This article appeared in Issue 15 (April/June 1999) of Frontier, Australia's premiere sci-fi media magazine.
Incoming Kilrathi vessels!
Now what do we do?
We'll make them sorry that they were even born!
Sad to say, the only thing good about "Wing Commander", the latest 'movie based on a video game', is the impressive trailer for the upcoming "Star Wars" prequel, "The Phantom Menace". After that, you might as well leave, because it all goes downhill from that point on.
In the Twenty-seventh century, humanity is facing extinction from a war-mongering cat-like race known as the Kilrathi. Despite all attempts at a diplomatic solution, full-scale war has broken out and the Terran Confederation can barely maintain its borders against this new and aggressive race. One surprise attack on a distant Confederation outpost nets the Kilrathi a 'navcom', which contains the jump-gate coordinates for Earth that will allow the Kilrathi forces to arrive at Earth's doorstep.
With less than twenty-four hours remaining before the Kilrathi are in striking distance of Earth, the leader of the main fleet, Admiral Tolwyn (David Warner of "Titanic"), orders the battle-carrier TCS Tiger Claw to intercept the Kilrathi fleet so that the main fleet can reach Earth in time to defend it. However, due to some inexplicable reason, Tolwyn cannot send the orders directly to the commander of the Tiger Claw. Instead, the orders are encrypted and sent with two fresh-out-of-the-meat-grinder hotshot pilots, Lt. Christopher Blair (Freddie Prinze Jr. of "She's All That" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer") and Lt. Todd 'Maniac' Marshall (Matthew Lillard, also from "She's All That"), and their mysterious commanding officer, Paladin (Tcheky Karyo). Apparently, Blair is 'special' because he is descended from Pilgrims, a space-faring offshoot of the human race known for their innate sense for spatial navigation (whatever).
Good job lieutenant. You've only on the ship for five minutes and you're already hitting on a wing commander.
When Blair and Marshall arrive on the Tiger Claw, they find their new home inhospitable. Commander Gerald (Jurgen Prochnow of "The Replacement Killers") is suspicious of the new arrivals. Even more troubling for Blair is that Gerald has a chip on his shoulders against Pilgrims, since Earth and the Pilgrims were locked in a bitter war on a few decades prior. Blair also fails to score any points when he mistakes his beautiful but emotionally aloof wing commander Jeannette 'Angel' Deveraux (Saffron Burrows) for a mechanic. Of course, the tension isn't eased by the fact that none of the established fighter pilots want to have anything to do with the new rookies. However, in order for the Earth to avoid a Kilrathi assault, the dysfunctional family of the TCS Tiger Claw must put their differences aside and work together for the greater good...
Movies based on video games have rarely been successful, the most notable being the high-priced failures of "Super Mario Bros.", "Double Dragon", and "Street Fighter". Part of the reason for the difficulty in transitioning to the big screen is the lack of attention paid to the script. Instead of trying to create a compelling story, engaging dialogue, and interesting characters, the scripts tend to place more emphasis on the visual elements that made the video game famous in the first place, which usually means lots of stuff blowing up and one bone-crunching fight scene after another. Consequently, the narrative elements become secondary to the visceral elements of the movie, resulting in archetypal characters, cliché dialogue, and cartoonish plots.
"Wing Commander" suffers from the same problems that have plagued its predecessors, plundering elements from "Star Wars", "Battlestar Galactica", "Top Gun", "Space: Above and Beyond", and numerous World War II naval dramas. The resultant hodge-podge script then plods along on cruise control, making the sequence of turns that you would expect it to-- romantic sparks will fly, some hotshot will screw up and get someone killed and then feel bad about it, someone will have to be left behind enemy lines to serve the greater good, and Blair will ultimately prove his mettle by using his Pilgrim abilities.
In addition to the problems with the script, there are issues in the casting department. Prinze may be popular with the teen crowd these days, but he is unable to carry the lead role of "Wing Commander", even though the movie's other subplots substantially eat into his screen time. He lacks the demeanor befitting the film's lead character, and his blandness ends up blending his character into the background scenery. It would have been a wiser choice for director Chris Roberts to cast a grizzled Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker of "Star Wars") in the role (he actually played Blair in the computer game), as Hamill certainly has a more commanding screen presence than Prinze.
Lillard, as Blair's maverick buddy, delivers a one-note performance that involves plenty of wild-eyed bad-mannered behavior and high-fives. Burrows does a slightly better job with the limited material she is given to convey the strength and charisma of Deveraux, as does Karyo, whose cantankerous disposition brings some color to the otherwise bland command structure of the Tiger Claw. The use of Prochnow as the ship's captain is an interesting bit of stunt casting, as he played a similar (and arguably better) role as the submarine captain in "Das Boot".
The problems don't end there. The fact that "Wing Commander" was thrown together for less than $50 million shows in the quality of the special effects. At times, asteroids look like pieces of painted styrofoam, spaceships have the gloss of obvious CGI, and the hulking forms of the Kilrathi move about like men in rubber suits. Even in the scenes where the special effects are tolerable, the battle sequences are short and uneventful, which is a shame, given how they modeled many of the battles using tactics from the naval battles of the Second World War. It certainly would have been interesting to see the Battle of Midway recontextualized in space.
Good science fiction, or for that matter good storytelling, is about interesting characters in interesting situations doing interesting things. "Wing Commander" has none of these things going for it, and even pales in comparison to the 'cut scenes' of the third and fourth installments of the "Wing Commander" video game series. After months of waiting in great anticipation for the big screen version of "Wing Commander", I came to the sad realization that I was better off just replaying my old "Wing Commander" CD-ROMs. But at least I got to see the new prequel trailer-- now THAT was worth the price of admission.