According to postmodernism, and cynics, nothing is new anymore. Every story has already been told. Cinephiles know that certainly feels true, with all of the remakes and sequels getting big-budget releases nowadays. But this has nearly always been the case. Looking back at some of the greatest and most dearly cherished films and stories through history it is easy to recognize classic mythological narratives and patterns. It is the interpretations and application of these formulas that distinguish them from one another and make a film succeed or fail.
The hero’s journey, or monomyth, is easily recognizable and has deep roots. The basic structure of these journeys is when a hero is called onto an adventure, has a crisis, but wins the battle, and returns home a changed person. This framework is incredibly broad, and can encompass every tale from Jesus to Harry Potter. It is the variation between the details in each of these stages that makes the stories interesting.
THE LAST STARFIGHTER is a classic example of the monomyth, with a few noted devices to set it apart from the crowd. Released the year after RETURN OF THE JEDI, it was well poised to scoop up audiences who were looking to fill their space adventure void. Rather than being set on a distant milk farm, it instead takes place in America’s heartland. Living in a trailer park with his mother and little brother, Alex (Lance Guest) wants to do something different with his life. He has little interest in typical teenage activities, aside from having a caring girlfriend (Catherine Mary Stewart), and wants to get away from the park for college next year. His aloofness manifests itself in his obsession with an arcade game near the park’s offices. The Starfighter game lets him escape to a world where his is a flying sharpshooter and his skills make him a hero. After setting a high score record, Alex gets a visit from a peculiar stranger. Centauri (Robert Preston) breaks the news to Alex that he invented the game as a recruiting tool, and that everything the game depicts is real. Alex is then swiftly whisked away into space to live the life he was previously just virtually visiting. Crises (personal and military) crop up both in space and at home, but the victory promised in the hero’s journey eventually is rewarded and Alex is changed and triumphant.
THE LAST STARFIGHTER has a few claims to fame, outside of its position in the monomyth. Notably, it is the last screen appearance of Robert Preston. The jovial song and dance man is given a fitting final performance as the maestro of the Starfighters. He is smart, charming, and persuasive to a nearly unnerving degree. Seeing Preston have one last romp saving the universe softens the sting of losing him.
THE LAST STARFIGHER also has a major superlative as the first film to use computer generated graphics for most of its special effects. While there are still plenty of practical effects, namely many alien species as guys in rubber suits, but the scenes of spaceships and lasers are all digital. In 1984 this was a fairly new application of the technology, and to our modern eyes the images do look quite dated. But given the film’s complete saturation within 1980 culture, these outmoded visuals feel at home next to the Walkmen and feathered bangs. THE LAST STARFIGHTER is undeniable a product of its time, but being a technological trailblazer means that it helped define what those times are.
The primary differentiating factor with THE LAST STARFIGHTER that helps it from disappearing into the mass of hero journeys is the nature of Alex’s heroic skill: He is a gamer. In our current culture, the depiction of people who obsessively play video games, especially young men, is overwhelmingly negative. They are shown as basement dwellers with no aspirations beyond their imaginary quests and seem to be content in the stagnation of their lives. Alex’s gaming is shown as an occasional nuisance, but for the most part it is not a bad thing. Outside of the arcade, he is the most ambitious person in his community, and the only one to try to get out of there for college. And when Alex challenges the scoring record on the Starfighter game, all of his neighbors gather around to cheer him on. They all see his gaming accomplishments as something to be celebrated, even before they know that the high score is his ticket to space.
Many traditional hero journeys begin with a hero who is endowed with their gifts at birth. Harry Potter is born with the destiny to destroy Voldemort and bring peace back to the wizarding world. Luke Skywalker was born not only with Jedi juice running through his veins, but with the destiny to bring peace back to the force.
Conversely, many more hero journeys focus on a hero who merely stumbles into their quests. Alice unwittingly falls down the rabbit hole to Wonderland, and finds her purpose once there. Dorothy is whisked away to Oz via the tornado, and it is in Oz that she becomes a hero. And Bill and Ted are regular California slackers, on the verge of failing their history exam, before they are yanked into time travel by Rufus into their excellent adventure.
Alex’s introduction to his hero’s journey is different in that he earns it. Centauri is quick to praise fate and luck when he finally finds Alex, but it is more than that. There are a hundred people who could have played that arcade game. It was out in the open air, begging everyone to try and save the universe. However, Alex is the one who takes the time and dedicates himself to the game. He sinks hours into fighting space-enemies, without knowing that the game is his ticket to a life less ordinary. The game lets him prove to Centauri that he not only has the tactical skills to succeed as a Starfighter, but also the commitment and the imagination to dream of a world outside of his trailer park.
Psychologically, the escape fantasy of the monomyth can help us cope with the mundanity of our everyday lives. Daydreaming of finding out that your parents are really wizards, or that a tornado will come along and take you away from your boring life is a powerful way to cope.
THE LAST STARFIGHTER makes this fantasy a little more attainable. Instead of a birthright or a random coincidence, you can earn it. Hard work and passion, even for things as trivial as videogames, can empower you to leave this world for a more exciting life.