The Last Starfighter and Harrison Ford among the Amish

The Last Starfighter (1984) directed by Nick Castle. 3 of 4

Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.

I was reading some discussion of The King of Kong, when I remembered one of my favorite movies about video games. My enjoyment is shrouded with nostalgia, since I saw this when growing up, and we all wanted a video game to transport us to a fantasy universe where we were the hero. This movie succeeds (and only barely) because it is tongue in cheek, and run as light comedy first and action second.

Lance Guest, a sort of low-rent Judge Rheinhold, plays Alex, a teenager working as a maintenance man at the Star-Lite, Star-Brite trailer park in the middle of nowhere. Like any teen movie set in podunk-ville, one of the first phrases out of Alex’s mouth is how he is going to leave town and be somebody. How little he knew…

Like many of us did in the 80’s, when Alex isn’t working or trying to get to the make-out spot with his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), he’s planted in front of an arcade game working out his frustrations, eager to beat his top score. One night after missing out on a trip to the lake with his lady, he manages to roll over the machine (breaking one million, for those not used to games with numeric scores). The whole trailer park has gathered around him at this point, vicariously living through Alex’s minor triumph. It made me nostalgic for the times when people like Billy Mitchell made TV and the papers for doing this sort of thing, and the films would make a fine double feature.

Later that night Alex meets a strange man named Centauri, played by Robert Preston (The Music Man) who claims to be the game designer. He’s amazed by Alex’s prowess with the game and lures him into his car for a surprise. Even in the 80’s we knew better, but this is a really cool car, a star-car, so you can forgive Alex this lapse of judgment. Soon they are taking off to a far-away planet, where Alex learns that the video game is a recruiting tool for fighter pilots in the war against Xur (Norman Snow) and the Ko-dan Armada.

He has second thoughts, but it wouldn’t be much of a movie if Alex just went home to fix TV antennas on double-wides. So it’s safe to tell you that he indeed fights the armada against incredible odds, and I dare say he may even defeat them, but that’s for you to find out. Either way, he meets his navigator Grig, a scaly but amiable fellow played by Dan O’Herlihy. With an infectious, hiss-like laugh and good nature, he’s Alex’s guide on their last-ditch attempt to save the Frontier from the betrayal of Xur and the onslaught of their space fleet. He holds the film together, giving us comic relief and exposition without being as obvious as let’s say, C3PO. Nothing against the copper-jacketed know-it-all, but you know what I mean.

You can’t see The Last Starfighter without recognizing how similar it is in some scenes to bigger movies, like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Alien. When the Rylan leader describes the Armada, there’s a spinning globe that looks a lot like, a Death Star. Alex’s disappearance from home is covered by a “beta unit,” or clone robot that takes his place, but has to deal with an “interstellar hitbeast” known as a Zandozan, eerily reminiscent of a fleshy Giger Alien, shooting up the trailer park. The fact that the movie plays it for laughs helps a lot, and that it’s not trying to establish a franchise, and riffs off of ones dear to our hearts, that makes it so endearing.

At the time, the special effects were groundbreaking, and many of us went to see it just to see them. They don’t stand up so well today, now that even a Sci-Fi Channel movie can do better (though they usually don’t bother). They’re not especially jarring, because the filmmakers were smart not to mix CG and models too much. When Centauri’s star-car suddenly changes from a DeLorean-esque prop to CG, we notice. It’s too clean. But when we see the hangar full of Gunstar fighters, they look pretty real, especially for 1984. The space battles look pretty good, and they were wise to make the arcade game graphics look worse than they could have been, so the real thing looks a lot better. The huge explosions are not CG, so they clash with the spaceships sometimes. It’s not laughable, but you definitely know this isn’t a modern movie. Because nostalgia is its biggest draw, the effects shouldn’t be an issue.

The movie is better than a derivative space adventure has any right to be. The trailer park denizens are something out of a musical, thankfully without show tunes. The first scene, of a bloodhound sleeping on a park bench, immediately tells us nothing happens in this town. Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy uplift the film from what could have been a formulaic exercise into an endearing piece of comedy. Preston’s Centauri is played straight, as an interstellar huckster trying to shanghai recruits into the starfleet, and while it’s not a big jump from his famous role as the salesman fleecing River City, he can say things about communo-crystals and Galloca saving the Ooloos without us doubting his sincerity. Dan O’Herlihy’s performance is pretty amazing, considering that a year later he’s “The Old Man” in the Robocop films, a completely different sort of role.

It may not be a great movie, but it’s heart makes it a good one, and one of the more memorable films of the mid-80’s. Amusingly enough the star-car came before the Back to the Future DeLorean, and Grig looks a lot like the Dracs from Enemy Mine, a year later. Who’s derivative now?

Witness (1985) directed by Peter Weir. 4 of 4.

This was a movie I never managed to see in its entirety, despite its popularity on cable in the last 22 years. In fact, I finally caught it on the old DVR, and the recording messed up at a critical point, so I threw it in the NetFlix queue. The DVD is a little soft but still looks good.

I’ve always liked Peter Weir. Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of my favorite films, for its quiet contemplative shots to its lack of explanation. This movie is more of a Hollywood plot, but handled by Weir it works terrifically well. We begin in an Amish community where a widow and her boy are planning to visit the big city. The camera lingers on the people and we sense their close-knit relationships. Soon after arriving at the train station, the boy is sole witness to a murder.
At the police station, detective Harrison Ford works with them to identify the killer, who turns out to be more dangerous than first expected. He ends up hiding out in the Amish village to protect the witness and himself.

This is one of Ford’s better roles. It’s similar to his Deckard in Blade Runner a few years earlier, but has more of the hard-bitten Philly cop without any of Deckard’s humor. He slowly meshes into the Amish society and we get a good look at the pleasant side of it. I recommend finding the documentary The Devil’s Playground about the practice of Rumsprigga, when youths can be unfettered of the rules for a while to decide whether they want to commit to the Amish life, for a closer look. There’s the famous barn-raising scene, and Ford gets to milk a cow. The country style ribald humor of the Amish is there to humanize them. Their pacifism is exemplified, for it separates the gun-toting cop from them. Soon he is fitting in, and then the trouble finally finds him.

For a quiet film, the end fight is quite thrilling. Ford is unarmed, and he’s got 3 men with shotguns to deal with. We’ve seen this before and it’s never very believable. Guns jam, and so on. Not so here. He has to dispatch them using his brains, and he’s up to the task. The ending is quite satisfying, not giving us the typical Hollywood revenge rush.

There’s also a muted love story here, and it’s to Weir’s credit that it doesn’t interfere with the rest of the movie. The movie holds up well all these years later and really hasn’t become an anachronism like the Amish themselves. It’s still quietly gripping, and worth seeing.