Have you ever walked into a restaurant and ventured past the dessert case, peered in at a picture-perfect piece of pudding pie? Flaky crust, mile high meringue… Ordered it with high expectations with a cup of coffee and, upon first taste, discovered that the flavor was remarkably similar to cardboard? A culinary masterwork in every way except one; taste.
This unlikely analogy best describes the Wing Commander motion picture experience. On the surface it has all of the ingredients that make epic science fiction so tantalizing: A massive struggle between humans and aliens, a cast of lead characters unique enough to be recognized with an action figure line (of which there was back when the film was in theaters), solid visual work from that era just prior to the over reliance upon computer generated imagery, and a legion of pre-existing fans of the property thanks to the popular computer video game series on which the film was inspired.
Yet, and not unlike my above pie example, the experience is unmistakably disappointing, not fully satisfying, and definitely slightly askew. But before we jump the gun, let’s take a look at the facts and stats.
Theatrically released stateside back 1999, Wing Commander had the distinction of sharing science fiction screens with such space epics as Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and the animated Titan AE.
Runtime comes in at 100 minutes and the film is rated PG-13 for sexual references and sci-fi action/violence.
Based loosely on the plot of the game series of the same name, the film plot unfolds smack dab in the middle of an interstellar war between the Terran Confederation (humans) and the lion-like Kilrathi.
The movie centers on the exploits of 1st Lieutenant Christopher Blair and Todd “Maniac” Marshall; a pair of young pilots assigned to the carrier Tiger Claw. With a vibe that sometimes resembles that of 1997’s Starship Troopers, Wing Commander emphasizes the space-military life through the eyes of young cadets flying their first combat missions.
It turns out a massive Kilrathi armada is en-route for our lowly blue planet and the Tiger Claw is charged with the arduous task of essentially a suicide mission in delaying the armada’s advance in effort to allow the remainder of the Terran fleet time to intercept.
A lot of the drama in the film stems from the simple fact that lead character (Blair) is exposed for being half-Pilgrim; a unique strain of humanity who developed uncanny genetic galactic navigational abilities. Naturally tensions exist between Blair and his fellow pilots as a result. Chalk it up to typical human inferiority complex if you’d like.
Now the bad news; while the games were known for their rich acting and sweeping political scope, the film somehow manages to sidestep all of the richness while simultaneously delivering a pretty cardboard script. Worse still is that somehow the video game incarnations of the franchise managed to secure acting talents much more up to the task of delivering on epic science fiction characters (Mark Hamill and John Rhys-Davies to mention a few).
Perhaps most surprising is that the game’s designer Chris Roberts was given the green light to direct the film as well. The intentions here are clear and really admirable but Roberts’ lack of experience in the arena is revealed nearly constantly throughout the picture with cobby plot structuring, strange scene cuts, and what could best be described as odd directorial decisions. In other words there was specific attention paid to the whole “Top Gun” testosterone in space ideal even at the expense of the few plot threads that show potential (such as the technology involved with the navigational device stolen by the Kilrathi which will allow them to jump through worm-holes in space to arrive behind enemy lines).
Additionally no greater a ball could have been dropped than concerning the transition of the Kilrathi from the computer monitor to the big screen. The Kilrathi in the games were downright frightening at times with their cunning and ruthlessness. Unfortunately in the film, aside from being terribly rubberized and obviously unmovable, the whole species is depicted as little more than “an evil alien race bent on universal conquest”. A shame really when you consider the potential shown in the source material.
Surprisingly, the effects are actually one of the film’s greatest strengths. Digital Anvil deserves credit for rich starfields, nicely textured spacecraft, and some solidly rendered battles. It should be noted that this era represents a very interesting time in feature film special effect production; when CG was becoming extremely popular but physical (practical effects) were regularly intermingled for realism. That said the Rapier space fighters featured in the film were actually built from scrapped English Electric Lightning (EEL) jet fighter fuselages. The attention to detail pays dividends here (even if game fans have, traditionally, had a hard time accepting the visual differences in style).
Stiff acting and a rather lackluster plot actually may have been offset slightly had the original script’s concept of dual traitors (Sansky and Admiral Wilson) in addition to more background information about the Kilrathi and their first attack on a space station been retained. The novel, which was based on the film's shooting script, actually includes most of these cuts, proving a slightly richer story arc from which to draw. It is rumored that cuts were made to remove the whole traitor subplot from the finished film since it would have required several additional footage segments focusing on the less than impressive Kilrathi puppets.
In all these are certainly much poorer science fiction films in existence and the crimes Wing Commander commits are certainly forgivable when you stop to consider the strange reality that video games, for whatever reason, never survive the adaptation to film successfully. Yes there is much to bag on here but at the same time, there is enough space opera substance to argue a strong case that this is one of the finer game translations.
Now consider this, having brought in a meager $11.5 million theatrically, the picture didn’t even come close to halfway recovering the $30 million budget 20th Century Fox dumped into creating it! That said it is fortunate we received a DVD release at all. Science fiction space operas have a disturbing tendency of falling off the face of the earth (no pun intended); I’m still waiting on an official release of 1996’s Star Command or 1988’s Earth Star Voyager!
What did you think of this review?
1976 suspense/horror film directed by Richard Donner