The Last Starfighter
Greetings Starfighter! You have been recruited by Arrow Video to experience the 1984 sci-fi classic as you’ve never experienced it before! Directed by Nick Castle, the man behind the Michael Myers mask in the original Halloween, The Last Starfighter tells the story Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), an arcade game whizz-kid whose wildest dreams comes true when he finds himself enlisted to fight in an interstellar war.
Now newly restored from a 4K scan of the original negative and featuring a 4.1 mix originally created for the film’s 70mm release – never included on previous home video formats – The Last Starfighter arrives loaded with brand new and archival bonus features. Strap yourself in: the Blu-ray adventure of a lifetime is about to begin!
Arrow Video presents Nick Castle’s The Last Starfighter in an all-new Blu-ray edition, delivering the film on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode comes from a new restoration performed by Arrow, scanned in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative.
Universal’s older Blu-ray edition (released over 10 years ago) was clearly open to improvement so things could really only get better, but the jump in improvement found in Arrow's presentation still manages to be shocking. There’s a far more film-like look and texture to the film, thanks to a better rendering of the original grain, which had been scrubbed and managed on the old release. This leads to a far sharper and more detailed image, allowing the finer aspects of the film’s costumes, make-up effects, and sets to pop off the screen (or, in some cases, make them look a little cheaper). Colours come off a bit more vibrant, reds and greens especially, and the black levels are less murky and don't look as flat compared to the Universal, though they still never come off purely black. Still, all of these improvements of this together leads to a better sense of depth as well.
Damage has been cleaned up in a far more thorough manner, and I don’t recall many blemishes ever popping up (the old disc still had a lot), and the digital encode is solid: the film is quite grainy, more than I was expecting, but it looks sharp and natural and the encode never struggles with it. Where things can falter a wee bit is in some of the film’s computer effects.
The film is one of the earliest films to use what is now referred to as CGI, with Disney’s Tron being another. But Tron only used the technology sparingly, with most of the effects work in that film being classically animated. The Last Starfighter’s use of the technology is heavier in comparison, with most of the spaceship effects and space battles rendered using computers. Computer-generated asteroids and a few other “textured” objects look pretty terrible by today’s standards (even by videogame standards) but the ships, despite a maybe too-smooth look, do manage to hold up surprisingly well. Considering the limitations of the technology of the time, especially the limitations in computer power, they do still look decent enough.
Where the limitations come in seem to be related to the resolution the effects were rendered in. On the old DVD, and even on the previous Blu-ray, it wasn’t as obvious, but the new restoration mixed with the improved resolution makes the rough edges of the effects a little more obvious. These issues primarily come down to jagged-edges mixed with moiré patterns, and as the perspective on a rendered object changes those aliasing artifacts become even more obvious. The sequence where Alex first arrives to the space station, like when he passes Saturn, may be the worst example of this.
Short of redoing the effects (which I wouldn’t even want) there’s very little that could be done about that aspect of the presentation without impacting the image in other ways and Arrow has wisely left things the way they are. In the end Arrow delivers a very film-like, clean, and highly-detailed image that is without a doubt the best the film has ever looked on home video. A bit of a shame they didn’t go the full 4K route.
Arrow includes three soundtracks: a lossless PCM 2.0 stereo soundtrack along with the 5.1 remix and the film’s original 4.1 surround soundtrack, the last two presented in DTS-HD MA. I only listened to the two surround soundtracks.
Though the 5.1 remix does make make some minor use of the split rear-channels I didn’t detect too much of a difference between the 4.1 and 5.1 presentations. Range is pretty wide on both, the volume levels mixed appropriately, and the lower channel pops up effectively when required without drowning things out. Objects move about the viewer in a natural manner and some explosions and action scenes show some impressive direction. Still, I didn’t find the mix all that surprising and it’s still pretty front-heavy. Sound quality is excellent, though.
Arrow, as expected, really packs this edition to the rim with extra content, porting over everything from previous releases while throwing in some new stuff. This does lead to a bit overkill, though, as evidenced with the slew of audio commentaries they’ve packed on here. These start out with the commentary originally recorded for the Universal Collector’s Edition DVD, featuring director Nick Castles and production designer Rob Cobb. The track is, as expected, very technical in nature, covering the film’s look and the computer effects to a staggering degree, including fear around how the effects may not even work in the end and they hadn't filmed any protections (he mentions if the effects didn’t work the film would have looked like “Gumby in outerspace”). But I rather enjoyed Castle’s comments on the changes that were made to the script (there were a few aspects that felt too Spilebergian and he didn’t want the comparisons) along with his comments about how he originally wanted to be a musical director and how those sensibilities ended up being used in this film. The planned sequel (that never happened) also gets mentioned here, though it comes up in other features found on the disc.
The track, though never surprising or revelatory, is fine and worth listening to if one hasn't done so. For those that have already listened to that track Arrow does provide two new ones, both recorded exclusively for this edition. The first of these is a “cute” idea, bringing together actor Lance Guest and his 16 year old son Jackson to watch and talk about the film, and it has its moments, like when Lance is talking about his personal experiences around making the movie to Jackson talking about how the film holds up for his generation (where video games are more mainstream than they were in the 80s). Those aspects make it worthwhile and entertaining, but there’s a general looseness to the track (I assume no planning went into it and the two just sat to watch and talk about the film) that can make it feel unfocussed and scattershot. This also ends up leading to large amount of dead space (Lance Guest does mention early on he feels weird talking over actors in the film) and random conversations that probably mean more to the two than those listening in. Still, I like the idea of the cross-generational points of view on the film and in that regard the track works. There's some amusement to be found in their father-son interaction as well (there are a couple of times where I could swear I could hear Jackson Guest's eyes roll at his father's jokes).
Mike White, from the Projection Booth podcast, provides the second exclusive commentary. This one is more along the lines of a “fan” track and White, for the most part, serves up trivia around the film's production, its fanbase, and influence since, even touching on the film's computer effects and just how revelatory they are (he really feels they don't get enough appreciation). But he expands out from this and covers other subjects, which includes placing the film in the context of its time, including the area of video games, which were looked down upon at the time of the film's release that followed the "video game crash" that occurred in 1983, almost killing the industry. White has done his research and is well-prepared, managing to fill the time, but it did lack a certain passion I would have expected because of the "check-list" feel of it, which made it a little hard to sit through. Of course, by this point, going through around 5-hours worth of commentary tracks (which I foolishly did in one sitting), I was already tapping out, so this could just come down to me not being in the mood by this point.
Following those tracks Arrow has also recorded new interview material, most of it conducted over teleconferencing software. Catherine Mary Stewart (9-minutes) first pops up to recall the casting process and share stories around what it was like working on an early film that would be incorporating CGI effects. Composer Craig Safan (12-minutes) also shares what it was like working on a score for one of the first films to incorporate CGI effects that had yet to be added to the finished product: he had to compose a score for sequences that were nothing but a black screen and white dots bouncing around. He also talks about the John Williams inspiration and his use of electronic instruments, which were done in a subtle way.
Screenwriter John Betuel (9-minutes) gives some background on the script, which was not only inspired by the King Arthur legend but also written in 4 days. Betuel also talks a little about an idea for a “continuation” of the film. Effects supervisor Kevin Pike (10-minutes) then shows up to give some love for the film’s practical effects (which do sadly go largely ignored otherwise) that appear in the film.
Sci-fi author Greg Bear then provides an 8-minute audio essay of sorts going over his 1983 visit to Digital Productions, the graphics and effect company that would work on the computer effects for the The Last Starfighter, providing a number of photos and video around his trip and from behind-the-scenes material, some of which was for an article he was working on (it ultimately wasn’t published but it does appear in the booklet for this release). And in an amusing little touch, Arrow then includes a 7-minute interview featuring fan Estil Vance talking about his reproduction of the Starfighter arcade game found in the film. He talks about the history of the “video game” that was promised and never released, and how his desire for the game to not only creating the console but program the game. These last two are the better of the new content.
Two archival documentaries are then included: Crossing the Frontier (from the 1998 Universal DVD) and Heroes of the Screen (from the 25th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray releases), running 32-minutes and 24-minutes respectively. The two documentaries more-or-less cover the same material, just in different manners and to different extents (the 1998 one probably covers the effects work a bit more). Crossing is hosted (sort of) by Lance Guest, who narrates us through the production and is accompanied by behind-the-scene footage along with interviews with Castle and other members of the crew. Heroes is a more standard making-of, grouping a bunch of talking-head interviews with behind-the-scene footage and slicker editing. Both are fine and do manage to have their own unique material. One amusing element to having both documentaries, though, is seeing visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun in both; though each of his interviews were filmed 10 years apart he looks exactly the same.
The disc finishes things off with some standards: a theatrical and teaser trailer along with a very large image gallery. The gallery looks to have been lifted directly from the original Universal Collector’s Edition DVD, and the images all look like standard-definition upscales. The galleries include cast photos, photos of the arcade game within the film, photos of the various sets and props (including the Star Car and Gunstar ship) and all of the bad guys. There are also photos from an alternate ending (dumped to make the final sequences a little grander), photos around the effects, including wire frames, and then photos showing various promotional materials. In all there are a few hundred photos.
Arrow then closes the release with 38-page booklet. On top of an essay around the film by Amanda Reyes (placing the film in the context of representing blue collar workers in Reagan-era America), the booklet also features a previously unpublished article written by Greg Bear for Omni magazine in 1983, covering his visit to Digital Productions. He writes about their work in the advancement of digital graphics and imagery, and Bear is obviously taken by all of it, excited by the possibilities of the technology. Some of this material (and the accompanying photos) is covered in the related feature on the disc, but the full article makes for a wonderful read and I think it’s incredible Arrow saw fit to include it here.
Arrow’s edition (first printings at least) also comes with an O-sleeve featuring their new artwork along with a fold-out poster featuring the original poster art on one side and the new artwork on the other.
Arrow puts together another loving, jam-packed special edition, making sure to carry over all pre-existing material and adding plenty of their own new stuff, including Bear's material around Digital Productions and early computer graphics. Not all of the material here is gold, but I think fans will be thrilled with it.
Arrow yet again goes well and beyond what's required a puts together a fantastic special edition for the film, packing it went a lot of supplementary material and giving it a gorgeous new restoration. The film has never looked as good as it does here.