Go back to Wing Commander 1 and 2

Written by: Rik

Date posted: August 14, 2005

Until recently, I’d assumed that pretty much everyone thought the Wing Commander movie was pretty dire. Apparently, though, this is a divisive issue, and if there’s one thing which pisses the WC hardcore off, it’s people slagging the movie without even having seen it. In fairness, it didn’t really get much of a chance here in Britain, with even those who wanted to see it at the cinema frustrated by a limited release, and this, combined with a large dossier of unfavourable US reviews was enough for most of us to be convinced that we probably weren’t missing much.

I have seen it, however: I paid three quid to watch it on Sky Box Office, swiftly concluded that this was money which would have been better spent on lottery tickets and allowed my mum to tape some rom-com guff over the top of it the next day. Perhaps this was a little rash, but I found it desperately disappointing: neither faithful to the Wing Commander tradition or a decent sci-fi film taken on its own merits. Having finally secured a UK Region-2 release in 2005, six years after it was made and with absolutely no extra features on the disc, I decided to splash out and give it another go.

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Subsequent viewings brought a slightly more sympathetic response, and in the intervening years I came to realise that a Wing Commander movie was never going to get the backing of a studio if it came in the form of a sequel to the games, which would be unfamiliar to the majority of the cinema-going public. The prospect of Mark Hamill and Tom Wilson returning as our heroes was never really on the cards, although it’s a shame conflicting schedules meant Malcolm MacDowell couldn’t reprise his role as Tolwyn. And while it’s perhaps understandable that Chris Roberts wanted to take a step back from the games, some of the inconsistencies and changes seem to have been to the film’s detriment (for more on this see Freddie vs. Bluehair).

The film also suffered at the hands of some of the usual Hollywood pressures, such as time and budget constraints, in particular the fact that Star Wars: Episode I was to be released in the same year. In an interview with PC Zone magazine in 2001, Eric Peterson, then developing Conquest: Frontier Wars but who had also worked on Wing Commander IV, Starlancer and the WC Movie, talked frankly about problems with the film. According to Peterson:

What actually happened is we ran out of money; Chris was basically told by Fox that he just had to cut together what he had and make a movie. If we’d had three more months, we could have ridden the coat-tails of Star Wars rather than going up against. Remember David Suchet, the captain in the film? He was supposed to turn out to be a traitor in the original script, but you don’t find out about that in the movie, because we had to cut it. The script is 100 times better than the movie.

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To an extent, these claims are borne out: the film is pretty cheap-looking, with the special effects resembling scenes from a game (not surprising, since they were done by Digital Anvil themselves), it’s rather short (around an hour and a half), and Suchet’s part in the film is rather underdone. It’s certainly possible that with more time they could have come up with something better, but Wing Commander has other problems which can’t just be explained away.

Essentially, the story goes something like this: at the beginning of the film, the Kilrathi overrun a Confederation capital ship and steal the navigation computer (which, incidentally, looks suspiciously like a car battery). With information gleaned from this, they plot a course to Earth, and only the TCS Tiger Claw, with young pilots Blair and Maniac onboard, can stop them. While occasionally implausible, there’s not a lot wrong with the main story; it’s the main characters, dialogue and a Blair sub-plot which aren’t up to scratch.

Blair (played by Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Maniac (Matthew Lillard) are obviously supposed to be much younger than the characters we know from the games, cocky upstarts fresh from the academy. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too much like Dude, where’s my Wing Commander? or, even worse, Saved by the Bell: The Tiger Claw Years with Prinze Jr. doing his best to look serious but in a college rom-com kind of way, while Lillard does his usual wacky sidekick thing which seems to involve a greater than usual amount of gurning. Saffron Burrows once again rolls out the stroppy-English-cow routine as Angel, and generally they’re a tough bunch to have any sympathy with. The best of the bunch is Tcheky Karyo, who puts in a half-decent performance as the grumpy Paladin, even if his accent is at odds with the character’s name.

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The dialogue is also pretty poor, although it’s hard to tell whether it’s the fault of the script or the wooden delivery. A few lines which are re-used throughout the film, in particular the ‘never existed’ mantra used to deal with the matter of dead friends and co-pilots, also happen to be some of the worst. Tied into this is the sub-plot involving Blair’s heritage, which is an attempt to give the bland, featureless hero from the original game a little bit of relevance. Apparently, Blair is part-Pilgrim, which gives him special abilities (albeit rather uncool, mathematics-based ones) but means that people on-board are wary of him because the Confederation was once at war with the Pilgrim people. Cue lots of cliche-ridden talk of ‘half-breeds’ and ‘Pilgrim traitors’ until of course Blair’s special abilities are required to manually program the ship’s navigation computer at the end of the film. Even if we ignore the fact that this rips-off Star Wars, and that none of this was ever mentioned in the WC games, it still feels pretty incongruous. Maybe the some of the missing scenes Peterson talked about would have helped here, maybe not.

While it may seem logical enough to cover the early years of the WC heroes in the film, the original game actually didn’t offer much in the way of plot. Chris Roberts probably felt this was a good way to avoid contradicting the games, but in all honesty I feel he might have been better off basing the movie around WC2, which has a strong plot revolving around Blair’s fall from grace. A quick ten minutes at the beginning would be sufficient to establish his hero status, then the story could pick up as the second game begins. Instead of the Pilgrim sub-plot, the suspicion among his fellow pilots that Blair is a traitor associated with the Society of Mandarins (Kilrathi sympathisers) could have taken its place. Roberts has since admitted that he had a second movie in mind, with Freddie Prinze Jr. and Saffron Burrows rumoured to have signed up for a sequel should the film do well, but really he should have focused on making the first one good enough to warrant one. Generally the WC movie feels like The Phantom Menace: an unsatisfying and unnecessary prequel.

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Despite all this, it’s still vaguely watchable, even though I can’t think of any specific praise. It’s the sort of thing the BBC might put on late at night on a weekday, so only insomniacs, the unemployed and those who can be bothered to set their video (or Sky +) will probably get to see it. Of course, you could also go out and buy it if you’ve got money to burn, although (at the time of writing) your local HMV won’t have a copy – you can get the extras-free, Region 2 disc from Play for a tenner, or if you’re multi-regioned you could get a slightly better disc on Region 1 for around the same price. If you don’t expect too much you might even enjoy it, but don’t say you haven’t been warned.