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 spent his whole life stuck in his family's trailer park, but his wish to leave it turned into more than he bargained for when the space-shooter arcade game he managed to beat turned out to have been a scouting test to find the best space pilots in the universe. When Alex discovers the actual Star League chose him to actually fight against Xur and the Kodan 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 of 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 the Cray X-MP (then the most powerful supercomputer in the world).
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.
Bizarre Alien Biology: And how. 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 Rogan: I'm sorry. It was an accident, I didn't mean to step on your... whatever that is.
The Caligula: Xur. Strongly implied by his father, and his bizarre personality reinforces it.
The Call Knows Where You Live: Possibly by accident, since Centauri notes that the arcade machine Alex was playing was meant for somewhere else...
Centauri: Funny thing about this is, it's all a big mistake. That particular Starfighter game was supposed to be delivered to Vegas, not some flea-speck trailer park in the middle of tumbleweeds and tarantulas.
Played straight after Xur learns about Alex and sends an assassin to get rid of him. When Centauri warns more are coming to kill him, Alex realizes that his only chance of survival is back at the Star League where he can at least have access to a fighter craft's firepower to defend himself.
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 villain-talk 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.
Chew the Scenery: Xur. Not one moment of his onscreen time is wasted without a chunk of scenery getting toothmarks.
Cranial Processing Unit: When the Beta unit (robot) impersonating Alex takes off its head, the head can continue to talk normally.
Might be averted as even after removing his head Beta's body act like it can still see perfectly.
Only once it has a grip on the top of the head again, and thus a reference point to work from. It sort of gropes about for it after setting the head down.
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.
Evil Laugh: Xur at the end of his speech to the Starfighter base personnel. He also did it in the faces of the Ko-Dan commanders and the First Officer was all for throwing him out the airlock right there and then.
Fictional Video Game/Licensed Game: Atari Inc. was originally slated to develop arcade and home video games based on the movie. 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.
In the novelization, Grig explains that he isn't really piloting the craft at all. Actually operating the systems is far beyond the capability of an organic mind, so what he's really doing is setting major policy positions (like "We want to go over there.") and the ship's computers takes care of all the little details. Which is pretty damed realistic considering how real space travel works.
In the novelization, the Arcade Game tries the tactic against Alex, but fails since each missile assumes that the pilot attempts to dodge the attack. Near the end of the book, Alex defeats the Ko-Dan armada through sheer awesome shooting skills, saving the super weapon for their final attack.
Meaningful Echo: When Alex repeats the attraction line from the video game, just before readying to attack the actual armada.
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.)
Mook Chivalry: Death Blossom aside, the final showdown would have had a very different result had the Ko-Dan fighters attacked in a faintly organized fashion. This is actually justified as Alex takes out the communication turret they usually use for this purpose in his first attack run.
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 (forcing him to go to the local state college), he suffers a Heroic BSOD.
Noodle Incident: Grig mentioning Centauri's "old Excalibur (Test) tricks"note Which Centauri points out that he didn't use) when he finds out how Alex was recruited.
On a lesser note, Centauri's Rule of Three mention of Galoka and the Ulus.
Novelization: Written by Alan Dean Foster. Most noted for a vastly expanded showdown against the Ko-Dan, including "refueling" the Gunstar by flying it near the surface of a star.
The Only One: Trope Namer. 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.
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, as Grig counts down:
Alex: Heads up display, check.
Alex: Lasers, check.
Alex: Particle beam, check.
Alex: Proton bolts, check.
Alex: Chair control, check.
Alex: Let's do it.
In the novelization, Grig states the real names involve science too advanced to translate, so he uses the game terms for the sake of convenience.
Alex:(depressed) Otis, I just never have a chance to have a good time around here.
Otis: Things change. Always do. You'll get your chance! Important thing is, when it comes, you've got to grab with both hands, and hold on tight!
Rule of Three: Centauri trying to convince Alex to at least consider coming back.
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?"
Centauri: Never mind.
Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: 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 a 10 thousand meters apart from one another. If the Frontier encloses around 1/3 of the known galaxy there would be approx 40 Quintillion (10 to the power of 18) generators floating around out there.
Alan Dean Foster does have a sense of scale. The novelization outright states that the Frontier is really just an arbitrary zone that outsiders are not permitted to enter. The defense field is implied to be strictly local to the system (or not present at all, and only the location of the base gives Xur something worth trading for).
The Ko-Dan flagship's Colony Drop against the Starfighter 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 months or years for the meteorites to hit.
Seize Him: Commander Kril gives this order to the Ko-Dan soldiers after Emperor Xur screws up.
Sentry Gun: Protecting the Starfighter base. Worked well until they were sabotaged.
Serious Business: Getting a high score in a video game is so important that it gets the entire trailer park's attention. Perhaps justified; there doesn't seem to be a whole lot else to do in that neighbourhood besides getting drunk, high or laid.
Take a Third Option: The armada used a communication turret on the main ship to allow the fighters to move efficiently and be unstoppable. The main ship was wisely behind the fighters, making it nearly impossible to reach. Alex had the idea of hiding the ship until the fleet passed, allowing his one ship to catch them from behind, taking out the turret while the armada was in a non-battle formation. By the time they got the fleet in line, Alex had destroyed a good chunk of the fighters.
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.
Grig: I live below ground... with my wife-oid, and six thousand little griglings.
(shows Alex a photograph that rapidly flashes through several hundred photos of aliens)
Fridge Brilliance: Grig just showed Alex three photos, cycling between favorite pics, much like a car radio does.
Throw It In: Test audiences loved the comedic scenes of Beta adjusting to Earth customs, so more scenes were filmed after original production had ended. You can tell which are the extra scenes by Lance Guest's wearing a wig (he had cut his hair between production work).
Translator Microbes: "You speak English?" "No, you hear English thanks to the translation device."
Shown Their Work: Sharp ears will hear the instant the device is active, because the background chatter goes instantly from alien to English.
You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: The Ko-Dan Commander Kril to Xur. However, this is after Xur jumped to the conclusion that the last Starfighter is dead, ordered the fleet to proceed at full speed thus reducing their defensive posture and then a Gunstar suddenly appears on an attack run against the command ship, about to strike it hard.
To the Ko-Dan, Xur never had any usefulness to outlive in the first place, save having the codes to the Frontier. Earlier, the Ko-Dan second-in-command whispered to Kril, "How much longer must we endure this fool?" Kril motioned for him to shut up, since Xur was still in the room.