Teenage Alex (Lance Guest) lives in a trailer park with his family, but dreams of escaping to a better life, rather than going off to the local college with his friends. He is the park's dogsbody, always repairing things when he should be out enjoying himself, so to let off steam he plays an arcade game called Starfighter outside the local bar. His girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) is sympathetic, and sincere when she says she wants to go with him once he finally leaves home, but when the bank refuses his loan for his further education it seems further away than ever, so he consoles himself with the game, achieving a record high score, and it's not long before a mysterious stranger called Centauri (Robert Preston) turns up in a futuristic car to whisk Alex away - into outer space...
This breezy sci-fi adventure, basically Space Invaders: The Movie before adapting computer and video games became a (usually disappointing) genre in itself, was scripted by Jonathan Betuel along the lines of the "Sword in the Stone" legend of King Arthur. For all those people who claim that playing computer games are a great benefit to them, improving their reactions and hand/eye co-ordination or whatever, The Last Starfighter represented a dream come true - the chance to put all those hours of gaming to good use, because Alex is recruited by the Star League to help them in their battle against a formidable foe, though he is initially reluctant as after all, there's a big difference between playing at home and venturing into an actual war zone.
That part of the storyline, the space battles business, was unashamedly hackneyed in the wake of Star Wars, but where this scores points is in the lightness of touch everyone brings. The actors take it just seriously enough for you to do likewise, but there's a twinkle in their eyes, with Guest getting to play the earnest innocent - and his own robot double, who has to replace him on Earth do no one becomes suspicious, an ingenious method of adding more personality to what could have been a rather monochrome experience - and he does it well, with Stewart working up a more nuanced empathy to the stock love interest role than might otherwise have been the case (or even required) but the character actors in the supporting cast provided an excellent back up too.
A couple really stand out. As Centauri, Preston (in his last film) is a flamboyant rogue who is out to make money from the war, and Alex's co-pilot, therefore the only hope when the rest of the starfighters are killed in a devastating attack, is played by Dan O'Herlihy, his face almost completely disguised under lizard makeup, but still making an impression. In effect they shared the mentor role in light of one introduced near the start and the other taking over around the halfway mark, but were so good you missed one when they were more or less replaced, with a twist at the end to reassure you it had all been worth it as Alex takes their lessons on board. The baddies are just as good, and all the alien actors relish the corny dialogue (You'll pay for this with your lives!") and broad characters - listen out for that climactic exchange.
Where The Last Starfighter is most notable for sci-fi fans is in its special effects, which are entirely computer generated. They stand up very well, looking like a slick improvement on the arcade game, with their fleets of ships, asteroids and moons. Down on Earth, there's business about leaving your home to go out into the big bad world (or universe in this case) which fits neatly into the storyline without being too sentimental as Steven Spielberg or his imitators might have relented to include (Spielberg wanted to remake this for some time, though Betuel refused all offers). As there was never a sequel, the film is one to treasure as a minor but winning example of the pulp genre, settling into that era of science fiction where the effects were coming on in leaps and bounds (here they look like a very decent console game, obvious but pleasing) but that was not to say the emotional elements were neglected, this was still fresh decades later. If The Last Starfighter was purest wish fulfilment cinema for a generation, wasn't that a function of the best escapist fantasy movies? Music by Craig Safan.