Soundtrack Saturday: “The Last Starfighter”

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a farm boy named Luke Skywalker had dreams of leaving his planet and doing something great with his life. He wound up saving a princess and helped to bring down an evil galactic empire.

Not so terribly long ago, not so far away, a boy named Alex Rogan had dreams of leaving his trailer-park home, going to college, and doing something great with his life. He wound up bringing down an evil galactic armada as well — by getting the highest score on a video game.

When I was a kid and would watch Star Wars (1977) and The Last Starfighter (1984) all the time on cable, I never really noticed their similarities. Looking at the two films now, I can’t see how I missed them.

Star Wars and Starfighter obviously have a lot of differences, too, but they share a basic theme: being a dreamer can really pay off, so if you want something badly enough, somehow you’ll make it happen, especially if what you want is to be the last hope of saving the universe.

Perhaps the reason why I took to The Last Starfighter so quickly when I first saw it as a kid is because of those underlying similarities I mentioned. Or perhaps it’s just because it’s a well-written, beautifully executed science fiction film. Most likely, it’s a little bit of both.

If you’ve never seen The Last Starfighter, WHY NOT?

Now, besides the similarities between Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), let’s look at some other things these two films have in common.

Both feature cutting-edge visual effects. By now you know all about what Star Wars director George Lucas has achieved with his Industrial Light & Magic group. But did you know that The Last Starfighter was one of the first films to use computer-generated imagery? CGI was employed to create the film’s starships, battle scenes, planets, and several other special effects. Incidentally, Starfighter‘s production designer, Ron Cobb, also worked on Star Wars.

Both feature a lauded veteran actor playing the role of a mentor. In Star Wars it was the brilliant Sir Alec Guinness, who, prior to his portrayal of Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi, was best known for films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Horse’s Mouth (1958). In the case of The Last Starfighter, the wizened mentor is played by Robert Preston, a.k.a. “Professor” Harold Hill in the beloved musical The Music Man (1962). Preston’s Centauri, however, is a little bit less Ben Kenobi, a little bit more Han Solo. Incidentally, The Last Starfighter ended up being the actor’s last feature-film role before his death in 1987.

Both films have relatively unknown actresses playing the ingenue. Carrie Fisher had only appeared in one film prior to her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars — 1975’s Shampoo. And Catherine Mary Stewart had played mostly small roles on TV and in a few movies, most notably the 1980 crazypants disco film The Apple and the soap opera Days of Our Lives, before landing the part of Alex’s girlfriend, Maggie, in The Last Starfighter.

Both films feature evil empires with ruthless leaders whose father-son relationships are strained, to put it mildly. We all know about Star Wars‘s Darth Vader (David Prowse), the Dark Lord of the Sith who’s hell-bent on bringing down the Rebel Alliance (of course, we don’t find out he has a son until the sequel, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back). In The Last Starfighter we have Xur (Norman Snow), the evil leader of the Ko-Dan Empire, who’s hell-bent on bringing down the Rylan Star League, which happens to be led by his father.

Let’s see, what else? Both films have an incredible array of aliens, good and bad. They both feature robots as characters, though The Last Starfighter‘s is a human-looking android named Beta, who takes Alex’s place on Earth when he goes off to fight the Ko-Dan Armada. Also, both films were made into video games, though the official Starfighter game developed by Atari was never released.

One more similarity these films now have is that both have spawned sequels, though The Last Starfighter‘s second installment, tentatively titled Starfighter, isn’t slated to be released until later this year. As leery as I am about sequels to ’80s films being made years — and in this case, decades — later, I have high hopes for this one. It has the same writer and director as the first film — Jonathan Betuel and Nick Castle, respectively — and will allegedly feature members of the original cast, including Guest and Snow, reprising their roles.

The final similarity I want to discuss is the two films’ epic scores. You’re probably more familiar with John Williams’s Oscar-winning score for Star Wars; it contains some of the most recognizable film music of the past 40 years. You may not be as familiar with Craig Safan’s equally brilliant score for The Last Starfighter. It’s just as big-sounding as Williams’s — I read that six trombones and six trumpets were used to play the film’s main theme in 12-part harmony. For sci-fi fans, Starfighter‘s main theme is probably quite recognizable, though still not as recognizable as the Star Wars theme.

One thing the Starfighter soundtrack has that the Star Wars score doesn’t is vocal tracks — there are four in all, three of which are performed by Clif Magness. I’ve provided you with Safan’s complete score, plus the two Magness tracks I could find.

All you gamers out there, remember to play your best, because who knows — you might get recruited by some crazy guy in a Star Car to save the universe.

Clif Magness – Incommunicado
Clif Magness – Never Crossed My Mind

Score by Craig Safan:
Main Title
Alex Dreams
Centauri Into Space
Rylos
Centauri Dies
Target Practice
Alex’s First Test
Beta’s Sacrifice
Death Blossom/Ultimate Weapon
Big Victory March/Alex Returns
Into the Starscape