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Why ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Is This Generation’s ‘The Last Starfighter’

Last Starfighter Guardians of the Galaxy
Universal Pictures/Marvel

After watching Marvel’s new sci-fi offering, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ I joked that this is the type of movie that everyone around my age would think of fondly if it came out in the mid-1980s. But there is some truth in that statement, in that ‘Guardians’ does have a distinct ‘80s feel to it that’s hard to ignore, even aside from Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) references. As much as ‘Guardians’ is a modern Marvel money-making machine, it’s also a tribute to a genre that died in the mid-‘80s. A genre that includes those very movies that people around my age think of fondly – in other words: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is more a tribute to movies like ‘The Last Starfighter’ than it is to ‘Star Wars.’

‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ opens with a young Peter Quill being abducted by aliens in order to serve in a larger interstellar cause. This is pretty much exactly how ‘The Last Starfighter’ begins. (And both were picked for specific reasons, though I won’t delve too deep into why Quill was chosen as to avoid spoilers.)

There was always something appealing about the way Alex Rogan was chosen as The Last Starfighter, in that he won the job by playing video games. As a 10-year-old when ‘The Last Starfighter’ was released, I at least thought at the time that this gave me a reasonable defense to why I stayed up so late playing ‘Yars’ Revenge’ or why I needed another handful of quarters at the local arcade. “Hey, Alex Rogan played a lot of video games and look what happened to him. He’s a hero, Mom.”

"‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is this generation’s proof that a science fiction movie set in outer space can exist that isn’t titled ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek.’"

The plot of ‘The Last Starfighter’ is fairly simple, but also very clever: A video game entitled ‘The Last Starfighter’ is distributed around Earth by an alien race known as the Rylan Star League. If someone could beat the game, as young Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) defeated the game, he or she was recruited to fight alongside the Rylan Star League in their battle against the Ko-Dan Armada, since the controls of the video game are the same as the starfighters used by the Rylans. It would be like the United States military recruiting anyone who happened to be really good at ‘Call of Duty.’

Rewatching ‘The Last Starfighter’ today is an interesting experience because these movies are never quite as good as our memories have led us to believe. Though, there is something inherently fun about watching a character in a movie play an arcade game. Not because of the gameplay, but more for just how excited the onlookers get as Alex approaches a high score. I mean, they don’t know he’s about to win a trip into outer space. They just think he set a high score and, at that moment, it’s by far the most important thing going on in any of their lives at this particular point in time. After Alex defeats the game, the crowd celebrates along with him and there are high fives aplenty. Alex is a hero and he didn’t even need to leave Earth.

Of course, Alex’s gameplay does earn him a trip into outer space, where this Earthling joins a host of weird-ish looking aliens in an effort to save a planet that isn’t his from destruction (which sounds an awful lot like a movie that hits theaters this weekend). And the villain in ‘The Last Starfighter,’ Xur, looks and sounds just as weird and eclectic as anything in ‘Guardians.’

Last Starfighter Xur
Universal Pictures

‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ isn’t this generation’s ‘Star Wars.’ This generation’s ‘Star Wars’ is still ‘Star Wars.’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is this generation’s proof that a science fiction movie set in outer space can exist that isn’t titled ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek.’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is this generation’s ‘The Last Starfighter,’ if not as a direct comparison, then in principle alone.

(Also, one of the most remarkable things about ‘The Last Starfighter’ is its heavy use of CGI way back in 1984, one of the first movies to do so. If there were a “museum of CGI” [for better or for worse], right now ‘The Last Starfighter’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ would make perfect bookends.)

By 1988, the year Peter Quill was abducted by aliens, never to return to Earth, the science fiction movie set in space genre was dead. It’s hard to even fathom now, but even ‘Star Wars’ was dead. There were no ‘Star Wars’ toys to buy in 1988. By 1985, toy stores couldn’t give ‘Star Wars’ toys away and they soon found themselves in the discount bin as ‘G.I. Joe’ and ‘Transformers’ were the toy of choice. In fact, that last line of ‘Star Wars’ toys (which were subtitled ‘Power of the Force’) are some of the most valuable today because absolutely no one bought them.

Look at the top 100 grossing movies of 1988, only three have anything to do with an alien theme – ‘Cocoon: The Return,’ ‘Alien Nation’ and ‘My Stepmother is an Alien’ – and none of those three are actually set in outer space. (As an aside, ‘Rain Man’ is the most successful movie of 1988. That would never happen today unless Rain Man were a superhero who controlled the weather.)

‘Star Wars’ would see a resurgence in the early ‘90s, starting with Timothy Zahn’s trilogy of sequel books, starting with ‘Heir to the Empire’ in 1991. Followed by the release of the digitally remastered versions of ‘Star Wars’ on VHS. By 1995, ‘Star Wars’ toys were back in toy stores and by 1997, the Original Trilogy was back in theaters. Then in 1999, ‘The Phantom Menace’ was released and ‘Star Wars’ was back for good and we somehow all forgot that dead period between 1985 and 1991.

But it’s telling that the ‘Star Wars’ prequels didn’t start a movement like the Original Trilogy did. We didn’t see a plethora of rip-offs or ‘The Last Starfighter’ type movies being made as a result of these new ‘Star Wars’ movies. This is what the legacy of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ has a chance of being. It’s never going to be “the next ‘Star Wars’” in terms of story or popularity, but it could be “the next ‘Star Wars’” in terms of influence.

I’ve seen a lot of chatter about the overabundance of superhero movie of late. And that’s a fair enough point, but I don’t like seeing ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ being thrown into the “superhero” genre – which is easy enough to do because it says “Marvel” at the beginning and it’s a quasi-sequel to ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier.’ But, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ isn’t a superhero movie. ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is part of a genre that – other than ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ – has been dead for the last 30 years. SO please stop saying, “Oh, not another ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ type movie” when we haven’t had a ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ type movie in 30 YEARS!

So, hopefully, if ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ does have a legacy, it’s that it spawned too many science fiction movies set in space. Hopefully ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ gives us more movies like ‘The Last Starfighter.’

Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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