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 has spent his whole life stuck in his family's trailer park, but his wish to leave it turns into more than he bargained for when the space-shooter arcade game he manages to beat turns out to have been a test to find the best space pilots in the universe. When Alex discovers that the actual Star League chose him to fight against the very real Xur and the Ko-Dan 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 playing the role of Alex in the trailer park. After he reluctantly returns to space, the fun really begins.The Last Starfighter 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 2012 — matches the processor power of what was then the most powerful supercomputer in the world.
2-D Space: The at-the-time brand new CGI effects allowed for a rare aversion of this trope; the battles are fought in a very noticeable 3D environment.
Acting for Two: Lance Guest plays both Alex and Beta, who show up together on screen a few times.
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: Alex goes from being the best at a video game to being the best (and only) Starfighter.
Battle Chant: When Ambassador Enduran gives a pep talk to the personnel of the Starfighter base, he concludes by saying "Victory or death!". They all start chanting "Victory or death!" in unison.
Beam Spam: The Death Blossom attack fires both beams and missiles in all directions to take out the enemy fleet.
Bizarre Alien Biology: 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: I'm sorry. It was an accident, I didn't mean to step on your... whatever that is.
The Caligula: It's implied that Xur's treachery and megalomaniacal tendencies are the result of something being very messed up in his head.
The Call Knows Where You Live: After Alex initially refuses The Call, Xur sends an assassin after him. Beta's sacrifice and Centauri's near-sacrifice show him that his only chance of survival is with the Star League.
Beta: At least up there, you have a fighting chance in a Gunstar.
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 raving 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.
Catch-22 Dilemma: A tactical variant, lampshaded by Alex when Grig explains the plan of attack against the Ko-Dan Armada.
Alex: Wait a second. We knock out the turret to get the fighters. But to get the turret, we've gotta get through the fighters. We're dead.
Chew the Scenery: Not one moment of Xur's onscreen time is wasted without a chunk of scenery getting toothmarks.
Cool Spaceship: As the first sci-fi film to have all its space scenes rendered in CGI, all the ships are fairly cool. Alex's Gunstar is the top of the line, however: a Super Prototype with advanced weapons and shielding systems that can take out an armada all by itself.
Cosy Catastrophe: Louis is not afraid at all when Alex's Gunstar lands; he thinks it's awesome.
Louis: Woooo! All right, 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 to suggest hiding as the Ko-Dan Armada goes by, then make a surprise attack on them.
Grig: Your plan might really have worked. What a pity there are no Starfighters left to carry it out.
No mention is made of Alex and Louis' father, making it appear that they have a single mom.
Actually, mention is made. When Alex shows Grig a family photo, it is of himself, Louis, Maggie, and both of his parents. Obviously, his dad is otherwise absent and no other mention is made of him, so it seems likely he is no longer in their life. It is unclear if he left or died.
Maggie appears to have nobody but Granny, with no mention of her dador her mom.
Evil Laugh: Xur at the end of his speech to the Starfighter base personnel. He also does it in the faces of the Ko-Dan commanders and the First Officer is all for throwing him out the airlock right there and then.
Centauri: Alex! Alex! You're walking away from history! History! Did Chris Columbus say he wanted to 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?
Fatal Family Photo: One might expect Grig showing Alex the photos of his family to lead to this, but instead it helps Alex realize what he's fighting for.
Fictional Video Game/Licensed Game: Atari Inc. was originally slated to develop arcade and home video games based on the movie (the game(s) were even mention in the closing credits). 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.
The Greys: What Centauri looks like without his human mask.
Guy in Back: Inverted and Deconstructed. The hero is a gunner, not a pilot, which would traditionally be the rear position. However, the Gunstars are so sophisticated that the rear position is for navigation rather than piloting; the ship pretty much flies itself.
Keystone Army: The Ko-Dan mothership coordinates all of its fighter craft via a single communication turret. This allows them to act with unparalleled efficiency and coordination, but if taken out, reduces them to near helplessness.
Mouth Stitched Shut: True for Ko-Dan mooks, who speak with a synthesized voice. Formerly true for high-ranking Ko-Dan officers, where it's readily apparent where the stitches used to be.
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.)
Nice Guy: Alex, who's sick of being selfless. He's constantly helping the hapless trailer park residents with their problems, but never has any sort of time for himself. When he gets rejected for a college tuition at a university he was interested in (possibly forcing him to go to the local city college), he suffers a Heroic BSOD.
Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Alex is convinced to return to Rylos and be a Starfighter only because Xur and the Ko-Dan send an assassin to Earth to kill him and prevent him from returning to Rylos and being a Starfighter.
Then there's this:
Kiril Commander:(reading Xandoxan's report) The last Starfighter is...
Xur: Dead! The last Starfighter is dead! Nothing can stop us now!note If that were true, why was the message cut off?
Alex Rogan escaped the Ko-Dan Armada's destruction of Starfighter Command by Colony Drop because he was off-planet at the time, having refused to become a Starfighter in the first place.
The Gunstar he ends up piloting was in a separate hangar because it was an advanced prototype.
Parental Obliviousness: There is no sign that Alex's mother notices anything wrong with Beta, who's pretending to be him.
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 implied 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 who "possess[ed] the...gift". 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 includes "particle beams" and something called "proton poles". In the novelization, Grig says that the real names involve science too advanced to translate, so he uses the game terms for the sake of convenience.
Centauri:(to Alex) Hey, are you kind of kid who reads the last page of a mystery first? Who pesters the magician to tell you his tricks? Who sneaks downstairs to peek at his Christmas presents? Noooo, of course you're not.
The Frontier is an energy field that encapsulates (or at least cordons off) an entire section of the known galaxy. The energy field is projected by field generators that are placed, at best, ten kilometers apart. That would be a septillion (10 to the power of 24) generators per square light year of barrier, with a few billion of those for one third of the galaxy. The novelization changes this to state that the Frontier is a political designation and that, rather than knowing how to defeat it, Xur instead knows the location of the Star League base. Also, it changes the destruction of a force field to the traitor giving the enemy the codes for the League No Warping Zone generators.
The Ko-Dan command ship's Colony Drop against the Star League base. Leaving aside the pinpoint accuracy required to hit a particular planetary target from space distances, the Frontier is apparently well within Rylos' star system because otherwise it would've taken tens of thousands of years for the meteorites to hit at sublight velocities.
The distance from the Rylos to the Frontier is apparently really short as well, given the brief flight in the Gunstar. Grig says they'll be there in "twenty klicks" and that he'll have a solution to getting past the fighters to hit the command ship before they do. When he finishes speaking, an alarm sounds, and they're at the Frontier.note By the look on Grig's face, however, it's more likely he made a mistake in distance.
Seize Him: Commander Kril gives this order to the Ko-Dan soldiers after Emperor Xur screws up.
Sentry Gun: An array of automatic defensive turrets protects the Star League's base, and do quite well at it until they are sabotaged.
Serious Business: Getting a high score in a video game is so important that it gets the entire trailer park's attention. Given Alex' complaints about how boring his hometown is, it may well be the most exciting thing around.
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 (unless specifically programmed to do so).
Translator Microbes: "You speak English?" "No, you hear English thanks to the translation device." Viewers with good ears can tell when the device becomes active, because the background chatter switches instantly from Rylan to English.
You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: While Xur believes himself the leader of the Ko-Dan armada, he is in fact useful to them in exactly one way: by having the codes to the Frontier. Once that role is exhausted, he is rapidly shunted aside. Earlier, the Ko-Dan second-in-command whispers to Kril, "How long must we endure this fool?" Kril motions for him to shut up, since Xur is still in the room.