There are, as far as I know, four films from the ’80s that claim to be the first to use computer-generated imagery: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Tron (1982), The Last Starfighter (1984), and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). However, the use of computer animation goes as far back as 1973’s , in which the point of view of Yul Brynner’s robot gunslinger was achieved through computer graphics, and other films in the ’70s had scenes featuring computer-generated images displayed on video monitors, including the simulated Death Star trench run in Star Wars (1977) and the landing sequence in Alien (1979).
Star Trek II was the first true milestone. Dr. Carol Marcus’s (Bibi Besch) demo of the simulated formation of the Genesis planet is entirely computer generated. Again, the images are seen on a computer monitor, but for a good 40 seconds the monitor is featured in full close-up without an edit, then once again for another 20 seconds. (An edited version of the scene can be viewed below.) Since the demo was a computer simulation, it wasn’t required to be photorealistic, but it was the closest anyone had come to achieving photorealism with computers up to that point in a movie.
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Tron used CGI for certain sequences, such as the light-cycle chase, but much of its look was accomplished through other methods. The concept of Tron‘s world taking place inside a computer is also somewhat of an abstract, albeit very cool, vision, so there are no true attempts at photorealism. Also, no composite shots are present in Tron, meaning computer-generated effects are never combined with live-action footage in the same frame.
The Last Starfighter was the first attempt at photorealistic computer-generated special effects, but Young Sherlock Holmes was the first time a CGI character was blended with live-action footage. There’s a scene in that film in which a clergyman hallucinates that a depiction of a knight on a stained-glass window in his church comes to life, leaps to the floor, and brandishes its sword. It was the first successful CGI composite shot — a photorealistic computer image blended with live-action footage in a believable way. Eight years later I was shitting myself as I watched, for the very first time, movie dinosaurs that actually seemed alive, in Jurassic Park.
The Last Starfighter was Nick Castle’s second film, after 1982’s Tag: The Assassination Game. Previously he’d collaborated with John Carpenter on the screenplay for(1981), and jammed with Carpenter and director Tommy Lee Wallace in a band called the Coupe De Villes. Castle was one of three actors who portrayed killer Michael Meyers, referred to in the end credits as “the Shape,” in the original . In fact it was Castle who was responsible for one of the film’s truly eerie moments, when “the Shape” cocks his head in a curious way after sticking a dude to a wall and staring at the aftermath.
In the initial drafts of Starfighter‘s script, written by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Betuel, the story’s setting was suburbia. But, feeling that Spielberg had already covered this territory two years earlier in E.T., Castle suggested that the setting be changed to a trailer park, which immediately created more of a close-knit community. Our main character, Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), is shown helping many of the good people in the trailer park — for example, fixing his neighbor Elvira’s electricity so she can watch her soaps — instead of hanging out with his friends, which is what he’d rather be doing. It also makes Alex someone the audience wants to root for.
He longs to leave the trailer park someday with his girlfriend, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), but his college-loan application is rejected, which leaves him feeling like he’ll never be able to get on with his life. But when he breaks the record on a Starfighter video game, out of nowhere arrives Centauri (Robert Preston), who explains that the game is actually a test for recruitment into the Star League, where Alex can fight space battles for real.
Unfortunately, one of The Last Starfighter‘s main weaknesses is its computer-generated special effects, which even back in 1984 didn’t look very believable. Granted, the milestone of attempting photorealistic CGI needs to be acknowledged, but computers at the time simply weren’t up to the task, at least not in the time frame required to get the movie into theaters by summer. One of the story’s main hooks is that Alex goes from playing a video game to sitting in an actual Gunstar, but it’s diluted by the fact that the space battles look like they could’ve come from an actual video game. So while Starfighter marks an important achievement in special effects, the narrative would have been better served if Castle and his crew had done things the standard ’80s way — with models.
Fortunately, the story and characters are so strong that the movie still succeeds. One of Starfighter‘s more interesting aspects is the introduction of “the Beta Unit,” a robot replica of Alex that’s designed to replace him on Earth while the real Alex is away fighting an intergalactic war. This leads to some genuinely humorous moments between Beta and Maggie (“Should I stick my tongue in your ear now?”) as well as between Beta and Alex’s little brother (“Lewis, you’re having a terrible nightmare — go back to sleep,” the robot says, after removing its own head for repairs).
Lance Guest is wonderful as both Alex and Beta, as is Catherine Mary Stewart as Maggie. Veteran actor Dan O’Herlihy is a delight as Alex’s navigator, Grig, though he’s completely unrecognizable in his lizardlike makeup. And Robert Preston is terrific in his final film role as intergalactic con man Centauri. Sure, there are some borderline corny moments, like when Maggie says “I love you, Alex Rogan” while stuff is exploding in the background, but Stewart makes it work. Besides, the film’s finale, superbly scored by Craig Safan, gets me every time.
The Last Starfighter made my list of Nine Great Movies You’ve Probably Never Seen back in July, so if you still haven’t seen it and you’ve gotten this far in the article (thanks, by the way), it’s definitely worth checking out. Just be aware of gung-ho iguanas.