Alex Rogan is a teenager living in a trailer park with his mother and younger brother, Louis. Alex often plays Starfighter, an arcade game in which the player defends "the Frontier" from Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada in a space battle. He becomes the game's highest-scoring player, and is approached by the game's inventor, Centauri, who invites him to take a ride. Alex does so, discovering the car is a spacecraft. Centauri is an alien who takes him to the planet Rylos. An android duplicate named Beta takes Alex's place during his absence.
Alex learns that the characters and ships in the Starfighter arcade game represent a conflict between the Rylan Star League and the Ko-Dan Empire; the latter is led by Xur, a traitor to whom the Ko-Dan Emperor has promised control of Rylos. The game was designed as a test to find those "with the gift"; Alex is expected to be the gunner for a Starfighter spacecraft called the Gunstar. He also learns that the Frontier is an array of satellites creating a forcefield protecting Rylos and its surrounding planets from invasion. Xur has given the Ko-Dan the means to breach the forcefield.
A holographic projection of Xur reveals he has discovered an infiltrator in his ranks. The spy's execution is broadcast. Xur proclaims that once Rylos's moon is in eclipse the Ko-Dan Armada will begin their invasion. Scared by everything he has seen, Alex asks to be taken home. On Earth, Centauri gives Alex a communications device to contact him should Alex change his mind. A saboteur eliminates the Starfighter base's defenses, causing heavy damage and killing the Starfighters save for a reptilian navigator named Grig whom Alex befriended. The Gunstars are destroyed except for an advanced prototype that Grig was servicing in a different hangar.
Alex discovers Beta and contacts Centauri to retrieve him. As Centauri arrives, Alex and Beta are attacked by an alien assassin, a Zando-Zan, in Xur's service. Centauri shoots off its right arm. Centauri and Beta explain to Alex that the only way to protect his family (and Earth) is to embrace his ability as a Starfighter. Centauri also explains that there will be more Zando-Zan dispatched. Before Alex can reply, the assassin, mentally controlling its severed arm, attempts to shoot Alex, but Centauri jumps in the way and returns fire, incinerating the alien. Alex and Centauri fly back to the Starfighter base. Alex finds Grig, but Centauri apparently dies from his injuries. Alex and Grig prepare the Gunstar to battle the Ko-Dan Armada.
As Grig trains Alex, Beta has difficulties maintaining his impersonation of Alex, particularly with Maggie, Alex's girlfriend. Beta discovers that a small group of Zando-Zan have set up a communication center from their spaceship outside the trailer park and are relaying information back to Xur. Beta is forced to reveal everything to Maggie, who does not believe him. The Zando-Zan discover the pair and Beta is shot, exposing damaged circuitry, causing Maggie to realize the truth. The pair steal a friend's pickup truck and charge it at the Zando-Zan ship. After telling Maggie to jump, Beta crashes the truck into the ship, destroying it and sacrificing himself.
Alex and Grig attack the Ko-Dan mothership, crippling its communications. Once Alex's weapons are depleted, he desperately activates a secret weapon on the Gunstar, the "Death Blossom", that destroys the remaining Ko-Dan fighters. Lord Kril blames Xur for failing to ensure victory and for his arrogance. After relieving Xur of command, Kril orders him executed, but Xur escapes the ship just before Alex cripples its guidance controls, causing it to fall into the gravitational pull of Rylos' moon and be destroyed.
Alex is proclaimed the savior of Rylos and hailed by its people. Alex learns that the Star League is still vulnerable: The Frontier has collapsed and Xur escaped. Alex is invited to help rebuild the League. An unknown alien approaches, revealing himself as Centauri, who explains he was in a healing stasis. Alex agrees to stay. He returns to Earth, landing his Gunstar in the trailer park. Grig tells Alex's mother and the people of the trailer park of Alex's heroism. Alex asks Maggie to come with him, and she agrees. Louis is inspired to join Alex and begins playing the Starfighter game.
The Last Starfighter is one of the earliest films to make extensive use of computer graphics for its special effects. In place of physical models, 3D rendered models were used to depict space ships and many other objects. The Gunstar and other spaceships were the design of artist Ron Cobb, who also worked on Alien, Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian.
The computer graphics for the film were rendered by Digital Productions on a Cray X-MP supercomputer. The company created 27 minutes of effects for the film. This was considered an enormous amount of computer generated imagery at the time. For the 300 scenes containing computer graphics in the film, each frame of the animation contained an average of 250,000 polygons, and had a resolution of 3000 × 5000 36-bit pixels. Digital Productions estimated that using computer animation required only half the time, and one half to one third the cost of traditional special effects. The result was a cost of $14 million for a film that made about $21 million at the box office.
Not all special effects in the film were done with computer animation. The depiction of the Beta unit before it had taken Alex's form was a practical effect, created out of materials and produced on-set. The Starcar created by Gene Winfield and driven by Centauri was also a real prop.
Because the test audiences responded positively to the Beta Alex character, director Nick Castle added more scenes of Beta Alex interacting with the trailer park community. Because Lance Guest had cut his hair short after initial filming had completed and he contracted an illness during the re-shoots, his portrayal of Beta Alex in the added scenes has him wearing a wig and heavy makeup. Wil Wheaton had some scenes filmed before they were ultimately deleted from the final print.
Composer Craig Safan wanted to go "bigger than Star Wars" and thereby utilized a "Mahler-sized" orchestra, resulting in an unusual breadth of instruments, including "quadruple woodwinds" and "eight trumpets, [trombones], and horns!"
The Last Starfighter earned over $28 million on an estimated budget of $15 million.
Based on 29 reviews, Rotten Tomatoes ranks The Last Starfighter at a 76% "fresh" rating. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars, stating that while the actors were good, The Last Starfighter was "not a terrifically original movie," but was nonetheless "well-made". Halliwell's Film Guide described the film as "a surprisingly pleasant variation on the Star Wars boom, with sharp and witty performances from two reliable character actors and some elegant gadgetry to offset the teenage mooning." Gene Siskel included the film on his list of "Guilty Pleasures", describing it as "a Star Wars rip-off, but the best one". Over time it has developed a cult following.
The Last Starfighter's popularity has resulted in several non-film adaptations of the storyline and uses of the name. Alan Dean Foster wrote a novelization of the film shortly after it was released (ISBN 0-425-07255-X). In the same year as the release of the film, Marvel Comics published a comic book adaptation of the film by writer Bill Mantlo and artists Bret Blevins and Tony Salmons in Marvel Super Special #31. The adaptation was also available as a three issue limited series. In 2004, it was also adapted as an off-Broadway musical debuting at the Storm Theatre in New York City.
In 1984, FASA, a noted sci-fi tabletop game maker, created a gaming system for The Last Starfighter.
A real The Last Starfighter arcade game by Atari, Inc. is promised in the end credits, but was never released. If released, the game would have been Atari's first 3D polygonal arcade game to use a Motorola 68000 as the CPU. Gameplay would have been taken from game scenes and space battle scenes in the film and would have included the same controller that was used on the first Star Wars arcade game. The game was abandoned once Atari representatives saw the film in post-production and decided it was not going to be a financial success.
Home versions of the game for the Atari 2600 and Atari 5200 consoles and Atari 8-bit home computers were also developed, but never commercially released under the Last Starfighter name. The home computer version was eventually renamed and released (with some minor changes) as Star Raiders II. A prototype exists for the Atari 2600 Last Starfighter game, which was in actuality a game already in development by Atari under the name Universe. This game was eventually released as Solaris.
In 1990, an NES game titled The Last Starfighter was released, but it was actually a conversion of Uridium for Commodore 64, with modified sprites, title screen and soundtrack.
A freeware playable version of the game, based on what is seen in the film, was released for PC in 2007. This is a faithful reproduction of the arcade game from the film and features full sound effects and music from the game. The creators of this game, Rogue Synapse, have also built a working arcade cabinet of the game.
In February 2008, production company GPA Entertainment added "Starfighter – The sequel to the classic motion picture Last Starfighter" to its list of projects and two months later the project was reported to be "stuck in the pre-production phase". It was still there as of January 2012. Hollywood directors including Seth Rogen and Steven Spielberg, as well as screenwriter Gary Whitta, have expressed interest in creating a sequel or remake, but Jonathan R. Betuel has allegedly indicated that he does not want another film made.
The rights to the film have not been clearly defined due to conflicting information. Multiple sources say Universal Pictures still owns the theatrical and home media distribution rights while Warner Bros., which absorbed Lorimar Pictures in 1992, has the international distribution rights. Another source states that Universal has the option to remake the film while Betuel has sequel rights. Further complicating the situation is a claim that both Universal and Warner Bros. each have remake and sequel rights.
In July 2015, it was reported that Betuel will write a TV reboot of the film.
In Ready Player One, an American science fiction novel written by Ernest Cline, the protagonist, Wade, uses a line from the movie The Last Starfighter as his pass-phrase to log in to the OASIS: "You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada." Ready Player One parallels some of the themes found in The Last Starfighter, and a film adaptation of the same name, co-produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, is currently in production, scheduled to be released on March 30, 2018.