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The Last Starfighter

Year: 1984
Production Co: Lorimar
Studio: Universal
Director: Nick Castle
Producer: Gary Adelson
Writer: Jonathan Betual
Cast: Lance Guest, Catherine Mary Stewart, Dan O'Herlihy, Robert Preston, Barbara Bosson, Norman Snow

If there's a true birth of CGI, this kind of hokey sci-fi movie is it. Making quite a splash on release as the first movie where key action sequences were animated by computer, you can see the mid 1980s processing power there in graphics that look part video game, part cartoon.

It's the story of 18 year old Alex Rogan (Guest), a trailer park kid who dreams of getting away from his picturesque but boring mountain home. He has a pretty girlfriend Maggie (Stewart), an annoying kid brother Louis, a gang of immature hangers on he can barely call friends and an understanding and supportive but helpless mother (Bosson).

His only respite from the constant string of handyman duties for his elderly neighbours is playing Starfighter, the video game that sits outside the general store. But here's the kicker, the idea that clinched it. The premise that made me fall in love with the movie, watch it constantly and propel it onto my favourite movies ever list.

The video game is a recruiting tool, with controls identical to that of a real starfighter (the Gunstar) produced by a peace loving galactic power called Rylos, under siege by a rogue prince of their people (Xur) and the evil paramilitary force he's fallen in with to overrun them (the Ko Dan armada). The game is designed to alert the agent who placed it, Centauri (Robert Preston in his last role), to the presence of gifted starfighters to recruit to the cause.

One night, Alex gets the best and the worst news of the year. He breaks the Starfighter record, and his application to college – where he was going to make something of his life – is rejected. Running off into the darkness and miserable, thinking he'll never escape the drudgery of his life, a stranger appears in a very bizarre car and asks Alex to take a ride.

It's Centauri, an eccentric, aristocratic and self-interested man, who asks Alex to accompany him home to discuss a unique proposition. When Alex agrees, the car promptly takes off, travels through outer space and lands on Rylos, where he discovers the truth about the game and his fate – to be sent into battle.

Alex demands Centauri take him home and while trying to figure out how to get rid of the smarmy robotic double they've left to fool his family and friends into thinking he's still there, he's attacked by a Xan-Do-Xan, the revolting alien the Ko Dan have dispatched to kill him. They've attacked the base and destroyed all the other pilots and Alex is the only one left, so the Ko Dan won't stop until he's dead too.

Centauri arrives back just in time to pick him up, takes him back to the devastated Rylan base and introduces him to his co-pilot Grig (O'Herlihy), after which the (slightly pixelated) battle's on.

What would be a forgotten footnote in cinema history to everyone else puts this movie into stratospheric importance to me. Surely an alien race asking a young, bored kid to be a soldier or pilot in an intergalactic war is the coolest idea ever committed to celluloid. Anyone who knows me knows the first thing I ever wrote was a science fiction story of an intergalactic war where the good guys cast across the galaxies to recruit soldiers and pilots, and the hero is a strangely similar kid to my then 17 year old self.

Technically there's nothing outstanding about it – the acting is fine, the script and structure competent, the Cray-generated effects okay for the time. But this is a classic example of the power of an idea. It's about the difference between the idea and the execution, where the former is so brilliant few able directors could mess up the latter if they tried.

It's the sort of movie that develops people and becomes part of their DNA. If I'd become a prominent SETI scientist and I was being interviewed by a magazine, I'd make some smiling reference to how the idea of being called up to fight in an alien war was so cool it changed my life, leading to the person I am.

Even though I'm not a prominent SETI scientist, The Last Starfighter is still the fable – however consciously – for everything in my life that speaks about the escape from responsibilities and the excitement of a million movies from my childhood that were so different from teenage life in suburbia.

And you won't see Wil Wheaton as Louis' friend, who had two speaking scenes which were cut.

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