How 'The Last Starfighter' Became a Cult Classic — and Why a Sequel May Finally Take Flight

·Writer
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It was the summer of 1984, and moviegoers had a mother lode of blockbusters from which to choose: Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were all out in theaters, each of them a massive spectacle that would prove enormously successful and lucrative. Purple Rain, meanwhile, drew in big crowds with melodrama camp and hit songs, while Red Dawn riled up audiences with anti-Soviet agitprop. In such a crowded multiplex universe, why would anyone pay attention to a sweetly sincere space fantasy about a kid obsessed with a video game?

Looking back now, The Last Starfighter — a movie about a starry-eyed trailer-park teen who gets recruited to fight in a distant space war — never had much of a chance to succeed when it first hit theaters. And few people (including some of the ones who helped make the movie) were surprised when Starfighter stayed at multiplexes for only a month.

“A crew member on the movie said to me that it was a slow burner, and I didn’t know what she meant [at the time],” recalled Lance Guest, one of the film’s stars. “But she was right: It was one of those things that over the years people would see on tape, see on cable, and bring it home for their kids. I have friends who grew up watching it every day.”

The result of that early flop and quiet home video resurgence is that the sugar-sweet, Amblin-esque space adventure — which featured then-groundbreaking digital effects — has gone from semiforgotten experiment to cult favorite among geeks and Hollywood pros. The Last Starfighter is cherished by such famous fans as Seth Rogen, Edgar Wright, and (allegedly) even Steven Spielberg himself.

“It’s not generally part of the conversation when we talk about the great pop culture movies of the ’80s,” said Gary Whitta, a screenwriter on the Star Wars spinoff film Rogue One. “But once you bring it up, people perk up, and you realize there is this great undercurrent of fondness and admiration.”

As nostalgic fondness for the film has bubbled up, so has curiosity about whether Starfighter might ever be remade, rebooted, or given a torch-passing sequel in the vein of 2010′s Tron: Legacy. And while legal complications have long clouded the franchise’s future, original screenwriter Jonathan Betuel told Yahoo Movies that he’s working on finally relaunching The Last Starfighter.

“There are a lot of things going on that will see the light of day,” he said.

Delightful in retrospect, The Last Starfighter was somewhat of an odd combination for viewers to process at the time. The movie may have been visually ambitious — it’s the first movie to exclusively use computer-generated special effects — but it was built around an old-fashioned (and slightly goofy) local-kid-makes-good storyline: Alex (played by Guest) is a witty high school senior living in a rural trailer park with his single mom and younger brother. As he waits for a college loan and does odd jobs around the park, Alex’s only distraction comes in the form of an arcade game called Starfighter.  

After Alex finally beats the game, he gets a visit from a mysterious, DeLorean-driving slickster named Centauri, played by The Music Man’s Robert Preston. When Centauri’s cool ride suddenly turns into a spaceship, Alex soon learns that Starfighter is no mere video game: It’s actually a training/recruitment tool, one that’s been sent from an intergalactic body called Star League as part of an effort to fend off an invading alien attack. And Alex, it turns out, is their last hope.

It sounds like the kind of movie that could only have been dreamed up in an arcade — which, of course, it was. The idea for Starfighter first came to a young New York advertising copywriter named Jonathan Betuel during one of his daily arcade trips in the early ’80s. He’d made a lunchtime habit out of visiting the nascent neon den, pumping coins until he got good enough to last an entire half-hour on just a quarter while playing first-person military-vehicle shooters like Missile Command and Battlezone.

Around the same time Betuel was killing his lunch hour on Atari machines, his wife was at NYU film school. She’d bring back screenplays to read, piquing the curiosity of Betuel, who’d already written a few novels (including a 1975 book called The Dogfighter that claimed to “make Jaws read like a bedtime story”). “[With screenplays], I became enamored with the format of conveying the most [information] in the least amount of [words] and yet making it colorful and descriptive and vivid,” he told Yahoo Movies.

Betuel also happened to be reading T.H. White’s 1958 novel The Once and Future King, a book about the ascension of King Arthur, the legendary monarch who earned his throne by lifting a blade from stone. He mashed up the classical and cutting edge to come up with a story that was one of the earliest features on a growing subculture. According to Betuel, his initial plans for Starfighter were appropriately epic. “I had written a trilogy,” he said. “It started as The Sword in the Stone, and then it became like Harry Potter … [you’d] follow the life of a young starfighter, where he awakens to a bigger world and bigger reality and learns it doesn’t come gift-wrapped.”

It took just two weeks to write the first draft, and once the story was sold to Lorimar and producer Gary Adelson, they hired director Nick Castle, who’d just directed a low-budget, college-set thriller called Tag; up to that point, he was probably best known for writing John Carpenter’s dystopian cult hit Escape From New York.

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Starfighter was originally set in the suburbs, but once Castle came aboard, the filmmakers realized that comparisons would inevitably be made to the recent Spielberg sci-fi films E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — both of which dealt with the prospect of alien creatures visiting small American towns — and switched the location to a trailer park. It was a smart move, one that not only helped explain Alex’s big-dream ambitions but also provided him with a charmingly Capra-esque cast of supporting characters who happily rally around his video-game victories: At one point, when Alex is about to beat the machine’s high score, the entire community cheers him on, from his ridiculously supportive girlfriend (played by Footloose’s Catherine Mary Stewart) to several elderly neighbors.

Guest, a relatively unknown 23-year-old who was cast as Alex after having worked with Castle on Halloween II, was the perfect everyman to play the likably spacy Alex. In a decade that was littered with distinctly defined teen characters — see the jocks, geeks, and beautiful people of the Brat Pack — Alex was an understandably moody and complicated character reacting to the impossible absurdities of his sudden interstellar adventure with a mix of incredulity and sardonic wit. He was confused, worried, frustrated, and reluctantly heroic — he had Luke Skywalker’s ambition and humble origins, but none of the royal lineage or Jedi talent.

Whitta noted that, much like Star Wars, The Last Starfighter follows Joseph Campbell’s classic Hero’s Journey blueprint, with an everyday kid called to a great adventure and rising to the challenge despite some initial reluctance: “There’s moments in it that I just love, like when Alex says to Centauri, ‘I’m just a kid from a trailer park,’ and Centauri says, ‘If that’s what you think, then that’s all you’ll ever be.’”

Betuel, whose original screenplay was “more of an action epic,” credits working with Castle for the extra attention to character. Other fan-favorite characters include Louis, Alex’s troublemaking, Playboy-reading little brother; and Grig, the alien co-pilot and mentor, played by an unrecognizable Dan O’Herlihy, who wears prosthetics that give Grig the half-lidded gaze and scaly skin of a stoned turtle (Roger Ebert quipped that the makeup seemed to be “inspired by the heartbreak of psoriasis.”)

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It was Preston as the trickster alien scout Centauri, though, who proved to be the universe’s wiliest scene-stealer. Betuel and Castle designed the character to recall Preston’s iconic Music Man character Harold Hill, and were shocked when the man himself accepted the role. It was hardly a phone-it-in paycheck gig; Guest remembers Preston — 42 years his senior — as a ready and willing rehearsal partner, and the actor’s devilish grin and wit made him the linchpin of a movie that was meant to appeal to kids five decades his junior (Preston died three years after the movie was released, at 68).

Preston’s decision to take the ride of The Last Starfighter is even more admirable when you consider that in the mid-’80s, video games were still seen by many as a fleeting fad — or, even worse, as a brain-melting menace. Though 1982’s Tron had been a minor hit, Starfighter writer Betuel recalled being cautious about whether Hollywood could take video games seriously: “The question was, were they truly enthusiastic?” he said. “Or did they think it was a fad and it would blow out?”

But Starfighter didn’t just use video games as a pandering gimmick or even key plot point — it celebrated them. In The Last Starfighter, video games didn’t just help you pass time; they could train you to save the world. And its lead-character gamer was a smart, brave kid who got a chance to fight back against the biggest bullies in the universe. In effect, it legitimized the still-niche industry and made a hero of a joystick jockey; and in a movie full of space battles and alien races, this might have felt like the most fantastical element of all. No wonder, then, that the New York Times described The Last Starfighter as “about as perfect an instance of teen-age wish-fulfillment as can be found in a movie this summer.”

Outer space wasn’t exactly unexplored territory by the time Starfighter took its short inaugural journey. The ’70s and ’80s were stocked with galactic adventure movies after the success of the first Star Wars, from cheesy rip-offs and forgotten duds like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (which featured a pre-fame Molly Ringwald) to higher-end, character-driven spectacles like the Star Trek movies and generational favorites such as Flight of the Navigator and Explorers.

What those films didn’t have, however, was Starfighter’s pioneering digital wizardry.

In the late ’70s, George Lucas’s team at what would become Industrial Light & Magic revolutionized the special-effects industry with new cameras and visual designs, but those only improved the decades-old practice of zooming in on miniature props that were pushed across elaborate matte paintings, using perspective and other tricks to simulate large-scale action. By 1984, mainstream moviegoers had only seen computer graphics in Tron, which experimented with simple graphics to create a simple digital matrix world inside an arcade game setting, which would look like the video game Pong, not lifelike at all.

Starfighter, the weird little movie with the mostly unrecognizable cast and sophomore director, blasted past Hollywood’s best and brightest by daring to go all in on complicated, digital graphics, rendering a fully realized galaxy and combatant spaceships with untested computer technology.

Not that they had intended to make history.

According to Betuel, the filmmakers had initially planned a more conventional film with miniature-model-based special effects. But everything changed when Adelson marched into the office and suggested that the filmmakers “should go talk to these guys about something called ‘computer graphics.’” The team took a meeting with a group that included former Disney artist and Spielberg collaborator Ron Cobb, which convinced Castle that it was worth trying out the new technology — on the very first state-of-the-art Cray X-MP supercomputer.

“It was so labor intensive, and during the shoot — while it was so shielded from us — the production designers didn’t know how it would work out,” Guest recalled. “They were shooting this film banking on images they didn’t know how they’d look. They were white-knuckling it.”

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In the end, the effects team accomplished a vast majority of its ambitious goals, Betuel said. The result was a film filled with images the likes of which no one had ever seen before: massive spaceships that did not look quite real, but didn’t look cartoonish, either — colorful and intricately detailed, zipping across the screen in what seemed to be the coolest and most immersive version of a ride at Disney World’s Tomorrowland. And the space battles were brighter and more intense than in any previous big-screen adventure beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Of course, now, looking back on even a remastered Blu-ray, the digital spaceships and planets look rudimentary, the sort of thing that could be rendered on a laptop within minutes.

“[Nowadays] it looks kind of — and I say this fondly — wonky here and there,” Betuel said, laughing. “There were just growing pains.” He also noted that the effects engineers were building the computer software needed to generate the visuals at the same time, helping to set the stage for the endless CGI-filled movies we see today.

The computer graphics industry was an incestuous pool of engineers and their powerful toys in the early ’80s, and The Last Starfighter was the Frankenstein’s Monster created when many of them worked together. The company that made Starfighter’s effects — Digital Productions, of DP —  was started by Gary Demos and John Whitney Jr., two former employees of the firm that created the digital graphics for Tron; they had also worked with George Lucas in the ’70s, when a small group of visionaries started experimenting with the nascent technology. In fact, the inventor of Lucasfilm’s famous Dykstraflex camera, John Dykstra, had his company provide explosion images that were then scanned into the computer and used in the film. 

But all those brilliant minds were still in the early stages of building the technology, and it would take years for Hollywood to fully embrace CGI — partly due to cost, and partly for business reasons (the reluctance of older filmmakers didn’t help, either). After Starfighter, DP made a digital sequence for Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, as well as test footage for Dune. Then DP was bought by an ambitious tech company, Omnibus Computer Graphics, Inc., in a hostile takeover after a financial crunch. While Omnibus was forced to declare bankruptcy a year later, DP’s technology, engineers, and artists went on to work for a who’s who of other CG firms around Hollywood, doing work on films like the Terminator series, Jurassic Park, and Men in Black, among many others.

Remarkably, reviews at the time hardly mentioned the effects either way, perhaps because the film’s marketing focused more on Alex’s adventure (tag line: “He didn’t find his dreams, his dreams found him”). And in general, while reviews for The Last Starfighter were mostly positive, few were effusive; for the most part, the film was seen as a minor entry in the growing sci-fi canon of the era, aimed at children and families. And given the aforementioned glut of high-profile films out in theaters at the time, Starfighter’s final box-office haul made it a one-and-done proposition.

While there was no “To be continued” title card, the filmmakers had clearly intended The Last Starfighter to be the first of many big-screen adventures. At the end, Alex comes back down to Earth to see his family and friends, but he’s quickly summoned for duty once again. This time, Maggie goes with him, and little Louis climbs up to the arcade to begin his own training. Unfortunately, it was game over for the would-be franchise — or at least a very, very long pause.

Still, for a generation of young fans, the mix of new technology and classic story was a revelation — and one not soon forgotten, thanks to the endless play on HBO and cable that Starfighter received in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And for those kids who did see the film, Starfighter quickly took hold of their imaginations.

“I think [the movie] had almost the same level of impact as Star Wars, and I don’t say that lightly,” said Whitta, whose credits also include The Book of Eli. “It was speaking directly to me. It was earthbound, so I could imagine being that kid. And it tied in to something we were all into: video games.”

Whitta remembers scouring arcades in his native London, looking for the Starfighter video game; without the Internet, he and his friends had no way of knowing that the game was fictional and really just loops of computer effects designed for the film. As it turns out, they did almost get their wish: “There was a deal for a game, but someone pulled their money, and they just got really scared,” Guest said. “Things were a lot different in 1984.”

At one point, Atari even developed a game that would have attracted young Starfighters in arcades around the world, but it was dashed over prohibitive costs (Atari still got a credit in the film for designing the video game “played” by Alex). Home versions of the game were also abandoned and later ported into other titles.

The disappointment of not finding a real Starfighter in the arcade lingered for a Texas doctor named E.A. Vance, who spends his spare time collecting movie props and programming full versions of fictional games. In 2003, after completing a version of the game Space Paranoids featured in Tron, he began looking into how he could bring Starfighter to life.

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“I think for anybody who grew up at that time and played arcade games, it was every nerd’s fantasy to get good enough in the game that it’ll pay off, and you get to actually be in the game,” he told Yahoo Movies.  

Soon after he began researching how he might make the game a reality, Vance acquired the replica arcade cabinet that was used as a prop in the Crossing the Frontier documentary, a DVD extra that chronicled the making of The Last Starfighter. He also procured the original tape reels of voiceover that Preston recorded for the ill-fated Atari adaptation, which he then included in his own version of the game. After 18 months of coding work, Vance had created a fully interactive Starfighter arcade game, based on the levels shown onscreen and the weapons used in the film’s battle sequences.

Unfortunately, the game, which was uploaded in 2006, is playable only on Windows-based computers. Therefore, Mac users’ best shot at enjoying some fan-driven nostalgia is to attend packed screenings of the film during conventions such as the annual Fantastic Fest and at repertory theaters such as the Alamo Drafthouse and L.A.’s two American Cinematheque venues — the latter of which hosted a cast reunion and screening of the film in April as part of its “Space Invaders: Sci-Fi in the Arcade Age” series. More than 300 fans attended the weeknight event.

One of those quiet superfans, a Chicagoan named Tim Gonzales, cut a “modernized” trailer of the film that went viral last fall. Gonzales told Yahoo Movies that he was inspired to recut a “moody, adrenaline-filled” spot after watching the movie for the umpteenth time on Blu-ray. It was a passion project that further awakened a dormant fan base, filled with people who felt a personal connection to the film.

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Another option for fans looking to extend the experience: downloading the soundtrack to The Last Starfighter: A New Musical, which ran off-Broadway at different times between 2004 and 2007. The show — which was performed at events such as the New York Musical Theatre Festival — was an authorized production, earnestly and comically adapting the space adventure for stage.

The musical’s book and lyrics were written by Skip Kennon, who was hesitant to talk about the show or his contract laws that authorized it. Instead, he deferred to Betuel, who has carefully guarded the property for years.

Here’s where things generally reach a dead end for those interested in The Last Starfighter and its potential future — and there are a lot of people interested in the latter. In an age of sequels, spinoffs, reboots, and remakes, the purportedly mysterious status of the rights to The Last Starfighter has flummoxed a generation of writers who grew up with the original.

Because The Last Starfighter wasn’t a preexisting property like a comic book or TV show — a rarity in this day and age — the rights to use its name and characters are not as obvious as, say, Disney owning the rights to an unused Marvel character. Years of Hollywood mergers and splits make it even more complicated.

The movie was distributed by Universal Studios, but it was made by Lorimar Productions, an independent studio that was better known for TV shows such as The Waltons, Full House, and Dallas. Lorimar was bought by Warner Bros. in 1989 and fully absorbed into the conglomerate by 1992. Multiple sources told Yahoo that Universal still has both theatrical and home distribution rights, while Warner Bros. has international distribution rights.

But producing a remake or sequel is another distinct right and is sometimes reserved by the original writer even after selling adaptation and distribution rights. According to one source, Universal owns the right to remake the movie, while Betuel has sequel rights. Another source says that Universal and Warners co-control remake and sequel rights, which helps explain some of the confusion.

“You’ve got this completely byzantine, impenetrable situation where no one seems to know exactly what the deal is,” Whitta said. “Whenever I’ve been in a room in Hollywood, the conversation [goes to], ‘Is there a way to do Starfighter?’ [Executives] will say, ‘We looked into it — there’s no way to get the rights; we don’t understand but can’t get them.’ There are a lot of writers who would kill to have the opportunity to tell a new Starfighter story.”

Whitta tries not to let himself get too deep into his own Starfighter sequel pitch, but can’t help enthuse about writing a sequel that might focus on Alex’s younger brother, who begins playing the Starfighter arcade game at the end of the original. Whitta’s not the only one who has thought in detail about a new film, either.

As Seth Rogen said in a widely remarked-upon tweet this winter, not only had he looked into securing the rights, but even Steven Spielberg — whose ‘70s and ‘80s sci-fi output in some ways created the template for The Last Starfighter — had failed to acquire the rights to make it.

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The consensus at the time was that Betuel owned the rights to the film, had gone into hiding, and was acting as the thorn in the side of any sort of derivative movie. But that is far from the truth, Betuel promises.

“I saw that, and it painted me as the Howard Hughes, bah humbug, standing in the way,” he said, laughing. “That was hilarious. Hilarious and inaccurate.”

For starters, Betuel has hardly disappeared. Though he made a few other movies over the decade following Starfighter (including Theodore Rex, which starred Whoopi Goldberg and a talking dinosaur), he’s carved out a thriving second career in the field that Starfighter helped pioneer, co-founding the visual-effects company Luma Pictures in 2002.

And he’s not exactly holding up progress on another Starfighter adventure. In fact, he wrote a sequel four or five years ago, but legal issues kept a nascent production from taking off. He’s still trying to get the franchise off the ground; when asked what happened to the other two chapters he had originally written, Betuel hinted, albeit cryptically, that there was more to come.

“This gets tied up in all kinds of stuff [regarding] what the next step is, and I’m working on that right now… There are a lot of things going on that will see the light of day,” he said, keeping things vague but promising more news to come. “It’s complicated, it’s great, it’s a privilege, and it’s going to be taken care of… It’s good to be working with a team that wants to see it go. I think that the story deserves to continue.”

And so, after 30 years of quietly buzzing around the subconscious memories of ’80s kids and a generation of geeks, The Last Starfighter may yet take off again. But even if it doesn’t, well, its star is OK with that too.

“Most of us have come across a movie that was maybe not so popular when it came out, and were like, ‘Hey, this is a great movie,’” Guest reflected. “I think that’s what happened with Starfighter. Even if it didn’t translate into box-office power, it is to me a legitimized movie. It makes me feel good, because I was a big fan of cult movies, a big fan of things that weren’t necessarily overexposed but earned their own credibility through just people liking it. And I feel that way about The Last Starfighter.”