Just ask anyone who’s seen Super Mario Brothers, the Movie, making worthy film adaptations of computer games is a difficult business. Most computer games are light on plot and characterization to provide maximum interactivity. Film adaptations strip away that interactivity, and leave very little in its place. Such is the case with Wing Commander, a Star Wars wannabe that makes even Super Mario start to look good…
The plot of the Wing Commander movie tackles the Kilrathi war, which was the subject of the first three Wing Commander computer games. The Kilrathi are an evil alien race, bent to conquer the galaxy. In the games, they were furry and tigerlike…here they’re more like shell-free turtles, but it doesn’t really matter. They’re never given more definition than “the enemy”, so they could be microscopic guinea pigs, for all it matters.
The Kilrathi have stolen a key piece of Terran technology which is, essentially, a map to Earth. The foolish Earthlings have pooled their entire starfleet in the farthest corner of the galaxy, and their fleet will arrive to defend earth a mere two hours too late. There’s only one hope for the future of Earth: a lone carrier, the T.C.S. Tiger’s Claw, can attempt to delay the entire Kilrathi battle fleet at a key navigational jump point, or die trying.
The Tiger’s Claw’s orders are relayed by two rookie pilots, Blair (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Maniac (Matthew Lillard), and one mysterious pilot (Tcheky Karyo). Blair has a peculiar cross to bear (literally). His mother was a “pilgrim”, an advanced race of human beings who eschewed humanity to take to the stars. Normal humans, including most of the crew of the Tiger’s Claw, don’t really care for his presence. However, that doesn’t stop him from striking up a relationship with his wing commander, “Angel” Devereaux (Saffron Burrows).
Those familiar with the computer game series will know that it has always been highly cinematic in its presentation. It’s no surprise, then, that it was chosen for a movie adaptation. What is surprising, however, is how horrible this adaptation has turned out.
Rather than present a rousing space-bound action adventure, the filmmakers instead chose to present Wing Commander as a WWII war film. An entire sequence is even cribbed from Das Boot as the Tiger’s Claw plays submarine, beached in an asteroid crater while a Kilrathi “destroyer” pings up above. They’ve even enlisted Jurgen Prochnow to play the worried commander of the ship. The film would have been better off without obviously drawing the comparison to a much better piece of cinema.
Despite several attempts, Wing Commander is never able to create a sense of tension or even consequence in any of its battle sequences. Even the computer game’s battles seemed of more import than these glossy FX compilations. Virtually every battle is extremely lopsided, with the heroes slaughtering every Kilrathi ship in sight, while suffering nearly no casualties themselves. When they do, the tragedy is horridly overplayed.
Freddie Prinze Jr. is a mostly featureless and dull hero, making you long for the fine thespian stylings of Mark Hamill (who played the role in the computer games). He’s certainly not helped by the film’s inane script, which constantly feeds him pointless dialogue. But even in his silent moments, his wooden acting is composed primarily of a slack face and mooning eyes. At least co-star Matthew Lillard attempts to add some energy to his role, even if he is playing the same “wild-and-crazy” bit that he’s done in all his prior films.
The special effects of Wing Commander aren’t. The opening shows promise, but quickly the monotonous space battles prove to be a dark and murky jumble of flashing lights and bland shadows. But the outer space special effects positively shine when compared with the puppetry of the Kilrathi, who look like rejects from Dr. Who.
There was a brief time when Wing Commander was nearly destined to go direct-to-video. That may have been a more fitting place, though I would recommend avoiding this cosmic accident even in the video bargain bins.