Films That Can Be Salvaged Part 9: The Last Starfighter
Salvageable Films is a series where I stop finger-painting for a few minutes and armchair quarterback a feature film that fell just shy of greatness.
The Rundown: The Last Starfighter is a film that bowed in 1984, doing moderately well but not setting the world on fire at the time, certainly not enough to warrant a sequel (until somewhat recently, but those plans have stalled). It trumpeted cutting-edge CG at the time of its release, but nowadays the film is more renowned for its story and usage of video games to propel said story, endearing the film to geeks of all ages. Given the film’s success and notoriety, it would be difficult to call it a cult film, but given its age it has an impressive following that is every bit as strong as most cult films.
What made it great: While the FX blew my socks off when I was a kid, I’ve come to realize that what made it great was Robert Preston’s memorable turn as Centauri. I cannot recall another instance in the history of cinema where a character had the showmanship that beckoned the audience to step right up and see what’s behind the curtain. If you’re a kid, that suckered you in. If you’re an adult, darnit if you didn’t feel like a kid again. Yes Centauri’s role was brief but he can still bring an audience back again and again. Imagine if we were only stuck with the whiny protagonist for the first half of the film?
What can be fixed: I’ve already gone on record saying the outer space FX could be updated to modern CG standards. Nothing against the FX wizards who brought this film to life in 1984, but I would really like to re-introduce this to today’s younger audiences, who already enjoy superior space visuals in cartoons (say, The Clone Wars). I know the term “Special Edition” is evil in some circles, but I’m just asking for the space shots to look somewhat standard, no need for Dewbacks.
For new VFX I would prescribe a few cosmetic changes for the command base locale, maybe set it in daytime (I think it was dark to hide the limitations of terrain at the time). I’d also try to make the base grander in scope, seems more like a small satellite station than the primary hub of their entire military complex.
And definitely change the one thing that always bugged me: The StarCar’s parking spot. This advanced civilization has a hangar with a layout similar to an underground parking garage. I’d like to see a hangar large enough for the Millennium Falcon to land. Just something grandiose and belonging to the alien locale.
The rest of the VFX is pretty straightforward, which is modernizing all the space scenes and dog fights that comprise the main set pieces. You probably could prolong the space battles for audiences accustomed to lengthy action sequences (Starfighter’s were pretty short), but I’d be happy with a shot-for-shot replacement.
The escape of the last Gunstar could be depicted, or at the very least the destruction of all the other Gunstars and Starfighters could be showcased a little better. Grig spelling out what happened later in the film is helpful, but doesn’t quite encapsulate how much the odds are stacked against the heroes.
The Bounty Hunter who was “unmasked” by the arcade cabinet scene is missing exposition. I’m assuming the cabinet detected the threat and reacted accordingly. I would add some audio where the cabinet exclaimed as much: “THREAT DETECTED!” or something similar. I think it could actually be stating something initially, but it’s inaudible. Also I’m not sure why the Alien didn’t get annoyed and blast the game into smithereens — maybe it can be shown it trying to fire at it but being thwarted by a force-field or something. Minor nitpick.
Normally in the Salvageable Series I just prescribe edits for films, but there isn’t anything from this film that can be jettisoned. I imagine the MPAA would want the kid’s swearing removed, because we need to protect kids from that. Pffft.
Given the opportunity, I would pitch to NBC Universal to give this film an update like the one prescribed here. Enlist the same VFX team from the recent Battlestar Galactica show, and you might be able to assemble an updated film for the cost of 4 or 5 episodes of BSG or Stargate (or about the same as a direct-to-video film for those series).
I know diehard fans would be cynical, and I count myself among those. I’m not a fan of the Star Wars SEs or adding walkie-talkies to E.T., but I feel this film can continue to delight audiences for another three decades if given a new coat of CG paint. Starfighter just has so many timeless ingredients that cannot be replaced by a remake or reboot. Plus this would be a great litmus test for a true sequel.