(Originally posted June 18, 2010)

So a lot of people seem to have video games on their minds lately. It’s probably because E3 is going on now (capturing the hearts and imaginations of thousands). One of the weirdest side effects of this is that the old movie channels are repeatedly running The Last Starfighter at odd hours of the day. Watching this old movie has given me some things to think about. So this week, I’m going to use my blog space to analyze science fiction (it’s such a brilliant idea, I wonder if anyone’s ever thought of it before).

For those of you who don’t remember 1984, The Last Starfighter is a movie about a teenage video game champ who discovers that the “Starfighter” arcade game is actually a training simulator for space pilots and his high scores qualify him to join the Star League. This movie is a must see for game geeks for two very important reasons:

#1: It completely sums up the notion of video games as an escapist fantasy

#2: Wil Wheaton is in it.

There are two things that impressed me about this movie. The first one is the story. See, once you get past the basic idea of “a supposedly made up game is actually real,” the story becomes staggeringly simple. There’s, like, five characters, some skin-deep developments, and a shallow subplot about a shape-shifting robot (which sets itself up to be incredibly slapstick, but is mercifully kept short). I, like most of the world, usually see science fiction as being synonymous with complicated stories. So it’s jarring to see a well-known, well-liked sci-fi movie follow a plot that’s about as complicated as a coloring book. And you know what? It didn’t need a complicated story. The basic idea was enough and any more storylines would only be dead weight. So, again, science fiction does NOT always need to be overly-complicated. This revelation makes me wonder what other literary conventions can be ignored.

The other thing that impressed me was the special effects. If you think I’m just going to make fun of early CG effects then shame on you. I have a point. In the 70’s and 80’s, movie makers had just enough technology to barely make good sci-fi and fantasy possible. Each time I watched one of those clearly animated spaceships blast off, I thought about how much new technology was needed, how much money it must have cost, and how the animators and directors must have worked so hard and fought for every second of that scene.

I like to think that some day when film schools are teaching students how to stage special effects, one of the guidelines teachers might give to their students will be “Pretend that it’s 1984 and you can only use so many effects. Which effects will you include? Which scenes will you spend your money on?” Hopefully, this will allow our film makers to think about where effects are most important instead of smearing them on everything like so much peanut butter. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, James Cameron…you thought I was going to say “George Lucas,” didn’t you?)

-Marj

P.S. See, I promised you a long blog this week. I don’t recall any promises about content or quality.