Laura Hudson’s review of Ernest Cline’s Armada (2015) reminded me that I had my own idea for a “reimagining” of The Last Starfighter (1984). In fact, I’ve had this notion knocking around for a few years now, but I’ve never written down a synopsis in an easily accessible format. So, here goes:
Our protagonist is Alix, a young trans woman trying to make it in the field of video-game journalism. Tired of regurgitating press releases for ultimately forgettable AAA titles, she decides to delve into the mystery of Starfighter, a science-fiction action-adventure game that appeared on the net seemingly from nowhere. Nobody knows who wrote the code or even the IRL identities of the people who first noticed it, but once it caught a little attention, its popularity snowballed. Alix, a fiend at Starfighter herself, gets a lead on where it might have come from. The movie opens with her on her way to a big SF/gaming convention in some large city. At the convention, she meets a fellow we’ll call Greg, because he asked for it. Greg knows Starfighter amazingly well, not just its game mechanics and the design of its fictional world, but the details of its code, too. They joke around about Phillips-head sonic screwdrivers, reversing the polarity on the main deflector dish and so on.
Alix and Greg are walking back to the convention after dinner with some champion Starfighter players, when some ominous guys who have been skulking about the shadows burst out and instigate a fight scene. Greg snaps into action and fights them off, using martial-arts moves that escalate until they really should be impossible without wire work. Just when the ominous guys have been roundly trounced, their reinforcements arrive, and they run over Alix with a Humvee. Fade to white.
Alix awakens, floating in microgravity, wearing a jumpsuit uniform over skin that feels a bit too much like plastic.
Greg and others now exposit the backstory, though for reasons that are soon apparent, Alix and we have learned a lot of it already. Thousands of centuries ago, a species of interstellar travelers—let’s call them the Krell—colonized our solar system. They took specimens from Earth and performed genetic experiments to “uplift” them, creating sentient forms of various Earth animals. (Hence, we have an excuse for humanoid aliens.) The Krell civilization reached amazing heights of sophistication and technological power, but then they all died. Nobody knows exactly how it happened, but what they do know does not make for pleasant dreams.
The factions descended from the Uplifted species are now at war. They depend upon Krell technology, which operates by thought-wave control. Only a few individuals can operate Krell machines without going mad, and if that failure mode sneaks up on you, it has the unfortunate tendency to unleash monsters from the Id. Greg is one of the Grandmasters, the “lucky” specialists who can coax the Krell technology to perform amazing feats: relativistic space travel, transferring minds between bodies and so forth.
(This is where I began, actually, with the question of why the Star League couldn’t just make Beta Units to serve as Starfighters. Of course, the original movie’s answer is because comic relief, but why not invent a deeper explanation? In Starfighter 2015, the limiting factor is the fact that each time a Grandmaster pulls off something as elaborate as initializing an AI, they risk a Monsters from the Id incident. And the last time a Grandmaster tried copying themselves, a Kuiper-belt object the size of New Jersey was pulverized.)
Alix is rather flummoxed by the discovery that, on top of everything else—a new body, based on her mental self-image—the backstory to Starfighter is all real. An ancient taboo prevents the different factions from interfering with Earth overtly, but that’s going to change. Greg’s faction, the Star League, want an alliance with Earth, and they created the game to test how Earthpeople would react to the scenario of interplanetary war. On the other hand, the renegade Xurian cult wants to invade Earth and annihilate most of it. The ominous guys who tried to kill them were Xurian agents investigating the Star League presence and gathering intelligence for the upcoming invasion. Greg saved Alix’s life by transferring her mind-patterns into an artificial body.
One of the other Grandmasters sells out the Star League, betraying their secret HQ to the Xurian cult. A surprise attack breaches the Star League defenses, and the Xurian admiral intercepts Greg and Alix as they try to flee to Greg’s spaceship. “So, this is what you risked your sanity for, Grandmaster? This is your opus—giving another day of life to a reject from Terran society? Oh, yes, my agents were watching you two make idle chatter long before the Grandmaster here noticed their presence.”
The only thing which saves Alix and a handful of others is that the traitor gets drunk on the thrill of the act… and ravenous energy-beings are not very nice pets.
Alix and a Starfighter escape in an experimental spacecraft, but Greg is incapacitated and captured. With the Star League out of the equation, the Xurians launch their invasion of Earth.
The remaining forces that the Xurians have not yet stomped out gather to try and stop them. Starfighters from the final League squadron meet the Xurian armada in Earth orbit. The battle does not go well, and the Xurians are basically mopping up when Alix arrives. The experimental ship is limping on half power because they lack a Grandmaster to get its systems fully operational. They fight gamely, but the Xurian ships are just too numerous.
The pilot and Alix are both wounded. She has lost the use of one hand, and internal working fluids are spilling out of severed hydraulic lines. The pilot is unconscious—she doesn’t know much about his species, but she’s pretty sure he’s dying. The Xurian admiral taunts her over the comm link:
“Trying to make a noble last stand? Why are you fighting to save a world which rejected you?”
Alix undoes her flight harness and floats about the ship, trying to find something, anything that still works.
“The Star League saw you as a gear in a machine. Humans see you as a freak—at best, an object of pity.”
One control panel is still glowing. It operates the Death Blossom, the new experimental weapon based on Krell technology.
“We’re the winners today, but we don’t even have to write you out of history. Your own kind have already done that.”
Pressing her bleeding wound closed with her damaged arm, Alix begins to follow the steps of the procedure she saw Greg use to connect to a Krell machine.
“Your ship is in a decaying orbit. Either our fighters will blow you out of space, or you’ll burn up in the atmosphere of the planet you couldn’t save.”
Telltale indicators on the control panel begin to switch on.
“You’re a copy of a memory of a reject. In your last minute of life, can you even say … who you are?”
On the bridge of the Xurian command ship, Greg is trapped in a forcefield web. He looks like he’s not long for this life, but his eyes focus with renewed alertness when, at last, a reply crackles over the comm link:
“I… am… the last Starfighter.”
Interlocking circles of light encompass the drifting Star League ship. For a moment, everything is calm.
And then, bursts of plasma separate from the glowing rings, as if thrown off by centrifugal force. They cross the distance to the Xurian command ship before anyone can react.
The first hit overloads the Xurian deflector shields. The second, a heartbeat later, breaches the hull. The Xurian dreadnoughts try to re-aim their weapons from the planet below to the tiny, deadly ship in their midst, but long before they can do so, they are powerless, venting oxygen and nitrogen and crewmembers into space.
Power goes out on the Xurian command bridge. The admiral stumbles amid the sparks and the flames towards his personal escape pod—and then spills into midair as the artificial gravity fails. As he fumbles for a handhold, he sees Greg sailing past him. Greg reaches the escape pod first. The hatch, which should not open for anyone but the admiral, opens for the Grandmaster. The admiral gains hold of a railing and hurls himself through the air at Greg, only to slam into the ceiling as the gravity turns back on, upside-down.
“Reverse the polarity,” Greg says to himself.
We cut to an outside shot. The escape pod launches away from the command ship just as a bolt from the Death Blossom cuts through it bow-to-stern, and the entire massive structure disintegrates.
The Xurian fleet is annihilated, and the Death Blossom switches off, the rings of energy vanishing as quickly as they came.
Inside her ship, Alix is floating, her eyes open but unseeing. Cables link interface ports on the back of her neck to the Death Blossom control panel. Greg’s voice comes over the comm link: “Alix? Alix? Can you hear me?” Fade to white.
We return for the epilogue. Alix, Greg and the Starfighter pilot are sharing coffee at a bistro beside a park. Various indications make it plain that several years have passed. While the three heroes talk, the camera pulls back, showing children at play in the park. Our viewpoint continues to pull back and up, revealing that the people enjoying the park hail from multiple species, both Terran and Uplifted. The camera tracks back in between the girders of a geodesic dome, revealing that the park occupies the center of a colony on an alien world.