The Last Starfighter 4K UHD Review
4K UHD Release: May 30, 2023
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 4.1, English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 100:29
Director: Nick Castle
Note: Portions of this review have been copied over or slightly edited from my 2020 DVDTalk review of the Arrow Blu-ray, which contains the same extras. Alex Rogan has big dreams. Currently stuck working as the de facto handyman in the trailer park where he lives with his mom and younger brother, he intends to go to an out-of-state college with his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and leave small-town life behind. As it turns out, a great opportunity does land in his lap, only it's not from the bank processing his loan application -- instead, it's a mysterious man who calls himself Centauri (Robert Preston). As it turns out, Alex's hours playing the Starfighter arcade machine in the trailer park picnic area have served as an audition for Centauri, who is desperate to find anyone with enough skill to join the battle against the Ko-Dan Armada. Alex is reluctant at first, but with the encouragement of his unflaggingly optimistic alien co-pilot Grig (Dan O'Herlihy), he finds himself flying into battle as the last hope for the heroic Rylans.
The Last Starfighter is one of those films that seems to exist near the outer fringes of '80s nostalgia, in the same stratosphere as Tron (also about a video game that becomes real, albeit in a much different way), or Flash Gordon (another space adventure). Having underperformed in theaters, the movie has a smaller pop culture footprint than some of its contemporaries (even the Atari video game advertised in the credits, an obvious tie-in if there ever was one, never actually materialized), although fans of the film could find shout-outs on fellow cult-audience favorites like "Community" and the "Clerks" animated series (or, for better or worse -- I'd argue worse -- Ernie Cline's novels Ready Player One and Armada). What's interesting is that the elements that make The Last Starfighter fun are not especially obscure: this is pretty straightforward popcorn entertainment that all kinds of audiences should enjoy.
Several key players in Starfighter's success are alumni from the Halloween franchise. Director Nick Castle played Michael Myers in parts of the 1978 original, and he was visiting John Carpenter in the editing bay for Halloween II when he first heard about Lance Guest, who broke into film acting with that film and would end up being cast as Alex Rogan. Later, the ensemble would also acquire Dan O'Herlihy, who played the villain in Halloween III. The connection is basically trivia, given they all worked on different entries, but all three men, along with Catherine Mary Stewart and Robert Preston, are the heart of Starfighter, which is driven by performances and character even as the film moves into special effects territory. Guest and Stewart have a fun romantic/comic chemistry, and O'Herlihy and Preston bring a theatricality to their roles that both nail the tone of the film, which is lighthearted and funny without being silly.
When the film came out in 1984, the special effects sequences in the film were cutting edge, but by today's standards, the textureless 3D models on display here look amusingly primitive. Thankfully, Castle has an excellent grip on where and when to deploy the effects, with shots timed to be quick enough and lit with enough realism that a good chunk of the movie holds up even when the computer graphics obvious. The film also has great production design and solid practical effects, including Grig's lizard-like makeup, and a couple of comedy sequences with a "Beta Unit" (a shapeshifting stand-in) that takes on Alex's appearance to fill in for him while he's gone. While some of the tricks employed are easy to spot, Castle follows the humor and the story so that the film never feels like it's stopping in its tracks to dazzle the audience. The entire package is also greatly enhanced by Craig Safran's music, which is not just memorable and thrilling, but feels like it carves out its own unique identity next to famous '80s scores like Star Wars and Back to the Future.
The Last Starfighter might not achieve the action or adventure highs of the decade's biggest movies, but there is a consistency and joy to this little movie that makes it an obvious winner. So much of the pleasure of Starfighter is right on the surface, in the interactions between Alex and Grig, or Alex and Centauri, or Alex and Maggie, or Maggie and the Beta Unit. The film ends in a way that strongly suggests some kind of sequel or follow-up chronicling Alex's further Starfighter adventures. There's no question a sequel could be fun, but maybe the fact that one hasn't materialized is yet another reflection of The Last Starfighter's modest pleasures.
The transformation of several of Universal's ugly, over-sharpened, grain-scrubbed HD masters (most of which were probably initially created for late-'90s DVD releases!) to beautiful, filmic Arrow UHDs has been one of the 4K format's greatest joys, especially considering the depth of the studios vault of pop culture mainstays. This upgrade to their 2020 Blu-ray release utilizes the same remastered presentation, while adding HDR, with support for Dolby Vision and HDR10. As with that Blu-ray, this 2.35:1 transfer is gorgeous, presenting The Last Starfighter with a clarity that really allows the viewer to take in the various sets and costumes (as well as the early CGI, the look of which may make younger viewers laugh). To be fair, the film definitely has a softness, especially during optical visual effects sequences, but any limitations to the sharpness of the visuals are organic and accurate to how the film ought to look. Red tones, in particular, including the Lorimar logo that opens the film, the "Trailer Park" neon sign Alex leans against when he thinks his dreams are crumbling, and the various displays of enemy battleships, are gloriously and richly saturated, with no sign of revisionist color timing. There may be some question as to whether the transfer is a touch dark, but I'd also rather have nice rich inky shadows than soupy grays (not to mention, the shadows help at least some of the CGI hold up better than, say, Tron's CGI, so I can't say it bothered me).
As with Arrow's Blu-ray, three audio options are included, and presumably identical to the Blu-ray editions. The default track on this disc is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, but as this is a remix done for Universal's Blu-ray (which is reportedly missing a sound cue), I switched between the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and 4.1 mixes, which were done for the theatrical release (the latter specifically for the film's 70mm blow-up release). Both sound good, but the edge belongs to the 4.1 mix, with Craig Safran's triumphant score taking center stage. There is no issue with effects and music overpowering the dialogue, which is always clean and clear, and there are many thrilling uses of the side channels during the film's various outer-space and earthbound action sequences. Optional English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Commentary with director Nick Castle and production designer Ron Cobb – A port from the 1999 DVD.
Commentary with actor Lance Guest and his son Jackson Guest – This is a charming father-son experience that mixes some interesting anecdotes with the enjoyable vibe of listening to the pair interact and razz one another. Sound is a little strange sometimes, as the Guests recorded it in their home, but it never detracts from the experience even when their voices shift and warp a bit.
Commentary with Mike White of the Projection Booth podcast – Going into this track, I wondered how much value a third track could offer, especially from someone not involved with the production, but White proves himself to be a fine commentator, delivering a fact-filled chat that's more akin to the work of a film historian than a fan (which, for the record, is not a sleight against fan tracks, just a difference of expectations).
The video extras on this edition were produced during the pandemic, so, with the exception of the final interview, all were conducted remotely, with the first two conducted via video call, and the others as audio only. Video quality of these interviews is a mixed bag, so the featurettes are built around the audio from the interview laid over clips from the film, with the participants infrequently appearing on the right side of the screen in black-and-white.
Maggie's Memories: Revisiting The Last Starfighter (9:28, HD) – Catherine Mary Stewart talks about landing the role, her relationship to arcade games and how that fed into the movie's popularity, the fun of filming the scenes with "Beta Unit" Alex, working on an effects film and seeing the finished results.
Into the Starscape: Composing The Last Starfighter (12:20, HD) – Craig Safan breaks down his approach to the movie's score, which is all built around a single theme rather than individual themes for each character, devising a different approach than John Williams for the space sequences, and his satisfaction with the overall experience.
Incredible Odds: Writing The Last Starfighter (9:27, HD) – Screenwriter Jonathan Betuel discusses his life when he wrote the film, how it ended up with Lorimar, his relationship with Nick Castle, the ideas and themes he wanted to get into the film, the looming shadow of Star Wars, and the possibility of expanding on the Starfighter story.
Interstellar Hit-Beast: Creating the Special Effects (10:14, HD) – Visual effects supervisor Kevin Pike speaks at length about various practical effects created for the movie, from everyday things like the neon lights at the trailer park to more futuristic things like Alex's rotating gunner chair.
Excalibur Test: Inside Digital Productions (7:46, HD) – Greg Bear of OMNI Magazine looks back at the company that created the film's groundbreaking CGI. Bear recalls his visit to the company (bringing along Ray Bradbury, in an attempt to impress the employees!), discussing the mood in the wake of Tron's underwhelming box office performance, the possibilities that Digital Productions was talking about the time, and the kind of footage he was shown during his visit.
Greetings Starfighter! Inside the Arcade Game (7:24, HD) – Arcade game collector Estil Vance describes reconstructing the game made for the film, which is advertised as coming from Atari in the film's credits but never actually materialized. After collecting several arcade games, he decided he wanted to create some of the fictional games from films that were never made into real arcade machines, starting withTron's "Space Paranoids," before eventually tackling "Starfighter." It's a fun little feature, although of course it would probably be more fun to play the game itself.
Crossing the Frontier (32:01, SD) – From Universal's 1999 DVD.
Heroes of the Screen (24:18, HD) – From Universal's 2009 Blu-ray.
Image gallery – from Universal's 1999 DVD.
Theatrical teaser and trailer
Although Arrow only provided a check disc for the purposes of review, their "Limited Edition" of The Last Starfighter appears to simply be a UHD version of their first pressing of the Blu-ray. That's not a complaint, either: I own that pressing of the Blu-ray, and it's fantastic: an excellent piece of artwork by Matt Ferguson graces the front of both the sleeve and a foil slipcover with a rubbery/velvety finish, with great shiny highlights that appear to light up the ship diagrams surrounding a silhouette of Alex at the arcade console. The title itself (and the Starfighter emblems on the spine) have a glossy finish that make it stand out against the more matte-like finish of the rest of the slip. The slip only uses a small piece of the box copy on the back, so the slip and sleeve are not identical, and the design leaves room for more of Ferguson's design. The special features and credits appear on the rear of the sleeve, and the art can be reversed to display one of the film's original theatrical posters (not the same poster that graced the front of Universal's Collector's Edition DVD, with Alex standing off to the side looking up at the stars, but one that centers him, holding his helmet, with the planets behind him). Also included: a fold-out reversible poster featuring the same two pieces of art as the reversible sleeve, and sizable booklet, featuring an essay by Amanda Reyes, and a 1984 OMNI Magazine article by Greg Bear, about the special effects. Arrow is arguably the best boutique out there in terms of the physical package, and The Last Starfighter is one of their most beautiful standard editions, so assuming it is as identical as I expect it is, it's nice that UHD owners get a chance to own this handsome set.
The Last Starfighter is a charming, straightforward space adventure that holds up with its 40th anniversary right around the corner. Fans who have lived with Universal's notoriously ugly Blu-ray get a massive upgrade with this Arrow 4K, and even those who are simply jumping from Arrow's Blu-ray should find the double dip is worth it. The UHD is packed to the rafters with a ton of recent extras as well as two generations of archival material.
The images on this page are taken from Arrow's Blu-ray edition and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images.