The Last Starfighter
He’s got one extraordinary chance at the dream of a lifetime
Studio: Universal Release Date: 13th July 1984
Director: Nick Castle :::::::::: Starring: Lance Guest, Robert Preston
Budget: $15M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $34.5M
U.S Box Office: $28.7M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $66M
When trailer park resident Alex Rogan breaks the high score on a Starfighter arcade machine, he doesn't realise he has just proved his worthiness to be a real Starfighter pilot. Visited by the mysterious Centauri, Alex soon finds himself in the middle of an intergalactic war that'll require more than just his skills to win.
Like a number of 1980s movies The Last Starfighter is often forgotten, yet for those who saw it in cinemas, or more likely on video, it remains a much loved gem. Released in July 1984, it broke ground for its revolutionary use of computer graphics but actually owes its inspiration to one of the oldest of legends, that of the sword in the stone. With the popularity of the video arcade still on the rise, writer Jonathan Betuel sought to combine the classical adventure with a modern one, and thus The Last Starfighter was born.
Betuel was working at an ad agency in the very early 80s and during time between client meetings, found himself in an arcade watching a young kid playing a game. He pictured the game as a test, and the young Arthur being someone who achieved the highest score. From that vision, Betuel was able to craft a script in which the machine acted as a recruitment tool - when the high score was broken the machine would beam out a message to a distant civilisation, who would know this person was worthy of being a starfighter. He continued to work on the script and before long it gained the attention of Gary Adelson. The Last Starfighter would be the first movie Adelson would produce and he met with a number of directors before being bound over by the enthusiasm of one Nick Castle, a fledgling director looking for his next major feature.
Born the son of famed cinematographer, Nicholas Charles Castle, Nick got into acting as a young boy, appearing as an extra in a number of films on which his father worked. It was while studying film at the USC School of Cinematic Arts that he met and became friends with fellow student John Carpenter. The duo worked together on the award winning live action short, The Resurrection of Broncho Billy. With two credits already under his belt (Broncho Billy and the earlier short Captain Voyeur) Carpenter dropped out of USC to work on his first feature, Dark Star, a sci-fi black comedy he had co-written with another classmate, Dan O'Bannon (future writer of Alien). Nick ended up with an uncredited role in Dark Star, which became a cult success thanks to it playing at numerous film festivals throughout the mid-1970s.
A few years later, while looking for someone to play The Shape (AKA Michael Myers) in Halloween, Carpenter called up Nick, paying him $25 a day to portray the infamous killer. The duo would collaborate again, this time on paper, on the script for Kurt Russell classic, Escape from New York. When he met with Gary Adelson about The Last Starfighter, Castle knew he could bring it to the screen. At the time he was working on his directorial debut, action thriller Tag: The Assassination Game, which would star Robert Carradine and a young Linda Hamilton. Castle set to work with Jonathan Betuel to shape the script further, but they soon became painfully aware of the influence George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had had on cinema in recent times. In order to limit comparisons, Castle claimed that each time they found themselves veering into Lucas/Spielberg territory, he pushed the story in the opposite direction, but even then the influence could be felt.
In one example, the original script for The Last Starfighter had hero Alex Rogan living in a suburb, but this felt too much like where E.T or Poltergeist had been set. The location was changed to a trailer park to add to Rogan's feeling of isolation. This gave the writers a chance to concentrate on the fellow residents, some of whom became an extension of Alex's family. Betuel had a few actors in mind for some of the characters, and that too would influence the script. With Star Wars and its sequel being such big hits, science fiction was everywhere, and all the studios wanted their own vehicle. The Last Starfighter went a step further - not only did it have the science fiction angle covered, but videogames, which were becoming more popular by the minute, featured prominently. With a $21M budget attached courtesy of Lorimar Productions, Castle could begin pre-production and casting.
There were four central roles to cast in the picture, Alex Rogan and his girlfriend Maggie, along with Centauri, the game's inventor and Grig, a starfighter navigator. Once again, it would be John Carpenter's influence that would help cast at least two of those roles. Acting as producer on Halloween 2, Carpenter was in the editing suite when Castle dropped by and noticed a young Lance Guest on screen. Being impressed by what he saw, he made sure Guest tested for the role. The Halloween sequel was Guest's first major screen role, having made his acting debut earlier the same year with a bit part in Dallas. He followed this up with an after-school special (Please Don't Hit me, Mom) and a spot on TV show Lou Grant, a spin-off for a character who had appeared on the Mary Tyler Moore show. He went on to play the role of Jimmy in the Halloween sequel.
As for Maggie, that went to Catherine Mary Stewart a dancer turned actress who made her debut in sci-fi musical, The Apple, while studying in London. After returning to the United States, she won a recurring role on daytime soap, Days of Our Lives, a stint which would last two years. Screen-testing for the position of Maggie, she found herself paired with Lance Guest, with who all concerned felt she had a ready chemistry. That, combined with her girl next door qualities meant she won the role over other actresses, which included Ally Sheedy and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Guest was said to have beaten Eric Stoltz to the role of Alex)
Back when he was still writing the script, Betuel had an actor in mind for the key role of Centauri, the inventor of the Starfighter arcade machine and someone who had the qualities and mannerisms of a fast-talking conman. When he mentioned Robert Preston, Nick Castle was instantly on board with the idea and set about making it happen. By the time of the Last Starfighter, Robert Preston had long been a veteran of stage and screen, having made his debut in King of Alcatraz in 1938. He went on to work consistently throughout the next two decades, but it was his role in Meredith Wilson's The Music Man for which he became famous. The actor had originated the role on stage in 1957 to great acclaim (and a Tony award), and when it was adapted for the screen, Wilson insisted Preston reprise the role, much to the annoyance of Jack Warner who'd favoured Frank Sinatra. The Music Man character of 'Professor' Harold Hill, a con-man who tricks a town into thinking he will equip and train a marching band, had many of the traits that Betuel saw in Centauri. So perfect was he for the role that when he officially signed on board, the screenplay was refined further to highlight his performance. Post-Last Starfighter, Nick Castle would refer to it as 'one of the greatest castings of the 80s'.
Finally, the role of navigator Grig went to Dan O'Herlihy, another screen veteran whose career stretched back almost as far as Robert Preston's. Herlihy began acting in the mid-1940s, and earnt an Academy Award nomination for his role in Luis Buñuel's Robinson Crusoe (1954). Over the years he worked on many film and TV shows, including recurring characters in The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Dr Kildare and Colditz. He too would have a link to John Carpenter, appearing in the third Halloween movie, Season of the Witch. As Grig, he would be buried under layers of prosthetics, limiting his normal acting abilities. As production got underway, there'd be one more Carpenter-alumni to join the fray.
Despite the leaps and bounds movie model-making had seen over the last few years, the team behind The Last Starfighter wanted to try something different. It would be production designer Ron Cobb, working with the newly formed Digital Productions, who would offer up the idea of computer generated effects over conventional model making. Cobb had gotten his first break working on Disney's Sleeping Beauty. After the film was completed, he found himself without a job and took on a number of non-film related positions before being drafted into the army. After being discharged some three years later, he became a freelance artist and cartoonist.
He also went on to create album covers and contributed some design work to John Carpenter's Dark Star. This in turn led him to working on Star Wars (Uncredited creature concepts), Alien and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He also had a hand in the first, darker version of E.T The Extra Terrestrial, and was even offered the chance to direct the picture by Steven Spielberg. However commitments to the production design on Conan the Barbarian saw him turn the offer down, allowing the famed director to extensively re-work the script and opt to helm the picture himself.
Back in 1981, Cobb met John Whitney Jnr and Gary Demos, who were working on making photo-realistic computer generated imagery, a reality. So impressed was he by what he saw, Cobb joined their company, Digital Productions, and approached Nick Castle with idea of creating all of the Last Starfighter’s effects (aside from explosions and make up) on a computer. The director liked the idea and could see that if done well, it would not only be a great selling point but would impact film for years to come. Furthermore, without the need for costly model work, the production could reduce the budget from $21M to $15M. As design work and visual testing got underway, the final touches were made to the shooting script.
Given the amount of work required to encompass the makeup, pre-visual effects and day to day shooting, it's somewhat surprising that The Last Starfighter shot in just 40 days. There seems to have been little in the way of issues, though acting against things that would be added in later, proved an interesting exercise for all concerned. To aid this, real life props were built that would help the cast and crew visualize where things would be. As mentioned, Dan O'Herlihy was buried under layers of prosthetics, which limited his abilities. To counter this, the actor exaggerated his movements, which ended up enhancing his performance in the finished movie. For Guest, it was almost like working on two different pictures due to a subplot that saw his earth-bound character replaced by Beta, a robot (also played by Guest) while the real Alex travelled into space.
Work on the computer generated sequences was also well underway, with Ron Cobb supplying Digital Productions with detailed sketches of the Gunstar, the experimental fighter craft that Alex Rogan pilots in the movie. Because this was one of the first films to make extensive use of computer graphics (Tron aside), there was a real seat-of-the-pants element about it all. Early on, visual effects coordinator Jeffrey Okun sat down with Cobb, Whitney and Demos and discussed the time frames involved in getting the computer work done. They explained how they’d be creating the shots and how long it would take to render each frame. Okun worked out it would take 17 months to complete all the sequences. They had just six.
Knowing that if the effects weren't finished in time, they had no movie, Okun approached producer Gary Adelson and explained the time frame issue. He told Aldeson that he had three model companies standing by who could complete the work on time, and on budget - all the producer needed to do was fire Digital Productions. To Adelson's credit, he refused, and chastised Okun for making the suggestion. But there was no getting around the issue, there simply wasn't enough time to complete all the effects to meet the film's summer 1984 release date. A compromise was eventually reached - Digital Productions would reduce the number of polygons per frame. While this would all but remove the chance of photo realism, it also meant the picture could be finished on schedule. However, it left no room for error - if a scene didn't render correctly, they either had to scrap it or use it - there was no time to begin again. This goes some way to explaining why some sequences don’t look as impressive as others.
Over time the company perfected quicker code and found a number of shortcuts. They also discovered that the compromise in polygons could be disguised somewhat when they began to add colour to the surfaces of the wire frame models they had created. With over 70 billion colours to choose from, they could create shadows, dents and blemishes, giving the effects a worldlier, realistic feel. They worked day and night, often sleeping around the Cray X-MP super computer that was producing the final shots. The finished version of the Gunstar, whose data took three months to put into the computer, was made up of over 750,000 polygons and is arguably the highlight of the film's impressive computer generated imagery.
Back in the real world, Nick Castle had quickly assembled a rough cut of the movie to screen for preview audiences. The reaction was very positive, especially to the earth-bound Beta unit sequences, which added some much needed comic relief. The studio were pleased enough to allow Castle to re-assemble the cast and crew and shoot some additional Beta scenes. The problem was that since production had ended some four months ago, Lance Guest had had his curly hair cut, resulting in the actor having to wear an ill-fitting wig in the new footage. He was also under the weather when filming took place, requiring a lot of make up to ensure he looked like the character in the original scenes. As fans of the film can attest, the wig and make up didn't always convince.
As the race to the finish line picked up pace, production company Lorimar became involved with Atari, with a view to create an arcade machine based on the one seen in the film, along with home versions for their console and computer range. Promotional work got underway too, with the standard trailer highlighting the film's impressive effects work. Lance Guest, Catherine Mary Stewart and Nick Castle all hit the promotional trail as the release date approached. Reviews for The Last Starfighter were positive enough, and it sits with a 76% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert awarded it two and half stars, while Gene Siskel described it as a 'Star Wars rip off, but the best one'.
In terms of summer releases, 1984 contained some of the biggest of the entire decade. Just a casual look reveals such classics as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid and Star Trek III. Even though The Last Starfighter would open against only one new release (Muppets Take Manhattan), the earlier summer movies were still a very real threat - Ghostbusters and Gremlins had ruled the top two places for the previous five weekends and showed little sign of cracking. While it had the visuals, it didn't have the major stars to promote the movie on talk shows and the like, setting it at something of a disadvantage.
Sadly, The Last Starfighter never really got the chance to shine. Despite a decent enough opening weekend of $6M, it couldn't cope with the existing competition. Ghostbusters and Gremlins clocked up their sixth weekend in first and second place respectively. A week later Best Defence and The Never Ending Story opened, pushing The Last Starfighter down to sixth place. By weekend three, it was gone from the top ten altogether, having made $16.5M in total. The studio had quickly decided to cut it losses, slashing more than 400 screens in that third weekend. A fortnight later it had cleared $21M, and would end up making $28M by the end of its theatrical run. Not a failure as such given its $15M budget, but some way short of what Universal (and Lorimar) had hoped to see. Talk of a sequel quickly evaporated.
Like many films of the time, The Last Starfighter came into its own on video, where it enjoyed a long and successful run, becoming one of the many cult hits of the 1980s. The Atari-made arcade machine never came to fruition due to the fact it would have needed to sell at $10,000 per unit to break even - a figure deemed too high at the time. Similarly, the console game never materialised, though the home computer version did appear some time later, retooled as Star Raiders II. Bizarrely, a version for the Nintendo Entertainment System appeared in 1990, but this ended up being a modified version of the Commodore 64 classic, Uridium.
Lance Guest would go on to appear in Jaws: The Revenge, before moving back to TV with Knots Landing and Life Goes On. He continued to act in both mediums throughout the 1990s. Of late he has made a name for himself portraying Johnny Cash in the long running stage production of Million Dollar Quartet. Catherine Mary Stewart followed up the film with another science fiction tale, Night of the Comet. She also saw success in the late 80s opposite Andrew McCarthy in Weekend at Bernie's. Stewart would appear in a number of TV shows and TV movies over the years, but pulled back from acting in the 1990s to concentrate on raising a family.
Sadly, The Last Starfighter marked the final theatrical appearance for Robert Preston, who passed away in 1987. He left behind a huge body of work and his performance in the movie is still cited by many as a highlight. Dan O'Herlihy worked throughout the 80s and well into the late 1990s, and gave a memorable turn as 'the old man' in Robocop. As for Nick Castle, he continued to work as both a director and screenplay writer. He directed the adaptation of Dennis the Menace, along with Major Payne and Mr. Wrong, while supplying the screenplay for Steven Speilberg's Hook. He also contributed to the soundtrack of the John Carpenter picture, Big Trouble in Little China.
The legacy of The Last Starfighter didn't end with the film's release. A novel and comic book adaptation were also produced, as was a 2004 off-Broadway musical. Over the years, news of a sequel would surface with regularity. In a 2012 interview with website Popcultureaddict, Lance Guest said he'd talked with the studio about a sequel not long after the original’s release, but they viewed its performance as a disappointment and didn't pursue it any further. In 2008 GPA Entertainment added 'Starfighter' to its list of upcoming projects, describing it as 'The sequel to the classic motion picture Last Starfighter'. Little progress appears to have been made beyond that point.
Yet stories of a remake persist. The picture was once again in the news in November 2014 when movie website /film posted a link to a re-edited version of the trailer. Things took an almost incredulous turn shortly after when it was revealed by the website's Peter Sciretta that he had heard Seth Rogen had been pursuing the sequel/remake rights for years, to no avail. Rogen himself entered into the conversation and confessed that not even Steven Spielberg had been able to secure the rights - something the director had apparently tried to do after hearing about the problems the actor had ran into. In the aftermath of this story it came to light that Jonathan Betuel still retained the rights to the movie (and presumably any sequel/remake) and flat out refused to sell them to anyone. Chances are, if someone like Steven Spielberg cannot secure them, there is little hope of a new Starfighter in the foreseeable future.
Looking back on the film, it's easy to see why so many people took it to heart. Its theme of a lonely isolated teenager finding success via videogames resonated with many at the time - and still does. The leads have great chemistry, and the space battles are nicely contrasted with the comedic sequences of the Beta unit attempting to pass itself off as Alex. It is something of an oddity in that it rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as other 80s classics, yet remains a much loved film by those who know it. While its visual effects haven't quite stood the test of time, one can see why they were viewed as being ground breaking upon the film’s release - Tron aside, there was simply nothing like it anywhere else. It proved that computer generated effects could work and created a path that many, many others would follow. It may be one of the lesser movies of the 1980s, but The Last Starfighter can easily be counted amongst the best of them.
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