Film Torments: Wing Commander (1999)
IN OUR FIRST look at a videogame adaptation on Film Torments – shocking, I know – Dan discusses a film that no one remembers. Just think – people remember Super Mario Bros. Oh dear. It’s Wing Commander.
Videogame movies are, notoriously, awful. For a nascent medium that’s often so bluntly inspired by cinema, an adaptation of a game into film has, by my count, worked only once: 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I’m even in a minority on that one, but when Sands of Time is featured among company that includes Super Mario Bros. and any given Uwe Boll game-film, it all seems quite a bit better in comparison.
Early game-films like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat were working from flimsy narratives in the first place, providing them with a convenient excuse for cocking it up. When videogames as a whole began to incorporate cinematic elements into their storytelling, whether via cutscenes, actual plotlines or visual cues, hope began to spring that maybe – just maybe – game-films might finally reach true cohesion between their fields.
Fans of the Wing Commander series had good reason to believe that the cinematic version would achieve this goal. From the third iteration onwards, the games featured fully-voiced, fully-acted FMVs with the considerable talents of John Rhys-Davies, Malcolm McDowell and Mark sodding Hamill paving the cutscene road between space-simming.
You’d think that Chris Roberts, mastermind behind the series as a whole, would be the perfect man to direct the cinematic adaptation, given his innate knowledge of worlds he created. Think again. Wing Commander is a sloppy, conceited mess that insults both its core fanbase and the uninitiated, resorting to tired cliches and slapdash characters in order to bring desperate, fleeting life to its undeveloped universe.
In any case, it’s the 27th Century and the Terran Confederation (A.K.A., Earth) is embroiled in a galactic war with the Kilrathi (nasty space tigers, A.K.A. Klingons with fur). The Kilrathi, in their nastiness, capture a NAVCOM A.I. – a navigational computer with co-ordinates for Earth – and only one ship is close enough to transmit the critical data back home.
That ship happens to house Blair (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) and Maniac (Matthew Lillard), a pair of inexplicable bosom buddies. To stretch a poor analogy, one is a chalkboard and the other is the Solero-haired nail scraping down said chalkboard; one is vacant, the other is insufferable. Blair’s callsign is “Maverick”, which should give you a good hint as to where the film is going: it’s Top Gun in space, right down to Maniac’s disgusting attempt to channel the spirit of Goose.
Sadly, Top Gun‘s endless yields of homoerotic sexual tension is nowhere to be found aboard the corrugated iron of Wing Commander‘s sets. Sadder still, there’s no Kenny Loggins soundtrack charting our way into the danger zone. But really now, casting the male half of Mystery Inc. as the central dramatic leads in a sci-fi action thriller is not exactly ideal, especially when their acting is so excruciating. Prinze, Jr.’s primary mode of emoting is to puff his bottom lip out and furrow his brow; Lillard’s is to gurn and gnash and drool, essentially channeling Jake Busey from Starship Troopers.
Putting them in the same vicinity as true acting heavyweights like David Suchet, David Warner and Jürgen Prochnow is embarrassing for all parties. The casting is, ultimately, misguided at best and downright idiotic at worst. Given the relatively light-hearted tone, it’s at least feasible that Roberts would look to Prinze, Jr. and Lillard (contemporary flavours-of-the-month) to provide a comedic hub for the experienced actors to gravitate around, but neither have the timing or the chops to make the dramatic moments hit harder. Watching Lillard mourn the death of a fallen comrade is like watching a hyperactive four year-old demanding the return of his Game Boy.
Saffron Burrows fares better as Commander “Angel” Deveraux, but her willowy frame and plummy RP render her attempts at being authoritative a little underwhelming. While her cheekbones cut a fine swathe through the screen, her position as a leader of men does not. Tchéky Karyo’s Paladin is the only character with major screen time to truly leave an impression, but that’s primarily down to Karyo’s ability to piss charisma.
Wing Commander looks, sounds and probably smells of its time: turn-of-the-century, 1999, and the effects say as much. It’s only fitting that a different kind of sci-fi turd – The Phantom Menace – was released in the same year, itself an exercise in mangled intent; hell, Hugh Quarshie even shows up in both.
But while Episode I suffered from transmuting the mystical into the scientific via midichlorians, Wing Commander suffers from the opposite, delivering a bizarre, pseudo-magical breed of super-men named Pilgrims. The first colonists from Earth, the Pilgrims apparently developed “a flawless sense of direction”, inexplicably enabling them to ‘feel’ their way through black holes and quasars. Somehow, this arcane knowledge made them believe they were gods among men.
This laughable plot point comes to the fore in oft-mentioned but seldom developed racial tension between Blair – a Pilgrim – and his hostile crew-mates. Prochnow’s entire character revolves around loudly denouncing the Pilgrims as saboteurs, despite Blair’s clear loyalty to the cause. Similarly ridiculous is the crew’s refusal to acknowledge a friend’s existence in the event of their death, creating an alternate source of tension that’s almost as stupid and forced as the Pilgrims.
There’s even, hilariously, thuddingly unsubtle Odyssean parallels to boot. Aside from Blair literally reading The Odyssey, pivotal plot points revolve around gravity wells named, you guessed it, Scylla and Charybdis. Far from evoking Campbell, Blair’s journey is an arrowed line from whinge to whine, and drawing connections with Homer only serves to heighten the total absence of dramatic urgency within the screenplay.
Everything else is merely generic. The set and costume designs have some odd choices, with particular confusion going to the decision to use WWII as an inspiration, right down to the Rapier star-fighters. The Kilrathi puppets are stiff, lifeless and mercifully off-screen for most of the runtime. The supposedly significant cuts made during editing are plain to see, with characters randomly dropping out of the action, never to be seen again.
It’s the work of a first-time film-maker, who wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing, with too much ambition on too small a budget (as Roberts himself as opined). Regardless of how (un)faithful it is to the original games, Wing Commander, as a film, is rife with glaring flaws, irritating performances and uncertain direction. More importantly, it’s a slap in the face for anyone who ever dreamed a videogame movie could truly, unequivocally, work. We’re still waiting.