Today is the 39th anniversary to another 80s film that had a little involvement with arcades: The Last Starfighter by Lorimar and Universal. If you’ve never seen this one, it’s a tale about one down-on-his-luck Alex Rogan who kills time on a “Starfighter” arcade machine that got placed into his rural trailer park – but it just so happens that he’s really good at the game. Good enough that he sets the “Record Breaker” score and is soon visited by a mysterious stranger, who recruits him into a battle on another planet – the same kind of battle he played in the video game.
Given the arcade connection, Atari had nabbed the license to develop games for coin-op as well as consoles, a few of which were completed but unfortunately never released under the TSF name due to the movie underperforming in theaters. The version for the Atari 2600 was released in 1986 under the name Solaris while the Atari 8-bit computer version was reworked as Star Raiders II.
The most legendary of these developments however was the arcade version – if you saw the game on the silver screen, you hoped to find it at the arcade too. Alas, the game made it some ways along in development but a couple of factors played into it getting cancelled. First – as an early 3D game, the hardware cost would have been astronomical, particularly by the values of games at the time. When most games were around the $3000 mark, Atari surmised that they would have to sell these at $10k a pop (equivalent to $29,299 today). That sounds fine today when we regularly have games costing $30k, $40k or higher but back then, there wasn’t the same kind of big-spending FEC market that exists now. Back then, a super expensive game was all but assured to be a flop.
Here is footage of the original game as it was operating; This was more powerful hardware than ran their other 3D game I,Robot(which used a 6809 processor), designated as System IV(based on the Motorola 68000).
That isn’t the only factor at play, though its still related to money. On June 1st 1984, Warner Communications sold off their home divisions (console and computer, along with IP) to Jack Tramiel. They kept the coin-op division and renamed it to Atari Games but the turmoil behind the scenes with many people leaving the company did put things into disarray for a time. Still, all this was happening when the film launched, certainly playing a role in the decisions as to go ahead or not. Having the movie flop and experience saying that a super expensive game would also likely flop was not a good omen to move forward with.
Why was did the movie not meet expectations and how would I change it if I were directing?
I’ll put my layman film critic cap on here and surmise why the movie didn’t as well as the studio wanted, although I had to correct the original text from saying it was a “flop” – it cost$15m to make (not including marketing), and grossed $28.7 worldwide. So it did ok, but with theater take and marketing, it either just barely crossed into the black or it had a small loss. It’s not fair to say that it was a flop-flop, but it also wasn’t a stellar success.
I’ve watched a lot of bad movies (mostly through the comedy Mystery Science Theater 3000) and can say that TSF wasn’t a bad movie by any means – it’s a movie with heart, good character development and an interesting premise but it does have a few things that kept it from being great and that wasn’t the special effects(which haven’t aged well but still have their charm).
Yes, there are spoilers.
I’m not big on remakes as it’s exceedingly rare that a remake is better than the original. The problem with most remakes though is they are often remaking or rebooting a film that was fine to begin with. Remakes should be saved for films that had a solid core concept but for reasons involving execution/script/plot/ending issues, it leaves the audience unsatisfied.
If I were to remake the Last Starfighter, I would keep it set in 1984 – no internet or smartphones, no social media, or any of that – I wouldn’t mention the year to keep that a little ambivalent, as the original did. I would also keep it in a rural trailer park. The movie had a lot of “heart” to it from these things and those don’t need to be tampered with.
One possibility to help things is open the film differently – show a big battle between Xur and the Star League’s Gunstar forces, where the Star League wins, but just barely. With heavy losses, and intelligence uncovered that reveals that Xur has figured out how to breach the Frontier with a larger fleet, the Star League realizes that they’re in trouble, which sets Centuri off on a quest to find another Starfighter. They say they’ll begin the Excalibur test on people but that takes too long in his mind, so he sets off for the backwater planet Earth.
This would have to be handled with care – as I’ll get into, the main issue with TLS is that it tells you more than it shows you. In writing and storytelling, it’s often emphasized “show, don’t tell.” Movies these days often lean on the latter, which ends up treating the audience as dumb; Not everything in a universe or a plot needs to be explained. There’s value in mystery (although I’m not talking about Mystery Boxes) and building things up over your 3 or 5 acts. What it comes down to at its core is finding a good balance between the showing and the telling. The audience needs just enough info to care, which invests them into the characters and their situations.
I’d keep the characters mostly the same – Alex Rogan needs to be a teen from a trailer park who is down on his luck, who achieves something incredible that opens up an extraordinary world for him. But I say mostly as I think that the way the character was handled within the plot needed some work.
Alex is the protagonist to the film, which means that the audience is seeing the world through his eyes. Rylos is the homeworld of the Star League and we know from the video game that there’s some bad guy named Xur. While we know that the Star League and Rylos are in danger, the way that it’s presented to Alex, and thus the audience, is done in such a way that we don’t really care about these alien worlds. It’s later hinted that Earth is in danger but that’s also not really presented well, it’s just from a comment or two. No one else on Earth knows about aliens, the Star League or the Frontier. After Alex sees Xur’s message, he’s understandably done and wants to go back.
The same issue off off-screen mega danger existed in another sci-fi space film, Star Trek Generations – who gives a crap about Veridian III? You never see any city there, they don’t even bother to talk with anyone on the surface. All you see is a barren wasteland. Does anyone care if this barren looking planet they’ve never heard of gets blown up? Nope.
I wouldn’t change a thing about the Gunstar. A modern TSF arcade game could get crazy with this…
For TLS, Alex does get to see Saturn which is cool but when he arrives at Rylos, it’s straight into a military base and straight into seeing Xur torture someone. Nothing is presented about Rylian culture and life to make Alex, and in turn the audience, care about the plight of this people.
What I’d change is maybe cut down a little bit of Alex’s down-on-his luck life – show just enough to make him sympathetic and don’t over do it. Then have Centuri make a pit stop on a Star League world that has recently been liberated from Xur’s control and he can see first hand the effects of his iron fist. You could also instead go to Rylos, and instead of going straight to the military base, he visits some city where he is taken through an alien market and comes across some freed slaves who interact with him. In either one of these cases, it would also be helpful to see a show of force take place with a Gunstar or Gunstars. Seeing them in action first would make it more real than just playing on a video game. Whatever path you would take, he(and by extension, the audience) has to see something that shows him the stakes instead of telling him about them. As is often said in writing “show, don’t tell.”
Of course, you still need to get him out of the base so he becomes the “last” starfighter. You can keep it to where he gets scared enough to go back to Earth and gets scared back into returning after he meets the Beta unit and the assassin – although it would be more heroic to keep him on Rylos where he sneaks out of the base, maybe to interact with someone he met at the market (to get something for his mother and/or his brother Louis – could also setup a health issue with his mother that someone has the cure for at the market, which is a strong motivator for him to sneak out) and that’s when the attack happens.
The rest I’d keep it pretty much the same, excepting updated CG (which could also make for more compelling space battle scenes) and making Alex complain less when he’s out to battle. Sure, you do need to show that he’s scared but he complains a bit too much to drive that point home in the original, which isn’t too endearing to the audience.
I would also grab inspiration from Top Gun Maverick and design things in a way where the audience feels like they’re with Alex inside of a Gunstar. Sure, that’s not easy to do since you don’t have real Gunstars to film inside of – but using techniques like you get with a lot of modern productions (using LED screens built around real sets instead of filming everything against a green screen). Not easy, but certainly possible to do, especially if it’s filmed like Maverick was during battle scenes
In my humble opinion, you could improve on the original by making these subtle changes, without it becoming disrespectful to the source material.
Next year will see the 40th anniversary of the movie. No clue if there are plans to do anything about it. There have been multiple attempts at rebooting it, including a sequel/reboot that was going to be called The Son of the Last Starfighter that never got made and a couple of TV show concepts have been thrown around.
What do you think – is this the kind of movie that needs a remake or should we leave well enough alone and enjoy the original in all of its glory on streaming or Blu-Ray?