Published: July 14th 2015
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Length: 349 pages
The Last Starfighter is a very bad movie. The too-thin story is nothing but a delivery mechanism for a few minutes of primitive CGI, and I question the taste of anyone who could watch it nowadays without groaning.
Accordingly, if you operate under the theory that very bad movies are the ones that actually deserve reboots, there has never been a premise more ripe for a “re-imagining” than The Last Starfighter. The advances made to video games since the heyday of arcade cabinets are exponential, and the line between games and combat simulators has never been thinner.
Armada is Ernest Cline’s pitch for a Last Starfighter reboot, tailor-made for the inevitable blockbuster film adaptation. It improves on the movie in a few ways but introduces new problems; although it is more grounded and believable than the original, the plotting is slapdash and the pop culture references are overwhelming.
In Armada, Cline tells the story of Zack Lightman, a fatherless teenage gamer with anger-management issues and a high score in the titular game – a popular space-flight simulator/shooter. Zack’s late father was also a gamer obsessed with pop culture, but he also had a crackpot theory that all science fiction is part of a government plot designed to prepare people for alien invasions.
Zack obsesses over everything his father loved despite his suspicions that Lightman the elder might have been a little crazy. Although his obsession does eventually tie into the plot, it’s mostly just Cline’s excuse for peppering the dialogue with references to 80s movies. In fact, in the book’s most egregious moments, the characters quote dialog verbatim instead of having real human conversations.
When Zack sees a ship from Armada flying past his school, he thinks he’s going crazy like his father, and tries to write it off. However, we immediately know a few things that he seems willfully ignorant about despite his intimate familiarity with The Last Starfighter:
- He isn’t crazy. That was totally a real alien ship.
- He is going to get recruited by the military.
- Oh, and, his dad is totally alive out there somewhere. Duh.
All of this is screamingly obvious, but the book takes its sweet time getting to the point where Zack actually steps into a spaceship. I’m sure that once this is a movie, the pacing of this section will be better and it won’t feel like such a drag to spend time on Zack’s normal life, but here the first act of the story is deadly dull. I could definitely have done without the chapter-length walk-through of Armada’s in-game mechanics, especially because at that point the stakes were still nonexistent.
It doesn’t help that Cline spends a lot of time setting up characters and situations that never really pay off. Zack’s anger issues just go away without him ever actually addressing them. His love interest gets one significant scene and then barely appears in the rest of the book even though she’s actually a pretty cool character. The overall effect is a book that feels underdeveloped and rushed, as though producing a movie-ready follow-up was the main priority here.
And, yes, the pop-culture references that Cline is known for do feel a bit heavy-handed. Somehow the same obsession with 80s culture worked just fine in his début, but here it took me out of the action almost every time. There’s also a weird scene where Zack describes how hot his mom is and admits to a mild Oedipal complex. These are all things that I think Cline would have fixed with another rewrite or two.
It’s a shame, really, because I genuinely enjoyed Ready Player One, and I was really excited for Cline’s follow-up. I think he has a lot of potential as a writer, and I could still see that potential in Armada even if I don’t think the execution is there. For example, the government’s recruitment plan makes a lot more sense than The Last Starfighter, and once the invasion gets underway, Cline introduces a new mystery that makes for a far more compelling dramatic question than whether Zack will get recruited.
Cline already has a lucrative deal for his third book, so it’s not like the shakiness of his craft on Armada is going to derail his career, but I hope he gets the chance to put a bit more love and attention into his next book.