On Wing Commander

Featuring Freddie Prinze, Jr. (I Know What You Did Last Summer), and Matthew Lillard (Scream), Wing Commander is a pretty awful for a film. It is directed by Chris Roberts, the creator of the video game series of the same name. According to the Den of Geek article, “Looking back at the Wing Commander movie“:

It’s easy to forget just how greatly visual effects shifted in the late 1990s. Techniques that had survived more-or-less unchanged since the dawn of cinema – scale models, matte paintings, stop-motion, to name a few – were suddenly joined by a new generation of jaw-dropping computer graphics.

Such groundbreaking movies as Tron, Young Sherlock Holmes and The Abyss paved the way, but the digital revolution pretty much exploded in the 1990s, starting with the eye-popping morph effects of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the dinosaur shots in Jurassic Park and the CG-assisted bullet time of The Matrix in 1999.

In the midst of the CG revolution sweeping through cinemas by the close of the decade – as seen in The Matrix and the year’s other gargantuan release, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace – out came Wing Commander, a $30m adaptation of the videogame series of the same name. Wing Commander is something of an anomaly, in that it feels both very much of its time – especially in terms of its casting – but also like a curious throwback to the 1970s and 80s.

Even in 1999, the sight of iffy scale model effects and rubbery aliens rubbing shoulders with relatively fresh CGI must have looked curiously archaic to cinemagoers of the time, and it feels as though the filmmakers themselves knew this. In the midst of all the likeably kitsch space operatics, there’s one brief, isolated sequence where the film turns into The Matrix: as a space ship goes into hyper drive, we see a couple of bullet-time shots of characters frozen in awkward positions. It’s a moment of quintessentially late-90s style that probably looked quite trendy at the time, but now looks just as quaint as the rest of this deliriously camp would-be blockbuster.

Wing Commander offers up a fairly straight hero’s journey-type plot. Freddie Prinze Jr stars as Lieutenant Christopher Blair, a hotshot pilot in the 26th century. Although distrusted by most of his peers because he’s half Pilgrim (an evolutionary offshoot who turned their backs on the human race years earlier), he has a faithful ally in Todd (Matthew Lillard) and his philosophy-spouting mentor Commodore Taggart (Tchéky Karyo).

When a race of feline alien beings called the Kilrathi threaten Earth, Blair joins forces with his superior space cadets Lieutenant ‘Angel’ Deveraux (a pouting Saffron Burrows), Captain Sansky (David Suchet, with what looks like talcum powder rubbed on his eyebrows) and Admiral Tolwyn (an uncomfortable-looking David Warner, standing in for an unavailable Malcolm McDowell).

Such a cast, plus the promise of lots of cosmic dog fighting, sounds on paper like B-movie heaven in the making. So why doesn’t Wing Commander entertain as much as it should? The cliche-laden roster of characters doesn’t help, with just about everyone falling easily into over-familiar archetypes and spouting dialogue we’ve all heard a dozen times before. All of this conspires to suck the air out of the drama.

It’s also disappointing to note that, despite the welcome presence of such names as David Warner and Tchéky Karyo, Wing Commander: The Movie is considerably less starry than the videogame series from which it emerged. In Wing Commander III, Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, played the lead role of Christopher Blair in its numerous cut-scenes. That game and its sequels also featured appearances from Malcolm McDowell, Josh Lucas, John Hurt, Christopher Walken and Clive Owen.

Then there are the film’s aliens, who entirely fail to establish themselves as a credible threat. Sure, they swoop around the galaxy in locust-like numbers, but their power as a destructive force is never clearly established, and when we finally get to meet them face-to-face, they look about as intimidating as a gang of stray kittens. Legend has it that director Chris Roberts (who created the Wing Commander games before turning his hand to filmmaking) could never quite get the design of them as he’d wanted, and that when the costumes turned up on the first day of filming, they stood too tall to fit comfortably in the now-finished sets. This would explain their awkward posture, but not their pudgy, wobbly faces or ungainly, flailing limbs.

In fact, the Kilrathi pose a far less immediate threat to the universe than Matthew Lillard’s comedy sidekick, who’s so clumsy, feckless and downright unhinged that he constantly seems more likely to decimate the human race than all the alien battleships put together.

Then again, Lillard does at least inject a bit of verve and unpredictability to the film, and serves as a spikier counterpoint to Freddie Prinze Jr, whose studiously bland performance makes Lieutenant Blair one of the most forgettable sci-fi heroes in 1990s cinema.

Lillard madness aside, Wing Commander’s other pleasures largely appear to be accidental. Some of the dialogue is memorably appalling (“If you want to play at being a fighter pilot I suggest you find a virtual fun zone,” Saffron Burrows says). Taking note of the wildly varying quality of the special effects also becomes a surprisingly absorbing pastime, as perfectly passable space vistas give way to Buck Rogers-style miniatures. In the late 90s, $30m wasn’t exactly a lot of money to make a sprawling space opera with (The Phantom Menace cost $115m), but it could still have afforded some better FX shots than these – couldn’t it? It’s strange to think that Wing Commander was made a full 16 years after the release of Return Of The Jedi.

1999 was an extraordinary year for films of all kinds, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Wing Commander was drowned out somewhat by the competition. Released in March in the US and the UK, it was surrounded by the likes of Joel Schumacher’s gloomy thriller, 8mm, Harold Ramis’ comedy hit Analyze This, Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, and at the end of the month, the Wachowskis’ unexpected blockbuster success, The Matrix.

Wing Commander did, however, receive a bit of marketing assistance from an unlikely source: Star Wars. Anticipation for The Phantom Menace was at fever pitch in the first half of 1999, to the extent that Star Wars fans were willing to buy a ticket for a movie, sit and watch the Phantom Menace trailer, and then walk out of the theatre without hanging around for the main feature. Wing Commander was one film which carried the promo for The Phantom Menace in its package of opening trailers, yet even this minor boost didn’t push its profits into the black: Wing Commander made just over $11.5m in US cinemas – little more than a third of its reported budget.

That result must have been a disappointment for Chris Roberts, who never directed another movie after Wing Commander. He did, however, continue to make a strong impression on the film industry as a producer, and played a key role in getting such films as The Punisher (2004), The Jacket, Outlander the hugely underrated Lord Of War into cinemas.

Time hasn’t dimmed Roberts’ love for space opera, either. In 2012, his space trading videogame project Star Citizen began a successful crowdfunding campaign, which to date has amassed almost $45m in funding – thus making it the most successful crowdfunded project ever.

The Wing Commander movie may be a curious footnote in sci-fi movie history, but it’s by no means the worst game-to-film adaptation ever made. And as Star Citizen proves, there’s still a legion loyal fans out there, all keen to keep the space opera spirit of the Wing Commander videogame series alive.

Additionally, according to the Kotaku article, “Sorry, Everyone, It’s Time to Talk About the Wing Commander Movie“:

When people look back on films based on video games, they tend to skew towards the good (Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia) or the bad (Mario, Double Dragon). They don’t talk about the greats because there haven’t been any.

And they don’t talk about Wing Commander because it’s just too damn painful.

Wing Commander, if you’ve never played any of its games, is a series of space combat titles released mostly on the PC (with select titles ported to other platforms) and mostly during the 1990s. Just one of a number of “cinematic” flight game franchises released by developers Origin and created by Chris Roberts, it remains to this day one of the most successful and best-loved sci-fi series in gaming.

When in the late 1990’s a movie adaptation was planned, then, people got excited. After all, the Wing Commander series was a perfect fit for the big screen: it had a simple good vs evil plot, and thanks to the game’s own cinematic aspirations, came pre-loaded with a range of well-rounded characters and interesting storylines touching on everything from betrayal and corruption to ultimate victory.

It even, via the expensive full-motion video sequences of later games, had en established and good-looking visual signature, resting somewhere between the original Battlestar Galactica and Top Gun.

Best of all, though, the movie was going to be directed by none other than Chris Roberts himself, the series’ creator. So unlike other misguided attempts at bringing video games to the big screen, this one would be overseen by the franchise’s gatekeeper himself. What could possibly go wrong?

How about everything.

At first glance, it seems surprisingly faithful! There’s a Confederation of humans fighting a war against the cat-like alien Kilrathi. The principal characters all have the exact same names as their game counterparts, and in many cases (like Maniac and Angel) the actors follow that through with performances matching the existing role. Even some of the Confederation’s uniforms look pretty close to those found in the game.

It also seems serious! There is a degree of starpower involved (hey, it was 1999, Freddie Prinze was “big”), and the movie had a $30 million budget, resulting in some surprisingly impressive visual effects.

Watch the trailer once and those bits may just get you through the thing excited! Or at least excited enough to distract you from everything that is suddenly, and in some cases inexplicably, different.

Example 1: star of the series Christopher Blair, played by Freddie Prinze Jnr., has suddenly become a jedi, with latent mystical powers enabling him to navigate through space without a computer. In the game, he’s just a regular, albeit less easily shocked (left) dude.

Example 2: the Kilrathi are cats. In the games, they’re shown as giant cats. Cats have fur. In the film, though, the cats are hairless, which is just…weird. Roberts tried to explain this away as saying he was never happy with how giant furry men looked on camera, but since they looked just fine in Wing Commanders III & IV, it didn’t wash with fans of the series.

Example 3: after the characters, the most iconic and important part of the Wing Commander universe are (were?) its ships. After so many games over so many years they’d become as identifiable to fans as an X-Wing or Viper. The movie, of course, turned the Confederate fighters into pieces of flying junk, basing their design on old British fighter jets in an attempt at the kind of “future retro” look Fallout 3 got so right. Only, Wing Commander got it wrong.

Example 4: in the games, the character of Maniac (later played by Tom Wilson) is a fucking asshole. But in a cool way. In the movie, he’s played by Matthew Lillard, who is a fucking asshole in a way that just makes him a fucking asshole.

Perhaps most perplexing about the changes made, though, was that they were for the worse when so much good material existed already. The designs and plots of Wing Commanders III or IV were already perfect for the big screen, and the cast assembled for those games – which included the likes of Mark Hamill, Malcolm MCDowell and John Rhys-Davies – had done an amazing job. Simply taking all that and making a movie out of it all was the safe, sensible and easy option.

But so what, you might ask! Changes are always made to books, or comics when they’re made into a movie. It’s part of the process. But it’s the strange divide that makes Wing Commander’s alterations so infuriating to fans. Why were some aspects of the universe kept so steadfastly intact while others were either changed out of sight or completely fabricated? I often think it would have been better for the movie to make a clean break and leave the games behind than try and straddle the fence.

Especially since in straddling the fence the movie ended up being so bloody awful. By making changes it alienated fans of the games, and by being a terrible movie it pissed off everyone else. The acting is for the most part poor, especially from Prinze Jnr. (though Tchéky Karyo is his usual awesome self), and while some of the dogfights are OK, everything else – you know, the parts that required writing, where people are talking – is horrifying.

It’s even got not one, not two, but multiple basic spelling errors, which you can see in this great review of the flick.

Wing Commander ended up a total disaster. It lost 20th Century Fox a ton of money (it only made back $11.5 million of its $30 million budget), is one of the worst-reviewed films of all time and, perhaps most telling of all, it managed to kill both the future of the franchise (which has barely been seen or heard from since) and the directorial ambitions of Roberts, who would never helm another picture again.

Ultimately, what has consigned Wing Commander to the dustbin of history more than the lost money and wrecked dreams, I think, been that crushing sense of disappointment. That this was a series so mature and well-developed already in its games that to see it reduced to such garbage on the big screen makes it too painful to remember.

Except for today. Sorry about that.

According to Roger Ebert:

Jurgen Prochnow, who played the submarine captain in “Das Boot,” is one of the stars of “Wing Commander,” and no wonder: This is a sub movie exported to deep space, complete with the obligatory warning about the onboard oxygen running low. “Torpedoes incoming!” a watch officer shouts. “Brace yourself!” It’s 500 years in the future. If the weapons developed by the race of evil Kilrathi only inspire you to “brace yourself,” we might reasonably ask what the Kilrathi have been doing with their time.

Other marine notes: “Hard to port!” is a command at one point. Reasonable at sea, but in space, where a ship is not sailing on a horizontal surface, not so useful. “Quiet! There’s a destroyer!” someone shouts, and then everyone on board holds their breath, as there are subtle sonar pings on the soundtrack, and we hear the rumble of a giant vessel overhead. Or underhead. Wherever. “In space,” as “Alien” reminded us, “no one can hear you scream.” There is an excellent reason for that: Vacuums do not conduct sound waves, not even those caused by giant destroyers.

Such logic is of course irrelevant to “Wing Commander,” a movie based on a video game and looking like one a lot of the time, as dashing pilots fly around blowing up enemy targets. Our side kills about a zillion Kilrathi for every one of our guys who buys it, but when heroes die, of course they die in the order laid down by ancient movie cliches. The moment I saw that one of the pilots was an attractive black woman (Ginny Holder), I knew she’d go down, or up, in flames.

The plot involves war between the humans and the Kilrathi, who have refused all offers of peace and wish only to be targets in the cross hairs of video computer screens. Indeed, according to a Web page, they hope to “destroy the universe,” which seems self-defeating. The Kilrathi are ugly turtleoid creatures with goatees, who talk like voice synthesizers cranked way down, heavy on the bass.

Against them stand the noble earthlings, although the film’s hero, Blair (Freddie Prinze Jr.) is suspect in some circles because he is a half-breed. Yes, his mother was a Pilgrim. Who were the Pilgrims? Humans who were the original space voyagers and developed a gene useful for instinctively navigating in “space-time itself.” (Just about all navigation is done in space-time itself, but never mind.) Pilgrims went too far and dared too much, so timid later men resented them–but if you need someone to skip across a Gravity Hole, a Pilgrim is your man.

There are actors on board capable of splendid performances. The commander of the fleet is played by David Warner, who brings utter believability to, alas, banal dialogue. Two of the other officers, played by Tcheky Karyo and Prochnow, are also fine; I’d like to see them in a real Navy movie. Prinze shows again an easy grace and instant likeability. Matthew Lillard, as a hotshot pilot named Maniac, gets into a daredevil competition with the Holder character, and I enjoyed their energy. And the perfectly named Saffron Burrows has a pleasing presence as the head of the pilot squadron, although having recently seen her in a real movie (Mike Figgis’ “The Loss Of Sexual Innocence,” at Sundance), I assume she took this role to pay the utility bills.

These actors, alas, are at the service of a submoronic script and special effects that look like a video game writ large. “Wing Commander” arrives at the end of a week that began with the death of the creator of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Close the pod bay door, Hal. And turn off the lights.

 

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