Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Neglected Gems #69-70: The Rocketeer (1991) & The Last Starfighter (1984)

Billy Campbell and Alan Arkin in The Rocketeer (1991)

The cinematic “excesses” of the 1980s and early 1990s, so venemously derided by critics today, manifest mostly in the films we still remember – your Rambos, your Conans, your Top Guns – but these big, loud, attention-grabbing blockbusters naturally came with their fair share of imitators, some of which did the job of perfecting escapist entertainment much better than their more lucrative counterparts. Swept aside by petulant studio executives and disregarded by audiences and critics as cheap knock-offs of worthier films, these are stories that Tolkien might have described as “lesser sons of greater houses” – lighthearted adventure films whose excitement, intelligence, and genuine charm have been all but forgotten in the wake of their longer-lasting, more successful kin.

The Rocketeer (1991) makes a cheap premise – stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) finds and appropriates a wearable rocket pack into a Nazi-fighting alter ego – shine brightly, thanks to smart scripting, charming performances, and a thrilling, nonstop adventure pulse. Alan Arkin and Jennifer Connelly excel as Secord’s aging mentor and love interest (respectively) and Timothy Dalton, fresh off License to Kill, brings great energy to the dastardly Hollywood leading man/Nazi spy, Neville Sinclair. The Rocketeer is a Joe Johnston picture, and his pedigree as a special effects guru for the Star Wars franchise shines strongly in The Rocketeer’s exquisite Art Deco production design (not to mention the very Boba Fett-esque costume for the hero). Johnston’s well-known disregard for studio meddling made for a troubled production, as Disney was at its most meddlesome during this period, and made it their mission to repay Johnston’s vitriol at having to accept artistic production notes from business-minded studio liasons with a disastrous marketing campaign and a prohibitive release slot (The Rocketeer premiered within two weeks of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, both box office smash hits with major talent attached). Given this poor box office showing and a lukewarm reception from critics, Disney quickly swept the film under the rug and happily called it a bust. But, despite these setbacks, Johnston’s commitment to the film seems to have shone through: his direction is pitch-perfect in delivering both a convincing period setting and the lighthearted and exciting tone of the 1930s serials he’s lambasting. (Johnston went on to direct Captain America: The First Avenger, which tries for many of the same fun escapist elements, but unfortunately felt tired and confused in comparison.)

Jennifer Connelly and Billy Campbell in The Rocketeer
The film that The Rocketeer most closely resembles is Raiders of the Lost Ark, in that they share the same 1930s setting, the same Nazi antagonists, and the same adventure serial genealogy. Where they differ is in tone: Spielberg and Lucas’ vision for Raiders was as gritty and violent as The Rocketeer is warmhearted and fun. Billy Campbell is dashing enough as Secord, the lovable schmuck who becomes the titular “Rocketeer” (a name invented by the airfield landlord, played by the great character actor Jon Polito, in a moment of panic when being grilled by reporters) – but he’s no Harrison Ford. It’s not fair (or entirely accurate) to blame The Rocketeer’s box office bungling on a lack of enduring star power, but it can’t have helped. In retrospect, though, The Rocketeer was a melting pot of small-time character talent, with appearances from Polito, Clint Howard, Paul Sorvino, and Terry O’Quinn (of Lost fame), who turns up as real-life aviator Howard Hughes (which is not the only allusion to real-life figures in the film – the other is Timothy Dalton’s Sinclair, a clear parallel to Errol Flynn, down to the swashbuckling movie roles and the allegations of ties to Nazi Germany).

Script rewrites by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and many episodes of The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, ironically enough) punched up the film’s simple, classic adventure story with an added wit and vitality. My favourite example is during the climax, when Secord punches Sinclair to the ground and taunts, “Where’s your stuntman now, Sinclair?”, and Sinclair rises to his feet, delivers his own crushing blow to the hero, and quips, “I do my own stunts" – a reference to Dalton’s pride at being the only 007 to that point who had ever done so. There’s no small amount of cheese, to be sure, but that’s in keeping with the adventure serials and comic book archetypes the film is resting on – plus, there’s nothing that stretches the suspension of disbelief too far; the rocket pack that Secord wears appears to be exactly as unwieldy and difficult to control as you’d expect, and he gets appropriately banged-up after a crash. Secord is more relatable than someone like Indiana Jones, as well: he’s down on his luck, brave but sweet, less of a living “man’s man” archetype and more of a normal person put into extraordinary circumstances. Every Indiana Jones adventure is like a lifetime of adventures for a normal person, and he’s off on another one every day – but at the end of The Rocketeer, the rocket pack is gone, and Cliff is back to piloting stunt planes for rent money.

Chris Hebert and Catherine Mary Stewart in The Last Starfighter (1984)

The Last Starfighter (1984) has a similarly relatable protagonist, this time a starry-eyed teen who dreams of escaping his humdrum existence by flying to space and joining the battle against galactic evil. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking this sounds exactly like Star Wars (1977), you’re not alone – so did everyone else,  coming as it did on the heels of the Star Wars saga’s finale, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), which caused many to dismiss the film as a second-rate knock-off. And to a degree, that’s just what it is. It can’t match Star Wars for originality or scope, and lacks the truly iconic imagery – not to mention the truly iconic villain – of that much more enduring series (Last Starfighter, unsurprisingly, never got a sequel or remake, despite a decent amount of box office success). But those who take all that as a reason to avoid the film entirely deprive themselves of a lost 80s sci-fi classic, rooted in youthful emotion and bouyed by wonderful supporting performances.

Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is the Skywalker proxy, who lives in a Northern California trailer park and balances his time between doing chores, dodging his little brother Louis (Chris Hebert), spending time with his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), and “defending the Frontier from Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada” in his favourite arcade-style video game, “Starfighter”. Director Nick Castle (who made his bones working alongside John Carpenter in a variety of roles, from wearing the legendary mask of Michael Myers in Halloween (1978) to writing the screenplay for Escape from New York (1981), to performing the title song of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) in Carpenter’s band, the Coup de Villes) brings a sense of comfort to this idyllic setting: the “Star Lite Star Brite” trailer park is a tight-knit and fiercely protective community; when Alex goes for Starfighter’s high score, the whole park is there to watch and cheer him on, and when he returns to them in his Gunship at the end of the film, their astonishment turns quickly to acceptance (and Louis takes up the mantle, hoping he too can master the game and join his brother in space). One wonders why Alex wants so badly to leave at all.

Robert Preston as Centauri, in The Last Starfighter
Alex does achieve the high score, and shortly thereafter is visited by Centauri (Robert Preston, in his final film role), who claims to be the inventor of the game. His futuristic star-car (clearly a repurposed Ford Country Squire) escorts Alex off of Earth to Rylos, the setting of Starfighter and the home of the Star League, whom Centauri represents. He makes it clear to Alex that everything the teen saw in the game was real, and that Xur’s armada is indeed threatening the galaxy – and that by perfecting the arcade game (which was really a recruitment tool), he has qualified himself to pilot a Gunship and help save millions of innocent lives. Castle’s worldbuilding during this second-act arc is astonishingly good, despite the derivative material – the premise is instant, escapist genius, and the fish-out-of-water humour helps establish the plight of the Star League and ground the film with some believable emotional stakes. Star Wars takes place entirely a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but The Last Starfighter begins and ends with a normal American teen who discovers a far bigger universe hiding right above him. The sense of Spielbergian wonder is strong, despite the cheesy special effects (which, alongside Disney’s Tron (1982), were groundbreaking in their extensive use of CGI, but which look hilariously dated today). Alex’s hail-mary maneuver during the final space dogfight – an untested weapon called the “death blossom” – was a source of unparalleled astonishment for me as a child.

Credit must be given to Preston, and to Dan O’Herlihy as Alex’s reptilian copilot Grig, for injecting the film with the rich character and warmth it otherwise lacks. O’Herlihy shoulders much of the film’s exposition, explaining to Alex (and by extension, the audience) how things work outside of Earth, and doing so without impatience or irritation. His wheezing laugh is immediately endearing, too. But it’s Preston who really brightens up the set – his sparkling eyes and wry, snake-oil salesman’s patter are irresistibly charming, very much as though Harold Hill from The Music Man (1962) had fallen through a time portal and ended up an interstellar talent recruiter. (Centauri even looks identical to Hill in a similar suit and tie, when he’s not detaching his human mask to clean his eyeballs.) The Last Starfighter is worth a watch if only to glimpse this effervescent, bittersweet performance (Preston would die of cancer three years later), but on the strength of its other elements, it deserves a wider audience than the one it got, hidden as it was by the shadow of George Lucas’ unstoppable blockbuster series.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know about The Rocketeer, but I'm glad to see I'm not the only person to appreciate The Last Starfighter, though I'm a little stunned to realize I saw it 30-plus years ago. Oddly, I remember the trailer-park scenes better than the space-war scenes. Not sure what that means.