Victory or Death!

The music of THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984)

If you had asked eight-year-old me what my favorite movie was, I’d probably have answered THE LAST STARFIGHTER. As a child of the 80s, I grew up immersed in the video game arcade boom that happened during that time, and this film taps into that phenomenon like no other of that era perhaps other than TRON (1982).

Essentially a retelling of the classic King Arthur/Sword in the Stone tale, as the film opens we find teenager Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) toiling away as the gopher for his mother, who runs the nondescript “Starlite/Starbrite” trailer park somewhere in California. His only means of escape from the constant calls of the park’s inhabitants to fix their electric or plumb their toilets is the Starfighter video game.

When we first meet Alex, he’s playing the game as he is found by his younger brother Louis (Chris Hebert). Louis has been sent by his mom to give Alex yet another repair job. All Alex wants to do is go out to the lake with his girlfriend, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), and their friends, but once again he gets called back to help out. The scene ends with Alex’s friends (and girlfriend) driving off, laughing at his predicament as calls for his help echo around him.

He’s miserable.

Again, his only refuge is the video game after a full day of working around the park that causes him to miss catching up with the gang at the lake (though Maggie does come home early). On this night, however, Alex makes it further in the game than he ever has before, causing Otis, the old man who owns the store where the game is located, to call the whole trailer park over to watch. Now, is it cheesy and more than a little unrealistic that a bunch of adults and seniors would excitedly run up to watch some kid play a video game? Absolutely. Do I care? Not at all. I enjoy the fact that everyone in this little community likes one another, and that they are rooting for Alex, even in something as mundane as a video game. My favorite shot in this sequence is the brief cut of even the local cat cheering him on.

Turns out, though, this is more than a video game. That night, a mysterious man named Centauri (Robert Preston in his last film role) drives up and entices Alex with a “proposition” and asks him to get in the back seat of the car. As all us children of the 80s cringe, Alex does so and it’s not long after, Centauri drives off a break-neck speed. Preston is channeling his best Harold Hill (THE MUSIC MAN) here, essentially playing the same con man only one we will soon find out does not come from Earth.

Suddenly, the tunnel the car has entered ends with a phalanx of construction caution lights. As Alex panics, Centauri calmly hits a button on the dash, and Alex and the audience are suddenly transported into another universe. Alex is headed for the stars, as the car takes off into the sky; for the audience, we have entered the realm of (attempted) photo-real CGI for the first time.

THE LAST STARFIGHTER was the first time a film attempted to do all of its visual effects with computers, and to be honest, I think it’s largely successful. While there are obvious flaws here and there—the most obvious is the melted ice cream-looking landscapes (ironically, the CGI was capable of doing excellent landscapes, but it would have taken two years to render the shots needed for the film). There are also some excellent shots that hold up better than some of the CGI in the 90s and 2000s (probably because they knew their limitations and largely stayed within them).

It turns out that the video game Alex has been playing is a simulation of an actual war taking place in the stars, and by beating the game, he has declared himself worthy of becoming an actual Starfighter to, as the game declares, defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada.

Greetings Starfighter! You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada!

Vintage 1984 Nightmare Fuel

Alex is, rather understandably, furious. Despite some encouragement from navigator Grig (a fantastic Dan O’Herlihy) and Centauri, Alex demands to go back home. Yet, what Alex doesn’t know is that there is a replacement Alex already home in the form of a “Beta Unit” who is simultaneously having trouble navigating the intricacies of being a teenager in the 80s. While mostly played for laughs, his first appearance is one of those “scarred for life” moments in cinema that children these days just don’t get anymore.

At this point, I’m sure you’re worried that I’m going to do a complete recap of the film. Fear not. The reality is that I could talk about this movie for several thousand more words, but I will resist the urge, because that’s not really why you’re reading this blog. I’ll touch on the plot off and on going forward, but in the meantime…

The Music

Craig Safan

When it came time to finding a composer for the film, Nick Castle turned to Craig Safan, with whom he had worked previously on his first feature film, TAG: THE ASSASSINATION GAME (1982). At the time, Safan was still considered and up-and-comer with a jazz, rock, and electronic background. He had also written a few fully orchestrated scores, including a rejected score to WOLFEN (1981) that was replaced by one written by James Horner.

Castle knew that the story of his film—backwater kid is recruited to fight in a galactic war—would immediately draw parallels to STAR WARS, and this concern was no different for Safan. Understanding that the score was unavoidably going to be compared to John Williams, Safan turned away from the Holst-inspired orchestrations of STAR WARS, and instead embraced the French horn- and woodwind-heavy style of composers like Jean Sibelius. Relative to the norm for performing film scores, the orchestra assembled by Safan was enormous with close to 100 players: four woodwind parts each, six French horns, and six trumpets.

This size is felt immediately in the rousing Main Title that opens the film, which features three sections: an opening fanfare, a lyrical version of the main theme on strings, and a brass-forward version of the same theme.

While I admit to being a complete fanboy for this movie, this theme really is one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy themes from the 80s, and to this day I’ve occasionally heard it played in promos and other things on television.

Excerpt from “Main Titles”

One of the things I love about this theme is that it’s extremely versatile. While it is played mainly in a 4/4 meter and serves as the primary heroic motif for the film, Safan also presents it in a slower 3/4 meter to give it a more romantic feel, both in terms of the romance between Alex and Maggie but also Alex’s longing for a life that is more than what he has.

“Alex Dreams”

While the main theme is extremely prominent in the film (probably on par with what Alan Silvestri did for BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)), it’s not the only theme in the film. Centauri, and by extension the people of Rylos, have a theme that first makes an appearance towards the end of the Main Titles and later during the scene where Alex beats the video game. It truly moves to the fore later in the scene where Centauri meets Alex and drives off in the Star Car.

Embracing electronics to a much greater degree than Williams had, Centauri’s theme heavily features an electronic wind instrument (EWI), which is fingered like a woodwind but, as it’s name suggests, produces a sound electronically.

Excerpt from “Centauri Into Space”
Photo of Richard Gibbs
Richard Gibbs

Safan’s inspiration for the theme was that of a snake charmer’s song, and it’s easy to hear that in the winding melody being played. Augmented by woodwinds, the EWI on the score was performed by Richard Gibbs of Oingo Boingo, who would later go on to score the miniseries revival of Battlestar Galactica, working with Bear McCreary who would ultimately end up scoring the show.

I think this theme works well for Centauri, as it’s fun and somewhat mysterious, but the use of the EWI and other electronics certainly dates the score. I can see how this might put off new listeners, but it doesn’t affect my ability to enjoy the score at all.

As mentioned above, this was the first film to produce all of its visual effects though CGI. One of the consequences of this is that Craig Safan was often asked to score scenes, particularly towards the end of the film. In an interview for the expanded Intrada release, Safan said the following:

I would be given a shot—let’s say a space battle. All I would really see would be a black screen on my video, and a little white pinpoint that would move across the screen, and then another one, so that it looked like a sort of slow-motion version of Pong! And Nick [Castle] would say, ‘This is the Ko-Dan warship. And this is the Gunstar fighter coming in. And this is an explosion. And none of it was there!

Craig Safan

This makes it all the more remarkable that the score works as well as it does. One of the sequences that works brilliantly, both musically and visually, is when Alex is first put aboard the real Gunstar and provided training in the form of “target lights.” Very early on in the movie, we are introduced to the target light concept as the opening level of the video game. Here, we find out that these really do exist as a training tool for Starfighters. It’s a wonderful scene that shows off the production design of the Gunstar, Safan’s score, and some wonderful work by Dan O’Herlighy as Grig, the “gung-ho iguana.” I also love the, “It’ll be a slaughter!” exchange between Alex and Grig here.

“No, MY slaughter!”

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Beta Unit version of Alex has continued to struggle with concepts like making out with your girlfriend by the lake. Frustrated, he comes clean to Maggie—he’s NOT Alex Rogan. Unfortunately, he is overheard by an agent (in disguise as a cop) sent by Xur to kill the real Alex. This leads to a chase scene with Beta and Maggie stealing their friend’s truck. Ultimately, Maggie jumps, but Beta rams the agent’s ship, killing them both.

The score that accompanies this scene works well, and I especially like the follow up later that reprises the main theme, as Alex prepares to take on the Ko-Dan Armada and looks at a photo of Maggie while she comes to accept that the real Alex is up in space.

“Good Luck Starfighter”

To this point, I haven’t touched on the villains of the film much. Truth be told, Safan didn’t do much thematic development for Xur or the Ko-Dan, choosing instead to use some classic “bad guy” chord progressions for the most part. One sequence that really does work for me is when we are first truly introduced to the antagonists of the movie. Starting with an incredible (for the time, and I still think it holds up) CGI sequence introducing the Frontier and the Ko-Dan fleet and ending with the apparent destruction of the Star League headquarters, these scenes also allow Craig Safan the opportunity to flesh out his thematic ideas for both sides of this interstellar war that we the audience (and Alex) have been thrown into:

My absolute favorite sequence in the movie is actually the very end of the movie. Having saved the Star League, Alex returns home to the trailer park, shocking and terrifying his family and friends. At this point, only Maggie knows that it’s Alex, and this leads to some humorous moments like everyone cowering from Grig (a “monster!) and Granny threatening him with a shotgun. Alex has, of course, come back to say goodbye but also to take Maggie back with him, and Safan scores the scene with the main theme again in the more lyrical 3/4 setting.

“Alex Returns”

Alex convinces Maggie to come into space with him, and as they lift off from the Starlite/Starbrite trailer park, Alex’s brother Louis has gone back to the video game, watching the intro as the real-life Gunstar takes off behind him. The music, lighting, and practical and visual effects come together perfectly (never mind the fact that everyone is standing right next to the game and then they disappear). I LOVE the moment right at the end, when Louis watches the introduction to the video game and then looks up to see the real-life Gunstar taking off. The visuals and the music come together in an incredible moment that works best in Louis’s own words: “WOWWWWHOWWW!!!” Anyone who rags on the CGI in this movie (mostly unwarranted as far as I’m concerned) should watch this sequence again.

Again: is it cheesy that Alex has come home to take his girlfriend into space with him? Yes. Is it cheesy that all of the trailer park comes out and waves “bye!” to both of them as they leave? Yes. Do I care? No. Reviewing your favorite movies, particularly those that you fell in love with at an early age, is extremely difficult. I know this movie has flaws. I just can’t see them. Similarly, this is a score that I have loved for all but a handful of my years. If anyone has a similar attachment to this movie or score, I would love to hear about it. Or do you have a different movie that comes to mind in terms of something you cannot see objectively? If so, I would love to hear from you in the comments! In the meantime: VICTORY OR DEATH!

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One response to “Victory or Death!”

  1. Jack Woltz Avatar
    Jack Woltz

    Solid movie that holds up over time. The only thing I would change is the final battle. Doesn’t it seem like he beats the final boss by just pressing a button and holding on? I feel like it would have been more satisfying if more skill had been deployed.

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