“Tag: The Assassination” director Nick Castle's adventurous but derivative science-fiction fantasy "The Last Starfighter"(*** OUT OF ****) features allusions both visual and literary to "Star Wars" and "Back to the Future." Nevertheless, this harmless, lightweight, but incidentally-romantic, PG-rated saga boasts enough originality and excitement to emerge as more than just another George Lucas clone. Tom Hanks lookalike Lance Guest plays the eponymous protagonist with boyish charm, while Robert Preston, Catherine Mary Stewart, and Dan O'Herlihy all make impressions. “Corvette Summer” composer Craig Safan's boisterous orchestral music heightens the heroics. Although digital special effects were in their infancy, “The Last Starfighter” distinguished itself as the first Hollywood film to generate its own visual effects with a computer. Some could complain about the primitive quality of the CGI, but this material was ground-breaking during its theatrical release. Visually, Castle and “Invaders from Mars” lenser King Baggott have created some spectacular, outer space, starscapes, particularly when Centauri ferries Alex to Rylos in one breath-taking panning shot. Honestly, the only flaw with the state-of-the-art CGI technology is that the small screen amplifies everything so that it appears too sleek, too clean, but lacking in detail. Surely, on the big screen, the interstellar battle sequences of “The Last Starfighter” must have looked dazzling both in depth and composition. Narratively, "My Science Project" scenarist Jonathan R. Betuel and Castle have fashioned an appealing, sentimental, but exciting actioneer that alternates between space and Earth.
Before Alex realizes it, an eccentric ne'er-do-well, Centauri (Robert Preston of “The Music Man”), cruises up in a DeLorean and extends Alex an intriguing offer. Alex's record-breaking score has qualified him to serve as a pilot in the Star League an alien space fleet that is waging a rebellion against a greater evil. Centauri's DeLorean transforms into a spacecraft, and they chart a course for the stars. At the same time, Centauri has provided Alex with a Beta Unit that masquerades as our hero while Alex joins the good guys. Mind you, Alex constitutes a reluctant hero. During the briefing scene, Alex is alarmed when his new colleagues rant about “Victory or Death” against their adversaries. Initially, he doesn't want to sacrifice his life in what he sees as a lopsided battle that pits the Rylan Star League against the “Black Terror” of the Kodan Empire. Indeed, the gigantic, disembodied noggin of the opposition leader, Xur (Norman Snow), appears as a holographic image at Rylan Headquarters, and we learn Xur is the son of Ambassador Enduran (Kay E. Kuter) and that the Star League exiled him because of his Xurian cult. “I have returned for the good of all Rylans,” the outcast Ur proclaims to Enduran. Moreover, he assures his father, “There are some Rylans who would welcome me, Father.” He displays nothing but contempt for his father as well as Rylos and calls it, “A refuge for weak worlds not worthy to be our equals.” The evil Kodans launch a pre-emptive strike against Rylos and wipe out all the starfighters.
Meanwhile, Centauri has taken Alex back home so our hero can confront his Beta Unit. He discovers the evil Kodans have learned that he is the last starfighter. Unwilling to leave any loose ends, the aliens dispatch killers to eliminate Alex. Of course, Alex is the underdog who saves the good aliens from the evil ones and reunites with his girlfriend. Castle keeps the action moving with no loss of momentum. Sure, Alex is no more than a Luke Skywalker clone, but Guest makes him a nice guy. In his final film performance, Robert Preston stands out as the finagling Centauri. The aliens resemble those in the cantina scene from George Lucas' "Star Wars." Some minor profanity crops up, but nothing truly offensive.
"The Last Starfighter" ranks as a lot of fun.