Wing Commander
The popular videogame gains little on the big screen
Wing Commander
Twentieth Century-Fox
Directed by Chris Roberts
>USA, 1999
Unlike most of Wing Commander's target audience, I remember when the first Wing Commander game came out. At the time, Chris Roberts's creation was revolutionary: here was a game that had pretensions of being a movie. The player was the star, and the computer supplied everything else: supporting characters, villains, sets, props, music, and even the plot. Unlike a movie, the conclusion wasn't foregone; your actions determined whether Earth's forces would beat back the warlike Kilrathi. The shoot-em-up parts were fantastic, too. Your wingmen had personalities, and the Kilrathi fighters had some semblance of intelligence. It was certainly a far cry from Star Raiders on the Atari.

These days, movie-like games are almost the norm, and Wing Commander's target audience grew up with them. Tell them about the thrill of playing Atari's Adventure for the first time--or even Pong--and they may wonder what the fuss is about.

Replace "Wing Commander" with Star Wars and you'd get almost the same demarcation. Today's teens grew up with life-like special effects and space fleet combat in movies, whereas my generation saw Star Wars on the big screen in 1977 and had our imaginations irrevocably altered.

Watching Wing Commander, I realized just how much Star Wars has affected popular science fiction. Like me, first-time director Chris Roberts is a child of Star Wars, and it shows in his work. Oh sure, it showed in the Wing Commander game too, but there we could actually be Luke--er, Lieutenant Blair. With the distance gained by watching Freddie Prinze Jr. play Blair, it's more plainly apparent how Star Wars' progeny in TV, film, comics, and games have become completely incestuous. Wing Commander, like another recent attempt at the SF epic, Invasion: America, is so completely derivative that the audience can almost speak the lines before the actors do. So, too, are the characters. Blair, being the hero, is an outcast by virtue of his birth: he's half Pilgrim, which means he's gifted with the ability to navigate complex space anomalies as well as attract hostile glares from almost everyone in the room. His best pal, Todd "Maniac" Marshall (Matthew Lillard), is a crazy-assed rogue. Their commanding officer, Jeanette "Angel" Deveraux (Saffron Burrows), is severe, reserved, and destined to melt into Blair's arms by the end of the film. The characters are so two-dimensional they might as well have animated the movie. The only exception is Rosie Forbes (Ginny Holder), a fighter pilot who gets a sexual thrill from the merest hint of danger. Putting the "hot" in "hotshot", she wraps her character in a live-for-the-moment sauciness that's largely absent from this genre.

Rosie isn't the only glimmer to emerge from under the shadow of the clichés. The effects are pretty good--hardly surprising in this CGI-dominated world--but more important, they don't substitute fancy camera moves and overly confusing space battles for something the audience can actually follow. Roberts is pretty good at choreographing battle scenes, which is a pleasant surprise. And the space-combat-as-submarine-warfare analogy hasn't been milked this entertainingly since Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, though there are moments when it leans into the ludicrous. If he could work on coaxing better performances out of his actors, Roberts could mature into a decent director; there have been worse debuts. As it stands, though, Wing Commander still feels like a video game aspiring to be a movie.

A Critical Eye exclusive (March 13, 1999)
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