The Last Starfighter gets a long way on affability. Lead Lance Guest is nothing if not affable. Robert Preston plays an affable alien grifter. Dan O’Herlihy, completely covered in makeup, is affable as Guest’s alien co-pilot. And the whole concept of the thing–video game wunderkind Guest gets transported to outer space to fight a galactic war–is affable.
And Starfighter needs that affability. It’s a long movie without any good villains (Norman Snow tries to chew scenery but director Castle is too busy trying to keep the questionable plot going) and without any engaging special effects sequences. The Last Starfighter’s special effects are almost entirely CGI. Weak CGI. They don’t mix with the live action, appearing–at best–to be cartoonish. At worst, they’re laughable. Ron Cobb’s production design never scores when the film’s up in space. Arguably the earthbound stuff, set in a trailer park, is fine. At least the trailer park has a natural flow; the space stuff is just big, relatively empty sets and a bunch of nonsense.
Because of the CGI, there’s no way to make Starfighter any better. The special effects are an albatross. Actually, when they do practical on Preston’s (idiotically conceived) “star car”–it’s a car, it’s a space ship–it looks terrible. Castle doesn’t have a knack for special effects direction. He does better on solid ground and so does cinematographer King Baggot. Baggot’s photography is perfectly fine, but once he gets into outer space and can’t do anything with the silly sets or to match the CGI sequences… well, it pales in comparison to the Earth stuff.
Craig Safan’s music is enthusiastic more than anything else. It’s occasionally effective too.
As far as the acting goes, Preston’s easily the best. He’s got a silly, fun character and he sells it. Guest is okay in the lead. He’s likable, which is most important, and sympathetic, which Castle wants to be important. Starfighter, with real special effects, might have some dramatic heft. Without, it doesn’t. But Guest still does more than all right.
O’Herlihy has a good time, which goes a long way. The alien stuff is thinly written and badly designed, so there was only going to be so far he could take it. He’s a goof, just covered in makeup. Preston’s got no makeup and, therefore, is much more expressive and successful in his goofiness.
As the girlfriend, Catherine Mary Stewart is usually likable. She’s not good, but she’s usually likable. Her part could be a lot better too. Chris Hebert is effective as Guest’s annoying little brother; he gets some of the nice comedy scenes opposite Guest. Barbara Bosson is completely wasted as Guest’s mother.
The Last Starfighter is a bit of a chore. But an affable one.
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