Wing Commander (1999) / Sci Fi-Action

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual references and violence
Running Time: 100 min.

Cast: Freddie Prinze Jr., Saffron Burrows, Matthew Lillard, Tcheky Karyo, Jurgen Prochnow, David Warner, Ginny Holder, Hugh Quarshie, Mark Hamill (voice)
Director: Chris Roberts
Screenplay: Kevin Droney (based on the computer game created by Chris Roberts)
Review published August 8, 2006

No, the title doesn't refer to the guy that takes the chicken wings out of the fryer at KFC, although if they can call a Subway employee a "Sandwich Artist" or a Starbucks employee a "Barista", it's only a matter of time before "Wing Commander" is adopted by a fried chicken franchise somewhere.

Although I've read rave reviews for them, I've never actually played any of the computer or console games in the "Wing Commander" series, and probably never will, since I don't have the patience to learn all of the controls inherent in space combat sims.  I do know that they were popular, not only because of the game play, but because they have a cinematic feel to them, with unfolding storylines and, in later editions, well-produced live-action cut-scene sequences featuring well-known actors like Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, John Rhys-Davies, and even former porn queen Ginger Lynn Allen.  Given the strong cult following and the established universe of characters, the series seemed a prime candidate to make the leap to the big screen, and in 1999, series fans, as well as those that just like the sci-fi premise, finally got their wish.  As they say, be careful of what you wish for...

Wing Commander, the movie, is set just prior to the events that occur in the computer game series, starting off with 1st Lt. Christopher Blair (Prince Jr., I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) arriving on board the TCS Tiger's Claw at a critical time.  It seems that Earth is about to undergo an attack by the dreaded alien species, the Kilrathi, and the Terran Confederation protecting the home planet needs time in order to beat them to Earth before it is destroyed.  The Tiger's Claw is assigned its most important mission ever: to slow down the progress of the Kilrathi fleet to give the humans a chance to get into prime position for the oncoming war for the fate of Earth.

Since I've already mentioned that I haven't played any of the video games, it would be disingenuous to try to knock the movie for not being completely consistent with the characters or events of its PC predecessors.  While series fans will probably be irked that the Kilrathi have changed from feline in appearance to lizard-like, or that Angel has a British accent instead of a French one, I suppose that ignorance is bliss for me, since these things didn't bother me in the slightest.

While it wouldn't surprise me if someone who played the games came away hating Wing Commander, I am a bit mystified that critics blasted this film with the same amount of vitriol.  I will grant you, this isn't exactly what someone could claim is a great movie, but in the world of cheaply produced science fiction, there are so many worse examples of a bad one.  I wouldn't really claim Wing Commander to be a bad movie at all, just a so-so one that, with better casting and characterizations, could have been one of the better genre flicks of 1999. 

I think my biggest frustration with Wing Commander is the lack of background explanation as to what's going on.  We're dropped right into the middle of the action without any real rooting interest, and have to try, perhaps in vain, to fill in the blanks ourselves as to who everyone is and why they are doing what they do.  If the assumption is that audiences coming into the film would be intimately familiar with these characters because they played the video game, it is dead wrong.  The only character we have to identify with is Blair, although we only do so because he seems to be just as clueless about what's going on as we are. 

Some people might knock the film for looking or sounding a bit cheap, but given the relatively low budget to work with, I actually think it looks and sounds pretty good for the kind of epic they were trying to make.  I think that the real problem is that director and franchise creator Chris Roberts appears to be trying to make a film that would rank right up there with the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, instead of just trying to keep his goals modest and toss up an enjoyable b-movie experience.  One definition of a "turkey" is when the filmmakers overestimate their bounds when it comes to how good their movie can be, trying to shoot for the moon while never even get off of the ground.  Although I think that Wing Commander does achieve lift-off, there just isn't enough fuel in the tank creatively to get to its destination without a great deal of shortcuts, and the ride just isn't anywhere near as enjoyable as it could have been with a little more effort.

At the time of its theatrical release, Wing Commander was one of but three films to feature the heavily hyped trailer for the massively anticipated Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace.  Given the incredible production values of that film, as well as the major excitement for filmgoers at seeing the never-before-seen trailer right before Wing Commander, the film that followed it just didn't stand a chance of measuring up to that fever pitch for lovers of science fiction that were in the audience, many of whom walked out before the film even started.  With so many people heading for the exit throughout the film, as well as the constant dwelling on the fact that another Star Wars movie would be released shortly in the minds of those that remained, it's no wonder that people in the audience had little patience for the small pleasures that Wing Commander had to offer.

Wing Commander plays out, not as Star Wars or Star Trek, but as Top Gun in space.  It has the same kind of soap opera antics and old-fashioned, golly-gee-whiz attitude, but at the core of the film, there just isn't a heart or anything resembling a deep emotion to be found.  While it isn't as awful as the reviews of the time might lead you to believe, it also is too stale and lifeless to really inspire audience interest.  Although the level of the special effects and scoring are commendable for a film with this small a budget, perhaps the producers would have been better off using this film as the pilot for a proposed television series. 

Although you would have thought that the video games that fall under the "Wing Commander" name would have gotten a decent boost from the major motion picture release, just the opposite effect happened.  It literally killed the franchise off, with creator Chris Roberts never directing anything ever again, although he continues to work as a producer.  With his departure, the series effectively ceased along with him.  Talented fans of the series continue to make their own versions of the games but anyone looking to officially be a "Wing Commander" these days should apply at their local restaurant franchise of KFC, because after this film, it was DOA for the movie franchise, and for the game franchise, R.I.P.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo