Friday, May 25, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Wing Commander (1999)

Chris Robert’s revolutionary space battle simulation video game Wing Commander took the world by storm more than twenty years ago, in 1990.  

At the time of its release, the game earned Computer Game World’s “Overall Game of the Year” award and numerous other hosannas. 

In short, the Wing Commander game landed the intrepid player in the pilot’s seat of a space fighter for a “World War II in outer space” scenario. Your mission: to help the Terran Confederation defeat the villainous aliens, called Kilrathi.  Your base of operations: The space carrier, Tiger’s Claw.

The 1999 movie  -- directed by game designer Roberts himself -- adapted the world of the popular video game to the silver screen, but didn’t fare nearly as well as the acclaimed game had.  In fact, critics were downright savage.

Meanwhile, Athima Chansanchai at Village Voice concluded that Wing Commander falls far short of its legacy and gets sucked into a gravitational cesspool of sci-fi clichés.”

In broad terms, this 1999 space battle film was criticized on every point from lighting to acting to special effects and dialogue.  The result was a soon-to-be notorious box office bomb. Wing Commander ultimately grossed only eleven million dollars or so against its budget of thirty million.

I’ve been reviewing 1990s space adventure films here on the blog of late (Generations [1994], Stargate [1994], Lost in Space [1998]) so I was hoping to return to Wing Commander and find an unexpected diamond-in-the rough, an under appreciated genre film that, in some fashion, might be rehabilitated upon closer inspection. 

Unfortunately, a second viewing reinforced my negative memories about the film. Despite some interesting and unique visuals, Wing Commander feels insular and confused, and some of the performances are authentically terrible, made exponentially worse by the legitimately risible dialogue The New York Times complained about.  That established, some of the visuals (set in space) are skillfully vetted.

If you want to play at being a fighter pilot I suggest you find a virtual fun zone.”

In the distant future, man is locked in a deadly space war with a race of feline space predators called The Kilrathi.  A Kilrathi fleet attacks a Terran Confederation outpost in space and steals the installation’s precious Pegasus Navcom A.I. computer.  With this tool, the Kilrathi can determine jump coordinates for the Sol System and Earth itself. With one attack, they can bring the space war to a terrible end.

Realizing the entire human race is jeopardized, Admiral Towlyn (Warner) decides to get a message to the nearest ship  in range of the damaged installation, Tiger Claw, via a courier: the half-human/half Pilgrim pilot Christopher Blair (Prinze Jr.).  Blair is currently serving aboard the Diligent, a ship under command of the enigmatic Captain “Paladin” Taggart (Tcheky Karyo).

Blair and his co-pilot, “Maniac” Lt. Marshall (Lillard) arrive on the Tiger Claw but Blair meets with prejudice from his fellow pilots because of his Pilgrim heritage. Meanwhile, both men catch the eye of their hard-as-nails new wing commander, Devereaux (Saffron Burrows).  She wants to rein them in, but that's easier said than done.

While the Kilrathi near their jump point for Earth, Devereaux’s squadron may be humanity’s last line of defense, and Chris must summon his repressed Pilgrim attributes to deliver jump coordinates to Towlyn’s waiting fleet, navigating a quasar in the process…

“Emotions are what separate us from the Pilgrims and the Kilrathi.”

For being so widely reviled, Wing Commander certainly strikes the right note as it begins.  The film commences with audio of an uplifting speech by President Kennedy, discussing the goal of mastering space.   

This opening is inspiring, certainly, and it’s refreshing to hear a speech from an epoch when our politics weren’t so small.  Back in Camelot, we believed we could work together to accomplish great things, even land on the moon.  Didn't matter if you were Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, the sky was the limit.

The same idea is expressed in the film's World War II-like aesthetic.  Everyone is galvanized by the existential threat of the Kilrathi, working together to stop a grave threat to humanity.  I appreciate how Wing Commander envisions a future where people of different ethnic backgrounds serve together for a cause.  And yet, of course, if you scratch the surface, there's prejudice toward some less-favored people under the surface. That also seems true to the World War II era of the 1940s.

From starting out on the right note, however, this 1999 film quickly becomes a superficial Top Gun (1986) in space, with hotshot young pilots (replete with colorful “handles” like “Maniac”) competing for attention in their high-tech cockpits.  The movie also throws in an unnecessary dash of Star Wars (1977)-styled mysticism with the inclusion of the “Pilgrims,” a race who -- like Dune’s Guild Navigators -- can travel space without benefit of instrumentation, or in the lingo of the film, without “nav-coms.”

The whole Pilgrim sub-plot here-- not present in the original video game, to my understanding -- is a bit under cooked.  The Pilgrims are actually humans who spent so much time in space that they thus developed a kind of “second sight” in navigating its ebb and flow.  But Pilgrims in the film appear fully human, and have a dark history with the human race, from which they broke off.  This history is all spelled out in the film, but unfortunately Blair’s Pilgrim nature never proves particularly dramatic in practice.  

Instead, to summon his buried heritage he must merely concentrate and – whammo -- he can suddenly navigate “jumps” without a computer.  Yet, importantly, Blair’s Pilgrim ability rests on an internal process -- calculations or “instincts” he feels in his head -- so it all comes across on screen as a weak echo of Star Wars’ famous “feel the Force” moments.

Feel your inner Pilgrim, Chris!

Looking at a mid-20th century thematic overlay, it’s possible indeed that the Pilgrim subplot is designed to reflect the (segregated) treatment of African-American soldiers in wartime, before President Truman’s order to integrate the Armed Forces.  

But even that real life metaphor doesn’t entirely fit, since African-Americans, though discriminated against by society-at-large, were never classified as an enemy of the United States.  Not so, the Pilgrims.  They actively fought against the Terran Confederation, and were conquered, apparently.

The whole subplot transmits as trite, and contrived.  The Earth fleet wins the day because one pilot happens to boast a quasi-magical power.   Good thing the Kilrathi don't have any exceptional pilots like that, I suppose.  And as is so often the case in the science fiction genre, the Pilgrim “blood line” seems vaguely fascist.  Only people who possess the right blood type (either Midi-chlorians in Star Wars or Pilgrims here…) can achieve super feats and tap the mystical essence of the universe.   Paladin even puts a fine point on it.  “It isn’t faith.  It’s genetics.”  No wonder humans hate these smug bastards, right?

So much for striving to be all you can be.  The Pilgrims are just born better than the rest of us.

After the umpteenth repetition in sci-fi movies, this kind of people-of-superior-blood-line thinking is tiring.  The original appeal of the Force in Star Wars, by my estimation, was its universality. We could all tap into The Force if only we tried...if only we mastered ourselves.  Once you add a genetic, biological component to such a concept -- as is also the case with the Pilgrims in Wing Commander -- the universality of the concept is diminished. 

In terms of Wing Commander, one must also wonder about the line of dialogue featured at the head of this sub-section. At a critical juncture in the story, Blair states that possessing emotions is what separates humans from Pilgrims or Kilrathi.  Really?  Isn’t that a kind of prejudicial or racist remark?  He’s part Pilgrim, after all, and Blair certainly possesses feelings.  Paladin is a pilgrim, and he shows emotion on more than one occasion.  And we don’t see enough of the Kilrathi to assess whether they are emotional or not, I would wager.  But the very argument suggests a kind or real-life racist thinking that a national (or interplanetary) enemy is somehow sub-human.  That’s not the kind of thinking a hero – one who is fighting discrimination, himself – should demonstrate, in my opinion..

The film’s biggest problems likely occur in the casting department.  Freddie Prinze Jr.  -- here channeling his inner Keanu Reeves -- and Matthew Lillard are generally  fine in the slasher films of the 1990s or other movies set in the present, but their trademark brand of snarky, California emotionalism seems somehow jarring in the far-flung world of 2654.  Judging by his work in this film, Prinze’s idea of a dramatic line reading is to shout…each…word…really…slowly.  “You…are…not…going…out…there!” and so forth.  He also spends an inordinate amount of time with his mouth drooping open...a stance which somehow diminishes the character's intelligence.

Some of the specific, practical details in the narrative seem off too.  Late in the film, while aboard Towlyn’s ship, Blair learns that Devereaux has been rescued from her cockpit by Paladin, and has been returned to the Tiger Claw.  He hops in his fighter, flies back to his carrier, lands, disembarks, meets up with Devereux and then orders a medic to the landing bay.  Shouldn’t someone – anyone, really – have ordered the medic a wee bit earlier than that?  I mean, everyone knew an injured officer was in-bound with Paladin because it was announced over communications channels, a speaker to be precise.  Why wasn’t a medic already standing by, especially since Blair himself had time for ship-to-ship transit?

Looking back today, many of Wing Commander’s visuals are indeed quite compelling, and the special effects remain colorful and dynamic.  In other words, the Rapier fighters and their opposite Kilrathi numbers look distinctive and unusual, move convincingly through asteroid fields and other space hazards, and some of the stellar vistas are downright gorgeous. 

With the pilots housed in their cramped fighter cockpits and trading barbs and zingers, this movie looks like a dry-run for the Battlestar Galactica TV remake of 2004.   In fact, the re-designed Cylon fighter of that Ron Moore re-imagination looks an awful lot like a Kilrathi fighter here.  Frankly, I suspect that if critics were too hard on any one aspect of Wing Commander in 1999, it was the visuals.  I found the look of the film, overall, at least…interesting.

Finally, even though Wing Commander relies excessively on all-too familiar World War II clichés and bromides for its narrative thrust, there’s something simultaneously baffling and off-putting about it too.  Watching David Warner (as Admiral Tomblyn) bark high-tech orders on the command deck of his space carrier while officers explain Pegasus nav-com A.I.and the like I suddenly realized what it must be like to watch a Star Trek film without having seen a single episode of the series.  If I had played the Wing Commander game, would I have felt this way?  I don't know...

Regardless, Wing Commander plays to me like the jargon-heavy sequel to a series never made.  This approach creates great distance between film and general audiences, and makes watching Wing Commander a passive rather than active viewing experience. The movie doesn't quite draw you in on an emotional level.

While watching the film, I did keep noting moments of invention and ingenuity in terms of visualization, and kept thinking that if this were actually a pilot for a TV series, I would have tuned in the following week to see if the performances normalized, if the details grew clearer, and if the narrative grew more interesting.  In other words, I would have given it a second chance and hoped against hope the series would improve, because I love space combat movies and programs.

But standing alone, Wing Commander feels like it was translated from the original Kilrathi.

I don’t know why good old-fashioned space adventure was so tough to vet during the 1990s, but Wing Commander does not represent the genre’s finest hour.


  1. Anonymous6:44 AM

    Here here. I played me a -lot- of Wing Commander back in the day, so the movie crashing and burning as it did was.. disappointing, to be sure.

    And you're quite correct - the Pilgrim thing was strictly a film inclusion. The only racial type conflict we got revolved around the reactions to/interactions with a Kilrathi defector (name of Hobbes amusingly enough, providing my memory still works). Beyond that, conflict in the game kept to the Kilrathi enemies in their ships - and the constant inner struggle to not shoot down "Maniac" yourself for being an arsehole, yet again.

    1. Hi woodchuckgod,

      I love your comment. The movie indeed crashed and burned, and I don't think it benefits from (what's left...) of the Pilgrim subplot And yes, "Maniac" is more than mildly-irritating as a character. Was he that bad in the game too?

    2. Hi John!

      In the games maniac is definitely cocky and maybe a bit crazy. There's a joke in the first game where the commander tells you it's ok to shoot down Maniac if he gets in your way... it's hard to explain without seeing it specifically. The main difference is that you don't really get the impression that they are specifically friends... If you are curious though, the DVD set of the animated Wing Commander series comes out today! It's more or less based on how the characters are played in the third and fourth games (Blair and Maniac are voiced by Mark Hamill and Tom Wilson respectively)

      Of note, most fans didn't like the Pilgrim stuff as it is in the theatrical cut either, mostly, I think, because they don't like the movie overall, but also because it's a big retcon that introduces a seeming mystical element to a univers that was mostly free from that sort of thing prior.

      THe first draft of the film does read a lot like it's trying to channel Star Wars though with Paladin standing in for obiwan... Heck one of the deleted scenes aboard the Millenium Fa... I mean Diligent, is blair manning an Ion gun turret.

      Still, the movie doesn't explain it well, but part of the point of the pilgrim stuff is that it's not magic. is a genetic mutation that allows them to feel minor gravitational and electromagnetic differences in space. Blair's pretty uninteresting super power is that he can do jump calculations really fast.

      I'm not sure why they changed the name but it seems the Pilgrims were originally supposed to be the Border Worlders from the games. Fans likely wouldn't have liked their "powers" any better with the different name mind you

  2. Anonymous3:15 PM

    I never played the WING COMMANDER video game. I did think the potential of the movie was there, but just needed more refinement in the screenplay. I did like the use of the real JFK audio, it always gives me a feeling of hope in what is possible. I agree the Battlestar Galactica 2003 miniseries and 2004-2009 series owes something to this movie.


    1. I thought the movie had real potential too. I kept thinking while watching it that it seemed like a dry run for a faithful Battlestar Galactica film. The scenes in the cockpit really seemed reminiscent of the old show, especially in the way they were shot (and in the proximity of the fighters).

      I wish I could get good screen shots of the Kilrathi fighter and put them alongside the Cylon ships from the new Galactica. The similarities are astonishing.


    2. Here's a 'cutaway' poster made for the game that was never released (we recently recovered it thanks to the artist) in which you get a pretty good look at the ship:

      Interestingly, some of the production team for the Wing Commander movie did work on a Battlestar Galactica reboot afterwards. It didn't pan out and some of the elements involved (maybe a producer or backer?) did eventually make their way into the miniseries that kicked off the BSG reboot. I honestly don't remember all the details though.

  3. Holy shit, Wing Commander! Haven’t thought about this movie in ages. I’ve only seen it twice. The first was time was at the theater and the second time was when it first came out on home video, which I remember distinctly because we were having a barbecue in the back yard and my brother and I were sitting in the garage (converted into a guest house) drinking beers and watching a VHS copy of Y2K Family Survival Guide hosted by Leonard Nimoy. Immediately after, we watched this movie. That was well over a decade ago.

    Still, at the time, I recall it being passably entertaining. I liked the look of the fighter ships; what were they called again, rapiers? I also remember Saffron Burrows showed up a few months later in yet another big budget B-movie Deep Blue Sea. Man ...Y2K, sharks with super-brains ...crazy year.

    I see you’ve managed to work in a jab at midi-chlorians. Tsk-tsk, John. As tempted as I am to counter your criticisms of our little symbiotic wonders, doing so would steer me into a full blown Star Wars discussion; suffice to say, I disagree with your assessment. I do, however, agree that the whole “Pilgrim” thread, as much of it as I can remember, was underdeveloped. I actually dug the initial idea: a branching race of humans turned deep space travelers who can navigate the stars intuitively like the sailors of old. Neat. But it seemed like a premise in need of a stronger mythology via multiple films, companion novels, preexisting or continuing game continuity, what-have-you. In a mere 100 minute running time it was little more than a clichéd plot device. I can’t remember clearly any real details of the film, so there’s nothing else for me to say. Thanks for reviewing it, though, because now I’ve got the incentive to look it up for a rewatch.

  4. I actually enjoyed your review quite a bit. I do have some stuff to add though being a bit of an obsessive Wing Commander film historian/crazy person. Part of why the Pilgrim stuff seems so out of place is because the movie pretty much was murdered in the editing room. For anyone curious, the actual shooting script for the film is online and the movie novelization follows the shooting script and not the theatrical cut of the film.

    As originally intended the Pilgrims are actually quite central to the plot of the film. Paladin's conversation with Blair about his "heritage" indicate that Pilgrims felt that the stars belonged to them... their destiny. Thus there was actually a Pilgrim traitor on board the Tiger Claw. Blair discovers hints of this early on but of course he's suspected and him and gerald end up having a knife fight on board the Kilrathi Concom in a bit of a showdown where they end up killing another Pilgrim traitor from the Pegasus Naval Base. There's grenades, explosions and Kilrathi gore even, that were all excised from the film. The whole third/fourth or whatever act was neutered into a shallow ghost of what was intended.

    Now it's a long story about exactly why it was cut but the short of it was that the production ran out of money. There was a holographic sidekick for blair in the film that would have had to be added with CG that was central to blair discovering the traitor subplot and they ended up deciding to try a cut without the character. However they soon found out they couldn't make the traitor stuff make sense without that character and ended up cutting the traitor elements altogether. When test screenings gave them better than expected results on the non-traitor cut they decided to go with it...

    Now this doesn't mean that it would have been Citizen Kane, but having seen a rough cut of the film that has most of the traitor stuff still in I can vouch for it being a heck of a lot better than the mess that is the theatrical cut. So much stuff in the theatrical cut was moved around and put out of context that the whole nature of many of the performances changes. Mind you, it's still Freddy Prinze Jr... so there's still that but the whole thing doesn't fall flat in the last act. The endgame is more urgent in that it's a more desperate race for earth instead of the emphasis being on us expecting a big final battle at earth and getting them shooting fish in a barrel. IF you are curious the script is here: thuogh I've highlighted what was moved around and deleted so people can skim through to the changes quickly...

    Chris ROberts mentioned to me that in 2014 the distribution right revert to him from fox and that after that, someday if he can get the funds he'd like to recut the film closer to the movie he intended to make. It's certainly something I'd like to see done, and I really do love the WW2 in space visual style of the movie.

    1. AD:

      Thank you for a wonderful and informative comment that helps to explain some of why Wing Commander looks as it does today. I want to apologize for not responding sooner, but I've been away for Memorial Day weekend, and working my way through comments here a bit at a time.

      The removal of the subplot you mention (about a Pilgrim traitor) indeed changes things. I think I said the subplot felt "under cooked" in my review, and your report here bears that out. It's under cooked because a good many ingredients were removed in editing. I did not know that, but it makes sense, and as I noted, helps to explain things a bit.

      I would certainly be in favor of a director's cut, or re-cut that inserts some of the missing footage, and gives the film a bit more cohesion and sense of logic. I hope that it happens, and I would certainly support that.

      I agree with you about the WW2 visual style. It's unique, and I like it a lot. I think the critics missed the boat in terms of the visuals. A lot of the reviews panned the visuals, but I think the special effects actually hold up quite well, and are intriguing.

      Great comment, and I appreciate very much you sharing your behind the scenes knowledge here. It make a difference, and an important one, to understand the "whys" behind a movie.