It’s easy to forget just how greatly visual effects shifted in the late 1990s. Techniques that had survived more-or-less unchanged since the dawn of cinema – scale models, matte paintings, stop-motion, to name a few – were suddenly joined by a new generation of jaw-dropping computer graphics.
Such groundbreaking movies as Tron, Young Sherlock Holmes and The Abyss paved the way, but the digital revolution pretty much exploded in the 1990s, starting with the eye-popping morph effects of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the dinosaur shots in Jurassic Park and the CG-assisted bullet time of The Matrix in 1999.
In the midst of the CG revolution sweeping through cinemas by the close of the decade – as seen in The Matrix and the year’s other gargantuan release, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace – out came Wing Commander, a $30m adaptation of the videogame series of the same name. Wing Commander is something of an anomaly, in that it feels both very much of its time – especially in terms of its casting – but also like a curious throwback to the 1970s and 80s.
Even in 1999, the sight of iffy scale model effects and rubbery aliens rubbing shoulders with relatively fresh CGI must have looked curiously archaic to cinemagoers of the time, and it feels as though the filmmakers themselves knew this. In the midst of all the likeably kitsch space operatics, there’s one brief, isolated sequence where the film turns into The Matrix: as a space ship goes into hyper drive, we see a couple of bullet-time shots of characters frozen in awkward positions. It’s a moment of quintessentially late-90s style that probably looked quite trendy at the time, but now looks just as quaint as the rest of this deliriously camp would-be blockbuster.
Wing Commander offers up a fairly straight hero’s journey-type plot. Freddie Prinze Jr stars as Lieutenant Christopher Blair, a hotshot pilot in the 26th century. Although distrusted by most of his peers because he’s half Pilgrim (an evolutionary offshoot who turned their backs on the human race years earlier), he has a faithful ally in Todd (Matthew Lillard) and his philosophy-spouting mentor Commodore Taggart (Tchéky Karyo).
When a race of feline alien beings called the Kilrathi threaten Earth, Blair joins forces with his superior space cadets Lieutenant ‘Angel’ Deveraux (a pouting Saffron Burrows), Captain Sansky (David Suchet, with what looks like talcum powder rubbed on his eyebrows) and Admiral Tolwyn (an uncomfortable-looking David Warner, standing in for an unavailable Malcolm McDowell).
Such a cast, plus the promise of lots of cosmic dog fighting, sounds on paper like B-movie heaven in the making. So why doesn’t Wing Commander entertain as much as it should? The cliche-laden roster of characters doesn’t help, with just about everyone falling easily into over-familiar archetypes and spouting dialogue we’ve all heard a dozen times before. All of this conspires to suck the air out of the drama.
It’s also disappointing to note that, despite the welcome presence of such names as David Warner and Tchéky Karyo, Wing Commander: The Movie is considerably less starry than the videogame series from which it emerged. In Wing Commander III, Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, played the lead role of Christopher Blair in its numerous cut-scenes. That game and its sequels also featured appearances from Malcolm McDowell, Josh Lucas, John Hurt, Christopher Walken and Clive Owen.
Then there are the film’s aliens, who entirely fail to establish themselves as a credible threat. Sure, they swoop around the galaxy in locust-like numbers, but their power as a destructive force is never clearly established, and when we finally get to meet them face-to-face, they look about as intimidating as a gang of stray kittens. Legend has it that director Chris Roberts (who created the Wing Commander games before turning his hand to filmmaking) could never quite get the design of them as he’d wanted, and that when the costumes turned up on the first day of filming, they stood too tall to fit comfortably in the now-finished sets. This would explain their awkward posture, but not their pudgy, wobbly faces or ungainly, flailing limbs.
In fact, the Kilrathi pose a far less immediate threat to the universe than Matthew Lillard’s comedy sidekick, who’s so clumsy, feckless and downright unhinged that he constantly seems more likely to decimate the human race than all the alien battleships put together.
Then again, Lillard does at least inject a bit of verve and unpredictability to the film, and serves as a spikier counterpoint to Freddie Prinze Jr, whose studiously bland performance makes Lieutenant Blair one of the most forgettable sci-fi heroes in 1990s cinema.
Lillard madness aside, Wing Commander’s other pleasures largely appear to be accidental. Some of the dialogue is memorably appalling (“If you want to play at being a fighter pilot I suggest you find a virtual fun zone,” Saffron Burrows says). Taking note of the wildly varying quality of the special effects also becomes a surprisingly absorbing pastime, as perfectly passable space vistas give way to Buck Rogers-style miniatures. In the late 90s, $30m wasn’t exactly a lot of money to make a sprawling space opera with (The Phantom Menace cost $115m), but it could still have afforded some better FX shots than these – couldn’t it? It’s strange to think that Wing Commander was made a full 16 years after the release of Return Of The Jedi.
1999 was an extraordinary year for films of all kinds, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Wing Commander was drowned out somewhat by the competition. Released in March in the US and the UK, it was surrounded by the likes of Joel Schumacher’s gloomy thriller, 8mm, Harold Ramis’ comedy hit Analyze This, Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, and at the end of the month, the Wachowskis’ unexpected blockbuster success, The Matrix.
Wing Commander did, however, receive a bit of marketing assistance from an unlikely source: Star Wars. Anticipation for The Phantom Menace was at fever pitch in the first half of 1999, to the extent that Star Wars fans were willing to buy a ticket for a movie, sit and watch the Phantom Menace trailer, and then walk out of the theatre without hanging around for the main feature. Wing Commander was one film which carried the promo for The Phantom Menace in its package of opening trailers, yet even this minor boost didn’t push its profits into the black: Wing Commander made just over $11.5m in US cinemas – little more than a third of its reported budget.
That result must have been a disappointment for Chris Roberts, who never directed another movie after Wing Commander. He did, however, continue to make a strong impression on the film industry as a producer, and played a key role in getting such films as The Punisher (2004), The Jacket, Outlander the hugely underrated Lord Of War into cinemas.
Time hasn’t dimmed Roberts’ love for space opera, either. In 2012, his space trading videogame project Star Citizen began a successful crowdfunding campaign, which to date has amassed almost $45m in funding – thus making it the most successful crowdfunded project ever.
The Wing Commander movie may be a curious footnote in sci-fi movie history, but it’s by no means the worst game-to-film adaptation ever made. And as Star Citizen proves, there’s still a legion loyal fans out there, all keen to keep the space opera spirit of the Wing Commander videogame series alive.
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