Revisiting the Reviled — ‘Wing Commander’ Crashes and Burns in the Shadow of Other Movies

GameStop, Inc.


Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

In hindsight, the late ‘90s seem like this magical era of resounding naïveté. I was approaching the end of my life in high school; Napster had suddenly provided a totally free form of downloading music which in no way would harm the creators I held so dearly; discontent liberals tired of the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton were prepping their protest votes for Ralph Nader; and, finally, a new Star Wars film was on the horizon, fulfilling a dream held since childhood that we’d see the creation of Darth Vader and understand so much more of the expansive world of endless imagination created by George Lucas. Man, what a crock of bullshit. But before the crushing weight of adult disillusionment would firmly set in, I already had two realizations that would serve me well through the rest of my adult life – movies based on video games suck, and Freddie Prinze, Jr. is not a movie star.

In 1999, however, my two realizations had not yet been fully realized by society at large, and one is still being woefully neglected. In March of that year, the release of Wing Commander brought about much fanfare, and by fanfare I mean that many people went to see the movie because a trailer for The Phantom Menace was attached. Aside from being a footnote in the dissatisfying history of The Phantom Menace and video game movies as a whole, Wing Commander has a very distinct standing among its video game inspired peers as that it’s the only film, as far as I could find, that was written and directed by the creator of the gaming series. But Wing Commander would be Chris Roberts’ lone attempt as a writer-director of feature films, though he would serve as a producer on other films afterwards, including Lord of War and Lucky Number Slevin.


The opening credits of Wing Commander feature a snippet of a speech from J.F.K., as if using the voice of the slain president would add a bit of gravitas to this story of space pilots, before moving into obligatory expository voiceover explaining the situation before the audience. The military forces of Earth are about to enter a war with the Kilrathi, an alien race of nameless villains. The Kilrathi stage an attack on an outpost in an attempt to secure the NavCom, a navigation computer with remarkable A.I. With the Kilrathi approaching Earth, Admiral Tolwyn (David Warner) contacts the Diligent, a supply ship helmed by Captain Taggert (Tchéky Karyo). The Admiral requests that the young pilot Christopher Blair (Prinze, Jr.) deliver a special message to Tiger Claw, a massive battleship-type starship. There Blair and his best friend Todd Marshall (Matthew Lillard), a brash hotshot pilot, must become part of the crew led by Lieutenant Commander Jeanette “Angel” Deveraux (Saffron Burrows). Of course, Blair and Marshall have to earn the trust of their new shipmates before – oh so unexpectedly – saving the day.


In many regards, Wing Commander is a valuable lesson in how not to write science fiction. There’s the Chosen One in Christopher Blair, a character whose skills aren’t earned but handed down to him genetically through birth. Then there’s the death of a character, played by Ginny Holder, who is only killed off so that Todd Marshall can face some kind of consequences for his arrogant ways. Worst of all, there’s this meandering subplot about a past war with a group of people known as the Pilgrims, a race of people that had a form of premonition about space travel. Funnily enough, that genetic advantage didn’t stop them from losing the war. It is also revealed that Captain Taggert is a Pilgrim, an entirely non-shocking revelation. Meanwhile, Commander Paul Gerald (Jürgen Prochnow) has an intense distrust of Pilgrims, but that distrust is entirely tossed aside once he takes over command of Tiger Claw from Captain Lawrence Sansky (David Suchet), who is mysteriously incapacitated or killed – it’s not clear what happened to him.

Wing Commander also fails as special effects laden spectacle. The film features some of the first uses of the Bullet Time technology that was made famous by The Matrix, though the film’s use of it is quite underwhelming and would be quickly obscured by The Matrix, which opened just weeks after Wing Commander. But the space fights aren’t even that impressive for its era. The blend of practical and computer effects never quite works. It’s a film that very much has the look of those live action scenes from ‘90s video games – you know, like Wing Commander. Things are made all the worse by the comically rubber Kilrathi, who are never as menacing as they are hilarious. It’s obvious as to why they have very little screen time.


The legacy of Wing Commander is mostly defined by the fact that it was one of the few films that ran the trailer for The Phantom Menace before it. Even in an era where trailers weren’t readily available on the internet, Wing Commander wasn’t able to gain a box office boost by being one of the few areas where people could get their glimpse at one of the most anticipated movies of all-time. Wing Commander opened in seventh place on its opening weekend, behind such enduring classics as The Rage: Carrie 2 and Baby Geniuses. A kind of Top Gun in space, Wing Commander has no personality of its own worth remembering. Instead, it’s a film that is a footnote in the history of other, better movies. Yes, that even includes The Phantom Menace.

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