Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is a teenager living in the Starlight Starbright Trailer Park with his mother (Barbara Bosson) and little brother Louis (Chris Hebert). He is depressed and angry after being rejected for a scholarship he was hoping would change his life. He plays an arcade game called Starfighter, in which he defends the Frontier from the arch-villain Xur and the Ko-dan Armada. He is so bored he chalks up the highest score ever and is visited by the game’s inventor, Centauri (Robert Preston), who promptly kidnaps him and takes him away in a car/spaceship. He is replaced at home by a doppleganger android named Beta.
The game reproduces a real-life conflict between the Rylan Star League and the Ko-dan Empire, commanded by Xur (Norman Snow), a Rylan traitor and son of Ambassador Enduran (Kay E. Kuter), the Starfighter Commander. The video game is a test to find the best starfighters. Alex is assigned to the Gunstar piloted by Grig (Dan O’Herlihy), a reptilian alien. His job is to battle other ships crossing the forcefield called the Frontier, protecting the Rylos Planetary System. The Ko-dan Armada will invade when Rylos’s moon is in eclipse.
Alex is disturbed by all this and wants to be taken home. A saboteur takes down the Starfighter Base’s defenses and many die. Only Grig and one advanced prototype Gunstar survive. Alex discovers his Beta doppelganger and calls Centauri to take him away. Centauri arrives just as Alex and Beta are attacked by an alien assassin. Centauri shoots off his right arm, then explains that more of these Zando-Zan assassins will be coming. The only way to defend Earth is in a Starfighter. Centauri takes a hit for Alex and dies. Alex finds Grig and they prepare the Gunstar for battle.
Meanwhile, the Beta robot is finding it difficult to deal with Maggie Gordon (Catherine Mary Stewart), Alex’s girlfriend. When the Zando-Zan set up outside the trailer park, he reveals the truth to Maggie. She only believes him when he is shot, and his circuitry revealed. They steal a pickup and crash it into the Zando-Zan ship, Beta forcing Maggie to jump out before the crash.
Alex and Grig attack the Ko-dan mothership, destroying its communications. A secret weapon called the Death Blossom destroys the Ko-dan fighters. Xur is to be executed for losing but escapes before his ship crashes into Rylos’s moon. Alex is the savior of Rylos and is hired to rebuild the Star League. Centauri has been healed in stasis. Alex lands his ship in the trailer park and Grig tells everyone of Alex’s heroism. Maggie leaves for space with him and little brother Louis starts playing the Starfighter game.
This was clearly made for teenagers, and seems now a bit more juvenile than that, but it is charming and funny, and the computer graphics were remarkable for the time. The ships were designed by Ron Cobb, who designed for Alien, Star Wars, and Conan. At the time, 27 minutes of special effects were impressive. Robert Preston’s role was a nod to his famous portrayal of fast-talking Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. It was his last role. The movie spawned video games, of course, plus comics, a book by Alan Dean Foster, and an off-Broadway musical. It is now considered something of a cult film. Centauri’s Star Car is based on the DeLorean, like the time-machine in Back to the Future. Both were designed by Ron Cobb.
Wil Wheaton was in the film, but his speaking scenes were deleted. He can be seen a couple of times, however, in the trailer park. The movie was shot in 40 days. Robin Williams passed on the role of the evil Xur. Robert Preston was the voice of the video game. The starfighter/navigator partnership was based on those of the French Air Force in World War II. Marc Alaimo played an assassin called the hitchhiker. He had several roles in Star Trek, notably Gul Dukat on Deep Space Nine. Meg Wyllie, who played Granny Gordon, was a Talosian Keeper on The Cage, the pilot for Star Trek: The Original Series.