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The CGI of The Last Starfighter

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It's not so much the special effects that were so very different in the 80s, it's us. Hollywood's always used the latest tricks up its sleeve – relied on them, over-relied on them, made them boring, made us realise how empty they are without a story and moved on to the next trick.

In a world where even a flying golf ball is just a figment of a computer's imagination, we're wise. No, we're cynical. Try to round off an epic sci-fi saga with a race of forest-dwelling teddy bears defeating an evil galactic empire today and you'd have revolt in the streets.

But back in 1984, we knew far less about the strange science of professional moviemaking. The computer was like the robots and spaceships on screen – we had no idea how they worked but we knew they could do anything. We all wanted one, but only the nerdiest academics and engineers had access to them. It was a more innocent time, when computer graphics worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster were rigged by electrical engineers and concept artists, not kids on their Macs playing with Final Cut Pro.

It's funny how we so often complain about movie special effects looking like videogames today. Scenes of the Rylos star base on a cliff face or the Gunstar fighter with Alex (Lance Guest) at the controls were a mere step up from the Atari 2600 and Intellivision game systems we knew. They didn't exactly look real, but they looked like nothing we'd seen before.

And for the first time ever it wasn't about aliens, dogfights or times of civil war in a galaxy far, far away. It was about a bored teenager with nothing to look forward to but odd jobs for elderly neighbours, a crappy education and an annoying kid brother with a collection of Playboy magazines. It was about us.

As the trailer said, The Last Starfighter was for every earthling who'd ever dreamed of travelling beyond the stars, and what kid in the world didn't want to do that after the summer of 1977? It was no accident the pivotal device to recruit pilots to the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada was a video game. As Centauri (Robert Preston) explains to Alex, 'that particular Starfighter game was supposed to be delivered to Vegas'. But it wasn't, it was delivered to the imaginations of a million kids in mobile home parks, drab council estates and unexciting small towns a galaxy away from battles with space aliens.

Until then, our only escape from school and parents had been the nascent home gaming entertainment systems, when swooping through space fighting clunky interstellar wars put us in the cockpit, just waiting for us to provide the narrative. The Last Starfighter was the world's biggest-screen videogame. It put us in the movie, not the usual procession of larger than life heroes, villains and wisecracking smugglers. Even better, this world looked just like the space-going gunships and alien worlds on our Sega Megadrives.

Atari agreed. A prototype Starfighter game (not the clunky first-person-shooter version on YouTube) was developed but never released – at the time home computers weren't powerful enough to render the real-time graphics the motion of ships required. Urban legends continue to swirl the geek community that the company built a working version of the arcade game from the movie, but it's almost better as a myth. The graphics and gameplay would pale next to the Grand Theft Autos and Command and Conquers of today and, like a phantom menace, it would shatter the innocent illusions of our childhoods.

But even though the effects generated on that Cray X-MP look like clumsy pencil sketches compared to today's Hollywood product, that's not the point. Like movies are supposed to do, those effects transported us - transformed us - making us believe we could sign up to an intergalactic war and be the hero.

While today's CGI engineers program Brad Pitt's aged face onto the body of a small boy or the Hulk and Abomination's destructive street scrap, might they be looking lovingly back on their first glimpse of the Death Blossom?

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