Nerd Classic: Star Wars Lite

"This is very cute," Emily says. "I bet it was pretty cool when you were seven."

"Eight," I say, the teensiest note of defensiveness perhaps creeping into my voice. Internally, I am agog. I am aghast. Cute? That's the best thing she can say about it?

We're watching The Last Starfighter, which I have described to her on multiple occasions as "fucking awesome." And it is, too. For those of you who may not have seen this gem of the mid-'80s bonanza of "Star Wars rip-off/Spielberg-lite" flicks, The Last Starfighter tells the story of Alex Rogan, your standard-issue "kid with a good heart who wants something more out of life but can't catch a break." After setting a record high score on the "Starfighter" arcade game - in a supremely goofy scene where every resident of Alex's trailer park peers over his shoulders as he plays and all get absurdly excited about his video-game prowess - Alex is recruited by Centauri, the "inventor of the 'Starfighter' game" (Robert Preston, who is the biggest name the movie's got, and is terrific) to join the actual Starfighter Corps in the fight against the evil Xur and the Kodan Armada.

I'll admit, it's chock-full of '80s Cheez. It hits pretty much every cliche dead-on. Like every teenager in every movie made in the 1980s, Alex is always trying to get away to "the Lake" with his girlfriend. There's a younger brother who looks like a cute moppet but actually has a stash of Playboys under his mattress. There's a complete flock of Wacky Neighbors. There's a comical sidekick.

As it turns out, it's not the piece of Brilliant Cinema I recall from my childhood. It's a bit light, overall, running only about ninety minutes. In an age where The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, all of 100 pages as a novel, becomes a three-hour extravaganza, this is a little jarring. It doesn't establish much about the Star League that Alex is recruited to defend except that it exists and is in peril. It doesn't spend any time establishing anything about the villains, Xur and the Kodan Armada, except that they exist and want to destroy the Star League. I would gladly give this movie an extra half-hour or forty-five minutes of my time to create a more fully-realized sense of place and conflict. What's there is an awful lot of fun, I just wanted it to pack a little more punch.

I think there's some potential here for a remake. As Wil Wheaton (who had a cutting-room-floor role in The Last Starfighter) wrote recently, the video arcade is going the way of the drive-in theater.* But I can easily imagine the story being updated for the era of home video-gaming. Heck, the studio could probably even get a minor bidding war going between Microsoft and Sony to see whether Alex would play "Starfighter" on an XBox or a PlayStation. Flesh things out a little more, let ILM or Weta or whoever create some kickass space battles (though, truly, the film's early-days-of-CGI visual effects hold up remarkably well), and you've got a movie for which I wouldn't hesitate for a nanosecond to plunk down my $9.50.

Of course, remakes are the soulless work of Satan, generally speaking. Don't get me wrong, this movie is still fairly entertaining as-is. Emily says she thought it was too much like a low-rent version of Ender's Game for her to really enjoy, but I disagree. I think it's got a lot of neat ideas in it, and any similarities to EG are coincidental and meaningless at most. It's sort of like the skeleton of a great movie that had the skin applied too soon. I just wish it had a little more meat on the bones.

* I'm linking to Wheaton's blog instead of the actual piece, because it appears on Suicide Girls which has boobies on it sometimes and is therefore sometimes NSFW and is often blocked by IT. But if you can, you should click through and read the whole column, because it's highly entertaining and is a serious trip down memory lane for Gen-X/Y types who grew up on Pac-Man and Gauntlet and Golden Axe (my personal favorite) and such.