeing with this sentiment, "it's the best one." And he's right.
The Last Starfighter may be a familiar tale, but the way that tale is told was surprisingly original for its time and it's still original today. It has great characters, thrilling visuals, one of the most inspiring musical scores ever, and overall it matters because it's just great fun (and because Death Blossom). My feelings about it for the past 30 years are summed up by the figure of Alex's little brother Louis, as he steps up to the Starfighter video game bathed in an ethereal white light, looks up, watches the Gunstar ascend into the heavens, the music swells, and he shouts in delight.