Drew Turney remembers one of the first sci-fi flicks to dare to use CGI, despite all kinds of problems…
There was never a better time for The Last Starfighter to exist. In 1984 pop culture was still engulfed in Star Wars mania after the conclusion of the original trilogy the year before, and the new craze of home video game consoles was set to sweep the world.
For the first time ever science fiction wasn’t about heroes and aliens in galaxies 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 all of us.
Taxi driver Jonathan Betuel wrote the original script about a teenage hero in ‘˜Spielbergia’ who gets the chance to fight in an intergalactic war. It found its way to Lorimar Productions, where in-house producer Gary Adelson liked the work of young filmmaker Nick Castle and bought him on board to work with Betuel. One of the first changes was to move the home of hero Alex Rogan from the suburban enclaves Betuel had been inspired by in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET and move him to a mountain trailer park, giving him an even deeper sense of isolation.
That led to the iconic Starlite Starbrite Trailer Court, still a general store on a lonely mountain road in Santa Clarita, about an hour north of LA.
But Adelson and Castle were also preparing to break exciting new ground. All the outer-space sequences were to be animated by computers – no small feat in 1984. “It’s not my strong suit,” Castle, now 66, reports, remember how he had little experience with special effects. “I did all the story boarding and we tried to take as much advantage of the technology as we could, but I’m sure if it were Lucas or someone that came out of that world, they’d have really hit it out of the park.”
When Castle came on board, Adelson had already lined up LA computer animation facility Digital Pictures (which predated even Pixar), run by partners John Whitney Jr and Gary Demos. The pair left their former employer over a disagreement about the resources needed for film production, set up a new company, leased a Cray supercomputer and started selling their wares despite considerable industry resistance.
‘You have an audience hungry for something new, fresh and original looking, and I think computer graphics is going to provide, for many years to come, the best in entertainment,’ said Whitney Jr at the time, probably with little idea how right he really was.
Production designer Ron Cobb (Total Recall, Aliens and The Abyss) drew up the futuristic ships, and they had to be so detailed for the computer animators to render from all angles it was said at the time they could have been schematics for engineers to build the real thing.
So in moviemaking fashion that’s now quite routine, the cast and crew shot in quiet solitude for 38 days in Santa Clarita while Digital Pictures toiled day and night to crank out rendered frames over the next 10 months.
With no actual model making and Digital Pictures trying to establish their name (offering – as Castle remembers – a pretty good deal), it was all done for $13 million, a modest sum considering even Beverly Hills Cop cost $15m that same year.
Post-production at Digital Pictures was agonising. At one point VFX coordinator Jeffrey Okun went back to Adelson to say there was no way they’d make the deadline, the production would just have to make and shoot miniatures. Adelson’s response? Forget it – go back to Digital Pictures and tell them he didn’t care how, just get it done. Staff slept in shifts on the padded bench around the Cray as it hummed away, and as history shows us, somehow they made it.
While they were generating sequences, the company also underwent a constant on-the-fly reinvention process. When work on The Last Starfighter began they’d program a sequence and wait for it to render it because there wasn’t enough computing power left to display it. So if there’d been a programming mistake at the beginning they’d have to program and render the sequence all over again.
By the end, the engineers had streamlined it so much the computer gave a realtime vector/wireframe render so everyone could see the clip before applying the surfaces, shadows, etc.
Beyond polygons and pixels
But like all movies, Adelson, Castle and Betuel knew it would rise and fall on the characters, not how they animated the battle sequences. The casting of Lance Guest as Alex was critical.
“I’d heard him referred to as a young Jimmy Stewart and I think that’s a good description,” Castle says. “He’s a handsome guy but not enough to distract from his ‘everydayness’. He wasn’t overwhelming in terms of commanding the screen, he fit in with the ensemble.”
Another often-overlooked aspect of Guest’s performance is that even at age 23 he was a natural comic. It’s even more obvious in scenes of him as Beta, the robotic double left on Earth to fool his friends and family (filmed back in LA after principal photography while Guest had a murderous head cold). “[Being funny] was the easiest part of the film,” Guest says now with a laugh. “I was just accessing a default comic persona that was heavily influenced by a college friend.”
Like Castle, Guest (now 53) remembers it as a fun popcorn movie, although he admits he took it a little seriously at the time – especially knowing he’d be accompanied in the cast by the venerable Robert Preston in his final role.
And despite auditioning the usual way, Guest found out years later that he came by the role in behind-the-scenes fashion. “Nick and John Carpenter are very good friends,” he says. “The story I heard was that Nick had seen me on the old editing machine while they were working on Halloween II [Guest’s first film role]. He said he was doing this film that I might be good for. I’m not sure he approached Lorimar with that but I know I kind of had a leg up.”
Guest also agrees he played the character of Alex much like Castle had envisioned. “To me it was so much funnier if it were to happen to a real person. He’d be much more cowardly and reluctant and much less of a movie hero. You know how so many action movie heroes just know they’re in a movie? I saw my character as behaving like he wasn’t.”
The game generation
As primitive as the effects are today, you can’t deny the film’s charm. Castle and everyone else involved just wanted to make the best-looking product they could with what they had, and The Last Starfighter is a time capsule of the limits of CGI at the time.
But it’s still so much more. Back then The Ko-Dan Armada mothership and Gunstar flown by Alex and his pilot Grig (Dan O’Herlihy) looked like the next thrilling frontier of games coming to the generation that had already fallen in love with Space Invaders and Pac Man.
The Last Starfighter was the perfect metaphor to tell us it wasn’t about Luke Skywalker or James T Kirk. The hero was every kid who suddenly had the power to fly through space shooting down enemy fighters in his or her hands.
It was a development Betuel took particular notice of when writing the first draft. “Jonathan’s original idea was based on his noticing this craze,” Castle confirms. “We both went and did a little bit more scouting to see what that was like at the time. It was earlier than the days when you had game consoles in the home, so videogame arcades really triggered the whole notion. That’s a clever hook.”
Of course, it was an idea that made it right through to the finished production, when the arcade game ‘Starfighter‘ Alex plays every day on the porch of the general store turns out to be a recruiting tool to identify the best pilots from across the galaxy. Even though the end credits promised a working arcade version of the game it was never released, Atari’s then-president considering the $10,000 price tag per unit too expensive (today you can download the game mod as an .exe file).
Even though the film wasn’t a big commercial success, Hollywood sat up and took notice, and the proof is now in the pudding. ILM visual effects supervisor John Knoll called the decision to do the effects entirely with CGI ‘gutsy’, and today CGI is as critical to your $200m summer blockbuster as a fizzy drink tie-in.
“I’m sure when it was done people saw the possibilities more than they had before,” Castle says, quite understating the impact. From James Cameron to the next phase of George Lucas, the grand statesmen of the industry would all embrace digital filmmaking and do spectacular things with it.
And it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest it all started with Alex Rogan and a Rylan Gunstar.
Director Nick Castle has people come up to him telling him they love The Last Starfighter , but not for the reason you think.
If you’re enough of a trivia hound, you’ll know Castle was a sometime actor, and that’s him under the Michael Myers mask in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). The idea of going to horror conventions to capitalise on the role never appealed (‘What did I really do in that movie but walk around with a mask on?’).
It was the idea of an agent colleague to put on a combined horror/sci-fi convention, and Castle decided to give it a try. “They were coming up to get an autograph for Halloween but when they found out about The Last Starfighter a lot of people told me they loved it as a kid. A lot of people that would’ve been maybe six or 10 at the time are the ones that really, really love it. I think that’s the age group that was really affected by it.”
The Next-to-Last Starfighter
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know a new Starfighter has been talked about for almost a decade. Jonathan Betuel has a screenplay and storyboards have been drawn, but it remains in development hell. One of the most intriguing plans was to shoot it in 3D – several years before James Cameron became the king of the format with Avatar.
“I’m always interested in a sequel,” star Lance Guest says. “I wouldn’t be into a remake. I don’t like remakes so much unless it’s going to be better, and I don’t think anyone could be better than us.”
And what if someone else took The Next Starfighter on and asked Castle’s advice? “Maintain the tone,” he says. “And not get too violent. I mean, most action movies now get more violent than The Last Starfighter ever was, and a sequel would get more violent as well, I guess. But I think it’d probably be a mistake to go in that direction.”