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What if you got a really high score in a video game, and the game came to life? Well that's sort of what happens in The Last Starfighter, which serves as both an exploration and a Deconstruction of wish fulfillment.
Alex Rogan spent his whole life stuck in his family's trailer park, but his wish to leave it turned into more than he bargained for when the space-shooter arcade game he managed to beat turned out to have been a scouting test to find the best space pilots in the universe. When Alex discovers the actual Star League chose him to actually fight against Xur and the Kodan Armada, he refuses to go along with it. When Alex demands to return home, he finds an android duplicate of himself, Beta, having a tough time of playing the role of Alex in the trailer park. After he reluctantly returns to space, the fun really begins.
The Last Startfighter created all of its spaceship effects shots using only computer-generated images (one of the first films to do so), but since it did so during the very early days of CGI, said effects stand out as such. A Cray X-MP rendered all of the film's CGI; as a bit of perspective, the 800 MHz Pentium III processor available to consumers fifteen years later -- or the average smartphone of today -- matches the processor power of the Cray X-MP (then the most powerful supercomputer in the world).
The Last Starfighter contains examples of the following tropes:
- Actor Allusion: Robert Preston essentially plays an alien version of Harold Hill from The Music Man.
- Actual Pacifist: The novelization features the League as such. They had some real trouble recruiting soldiers - and finding a politician to read them a speech.
- Arc Words: "Greetings, Starfighter! You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada!"
- Archnemesis Dad: An Inverted Trope here -- the Big Bad's father is the Big Good.
- As You Know: Ambassador Enduran uses this trope almost by name -- "as you all know" -- as he mentions to the Starfighters what the Frontier is, why it's important, and how, because of a dark betrayal (he means Xur), the Frontier will soon collapse. Naturally, the audience and Alex are hearing this for the first time.
- Ascended Fanboy
- Battle Cry: "Victory or death!"
- The trope is also played with as Grig and Alex are first setting out:
Alex: Wait a minute -- you're telling me there's no Gunstars, no Starfighters, just you, me, this ship, and that's it?
Alex: It'll be a slaughter!
Grig: THAT'S THE SPIRIT!
Alex: No, I meant my slaughter!
- Beam Spam
- Bizarre Alien Biology: And how. It's telling that Grig, a purple lizard-like humanoid, is perhaps the most normal-looking of all the aliens in the film. And then, of course, there's the Bogati whose tentacle-thing Alex accidentally steps on.
Alex Rogan: I'm sorry. It was an accident, I didn't mean to step on your... whatever that is.
- The Caligula: Xur. Strongly implied by his father, and his bizarre personality reinforces it.
- The Call Knows Where You Live: Possibly by accident, since Centauri notes that the console Alex was playing was meant for somewhere else...
- Played straight after Xur learns about Alex and sends an assassin to get rid of him. When Centauri warns more are coming to kill him, Alex realizes that his only chance of survival is back at the Star League where he can at least have access to a fighter craft's firepower to defend himself.
- Card-Carrying Villain: Xur. And everyone knows it. The only reason the bad guys even listen to him is because he holds vital information. Once they use it, they get him off the bridge so they don't have to listen to his villain-talk anymore.
- Casting Gag: In either this or a very weird case of timing, Catherine Mary Stewart played a video game-obsessed girl in Night of the Comet, which was made and released around the same time.
- Chew the Scenery: Xur. Not one moment of his onscreen time is wasted without a chunk of scenery getting toothmarks.
- Christmas Rushed: Gets an In-Universe mention.
Rylan Bursar: Return the money, Centauri.
Centauri: Return the money! Are you delirious? Do you know how long it took to invent the games? To merchandise them? To get them in the stores by Christmas?
- Cool Car / Cool Starship / Flying Car / Transforming Mecha: Centauri's, which took the angular wedge design of the DeLorean, turned it Up to Eleven, then made it a transforming starship.
- Cool Old Lady: Maggie's grandma.
- Cool Spaceship: The Gunstars
- Cosy Catastrophe: Louis thinks this when Alex's Starfighter lands.
Louis: Woooo! We're being invaded!
- Cranial Processing Unit: When the Beta unit (robot) impersonating Alex takes off its head, the head can continue to talk normally.
- Crazy Cultural Comparison: As Alex and Grig fly through the tunnels of an asteroid, Grig mentions that it reminds him of home. That leads to a chat comparing their species' differences in families, dwellings, and games... which inspires Alex on how to get past the Ko-Dan Armada undetected.
- Defictionalized: A fan game that attempts to recreate the arcade game depicted in the film was released 13 years after the release of the movie. The Atari release planned along with the movie never materialized.
- Dare to Be Badass / "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Centauri's reponse to Alex's Refusal of the Call:
Alex: I'm just a kid from a trailer park.
Centauri: If that's what you think, then that's all you'll ever be!
- Description Cut: Happens right after Xur shows the execution of the master spy for all of the Starfighters to see.
Centauri: Heh... so! You still wanna leave... and miss all the excitement?
[Cut to Centauri and Alex in the car, returning to Earth]
- Dies Wide Open: Centauri, after his Heroic Sacrifice to save Alex from an assassination attempt.
- Disappeared Dad: Alex and Louis have no father, and no mention is made of him. Their hardworking single mom raises them by herself.
- Disney Death
- Do Not Adjust Your Set: Xur's introduction at the Starfighter home base.
- The Eighties: Primarily the video gaming culture that had spawned that decade.
- Everybody's Dead, Dave: Alex
- Evil Is Hammy: Xur, oh so very much. It's amazing the hull of his command ship was able to withstand his vast scenery chewing.
- Evil Laugh: Xur at the end of his speech to the Starfighter base personnel. He also did it in the faces of the Ko-Dan commanders and the First Officer was all for throwing him out the airlock right there and then.
- Face Death with Dignity / Facing the Bullets One-Liner: By one of the villains -
Kodan Officer: We're locked into the moon's gravitational pull! What do we do?
Commander Kril: We die.
- Face Palm: A rather unusual one by Beta when he sees a Zandozan landing to Earth, since his head is on the window sill. It's sort of a third-person face palm.
- Famous, Famous, Fictional: Lampshaded with Alex not knowing who Galoka is.
- Final Speech: Centauri big death scene.
- Follow the Leader: Star Wars.
- The Game Come to Life
- Guy in Back: Inverted. The hero is a gunner, which would traditionally be a Guy in Back in any other setting. In this case, the pilots are evidently considered the Guy in Back to the gunners, however. It makes sense, of course, if you realize that this movie is based on Rail Shooters.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Beta. Centauri, who gets better.
- I Choose to Stay: After saving the galaxy, Alex and Maggie leave Earth to train future Gunstar pilots.
- I Have No Son: Xur's father invokes this.
- I Know Mortal Kombat: The whole point. Very Justified Trope, as explained above.
- I Like Those Odds: One Gunstar against the entire Ko-Dan armada. Grig likes the idea, but subverts the Trope in that he thinks it'll be a Bolivian Army Ending.
- Insignificant Little Blue Planet: Earth isn't advanced enough to even know about the Star League, much less participate. Centauri retorts it's irrelevant.
Centauri: Earth's in danger, too.
- I Wish It Were Real
- Kill and Replace: A Zandozan assassin does it to a local cop.
- Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: The Star League base is destroyed by three asteroids launched from a giant meteor gun.
- Last Starfighter: The Trope Namer.
- Licensed Game: Atari Inc. was originally slated to develop arcade and home video games based on the movie. They were cancelled for various reasons, including the sale/division of Atari Inc. into Atari Games and Atari Corp. The home computer game was eventually released (with minor changes) as Star Raiders 2.
- Losing Your Head: The Beta unit.
- Macross Missile Massacre / More Dakka: Death Blossom.
- The Mothership
- The Musical: This was adapted into an off-Broadway musical. Seriously, this exists. (If you're curious, the Death Blossom is simulated using a swiveling rolling chair.)
- Mook Chivalry: Death Blossom aside, the final showdown would have had a very different result had the Ko-Dan fighters attacked in a faintly organized fashion. This is actually justified as Alex takes out the transmitter they usually use for this purpose in his first attack run.
- Noodle Incident: Grig mentioning Centauri's "old Excalibur (Test) tricks" when he finds out how Alex was recruited.
- On a lesser note, Centauri's Rule of Three mention of Galoka and the Ulus.
- Novelization: Written by Alan Dean Foster. Most noted for a vastly expanded showdown against the Ko-Dan, including "refueling" the Gunstar by flying it near the surface of a star.
- Parental Obliviousness
- Passing the Torch: As Alex and Maggie head into space, his younger brother, Louis steps up to the Starfighter video game, and watches as the Gunstar flies into the stars. It's implies that Louis might join his brother among the stars.
- Perfect Pacifist People: The Star League, who had to recruit from hundreds of member planets to find a roomful of warriors with sufficient bloodlust. The novelization even describes the League President as turning queasy at hearing their Battle Cry.
- Photoprotoneutron Torpedo: The checklist that Alex runs down with Grig while they ready their Gunstar for battle:
Alex: Heads up display.
Alex: Particle beam.
Alex: Proton bolts.
Alex: Chair control.
Alex: Let's do it.
- In the novelization, Grig states the real names involve science too advanced to translate, so he uses the game terms for the sake of convenience.
- Porn Stash: "Back to sleep, Louis, or I'll tell Mom about your Playboys!" (Followed by...)
- Precision F-Strike.
Louis: What the shit?!
Beta: I said, back to sleep, Louis, or I'll tell Mom about your Playboys!
- Race For Your Love
- Ramming Always Works: Faced with no other options, Commander Kril gives the obligatory order of "Ramming speed!" in an attempt to run over Alex's stationary Gunstar.
- Red Eyes, Take Warning: Averted with Centauri's true form.
- Refusal of the Call
- Reptiles Are Abhorrent: A noteworthy aversion! Grig is charming and friendly and pretty cool, if a little gung-ho.
- Ridiculously Human Robot: Beta. Except he couldn't figure out that whole tongue-in-ear thing...
- Robotic Reveal
- Robot Me
- Robot Names
- Rule of Three: Centauri trying to convince Alex to at least consider coming back.
Centauri: "Alex! Alex! You're walking away from history! History, Alex! Did Chris Columbus stay home? Nooooo. What if the Wright Brothers thought that only birds should fly? And did Galoka think that the Ulus were too ugly to save?"
Alex: "Who's Galoka?"
- Sentry Gun: Protecting the Starfighter base. Worked well until they were sabotaged.
- Serious Business: Getting a high score in a video game is so important that it gets the entire trailer park's attention.
- Simulation Game
- Snake Oil Salesman
- Space Fighter: The Gunstars and Ko-Dan fighters.
- Super Prototype: Justified in that the Gunstar was the only fighter to survive the assault, since it was a work-in-progress kept in a special hangar.
- Synthetic Voice Actor: The Ko-Dan mooks.
- Take a Third Option: The armada used a communication turret on the main ship to allow the fighters to move efficiently and be unstoppable. The main ship was wisely behind the fighters, making it nearly impossible to reach. Alex had the idea of hiding the ship until the fleet passed, allowing his one ship to catch them from behind, taking out the turret while the armada was in a non-battle formation. By the time they got the fleet in line, Alex had destroyed a good chunk of the fighters.
- Tech Marches On: Grig's amazing photo album - thousands of pictures stored in a device you can hold in your hand/tentacle/pseudopod! It seemed an impossible dream from the vantage point of The Eighties. Although slideshows on our modern phones, cameras, PDAs, etc. don't go that fast.
Grig: "I live below ground with my wife-oid... and six thousand little griglets."
(shows Alex a photograph that rapidly flashes through several hundred photos of aliens)
- Throw It In: Test audiences loved the comedic scenes of Beta adjusting to Earth customs, so more scenes were filmed after original production had ended. You can tell which are the extra scenes by Lance Guest's wearing a wig (he had cut his hair between production work).
- Translator Microbes
- The Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer: Alex. He's a better pilot than anyone else in the Star League, despite growing up in a trailer park on Earth.
- Vertical Kidnapping: Attempted when an alien assassin is sent to kill Alex.
- Villainous Breakdown: Xur, once his allies have had enough of his bizarre personality.
Xur: I am the Emperor of Rylos! I and I alone command this entire operation-- (guards begin to drag him away) Release me! I command you! YOU WILL PAY FOR THIS WITH YOUR LIVES!
- Voluntary Shapeshifting: The Xandoxan assassin.
- Wave Motion Gun
- You're Not My Father: Inverted. Xur mocks his familial relationship to his father, who in turn disowns him.
- You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: The Ko-Dan general to Xur. However, this is after Xur jumped to the conclusion that the last starfighter is dead, ordered the fleet to proceed at full speed thus reducing their defensive posture and then a gunstar suddenly appears on an attack run against the command ship, about to strike it hard. To the general, Xur never had any usefulness to outlive in the first place.