Wing Commander (1999) — Caaaaats… iiiiiiin… spaaaaace!

wing commander

“It’s not faith. It’s genetics.”

Wolfy’s review: I don’t know why, but I seem to have remembered this moving being… worse, somehow. Or perhaps I can appreciate the kind of movie it was trying to be more in my older age. At any rate, I have to admit that coming back to Wing Commander was quite the surprise.

The actors in the film’s performances certainly didn’t surprise me, as they were all about as wooden and stilted as I remember them being. The movie was really trying to make it hard for me to emotionally connect with its characters and I never really did, mostly because you had very lukewarm versions of tropes: The Chosen One with incredible skills, the reckless hotshot with a heart of gold, the ice queen commander, the mysterious rogue; they were all here and all passable.

What surprised me the most about Wing Commander, though, was its slower pacing. A movie about spaceships would almost always lend itself to being more bombastic and action-packed, screaming from fight set piece to fight set piece, but a great deal of this movie was very… well, naval in the way it approached space stuff. Many of the dangers that were faced weren’t necessarily just about the threat of the Kilrathi alien race, but about navigating the dangers of space, or outright trying to avoid a fight for as long as possible, and even punishing characters for recklessly picking a fight.

It also did a lot of character story connecting and worldbuilding stuff, which sort of fell a bit short due to stilted performances but overall was appreciated. It took this movie about 50 minutes to get into its first real space battle, and the final showdown wasn’t a last stand with the space navy defending Earth from aliens but a single pilot outmaneuvering a capital ship. In fact, the final battle itself was already won before the enemy could arrive. Those are bold choices.

Visually speaking, Wing Commander still holds up, with some solid CGI and locations that felt suitably lived-in or solid, though there were a couple of shots where the perspectives or scale of ship interiors compared to exteriors seemed a bit off. The worst visual part, though, were the Kilrathi themselves. They didn’t get a lot of screen time, but when they did they almost always looked like awkwardly heavy puppets. It’s almost like the filmmakers were embarrassed to show them.

A couple of plot points felt slapped on or were already guessed at before they resolved — there’s a guy who’s a space pilgrim that is hated but has a gift, the two pilots who fall in love obviously fall into tragedy, one guy is a literal MacGuffin — but the decision to focus on characters over bombast was a refreshing surprise, the action happening not too often made those moments it did happen enjoyable, and the whole movie did a solid job of establishing a world and history without relying on telling an origin story.

In the pantheon of sci-fi films, Wing Commander seems to just fly under the radar, doing its own thing. It was a lot like watching an old FMV CD-ROM game play out, and I guess I have an appreciation and affection for that sort of thing.

PoolMan’s Review: Wing Commander is the unfortunate victim of the opposite phenomenon that Star Wars enjoyed. Where TPM was given nothing but advance advertising and kind press, WC was trounced before it made it to audiences, and was a box office flop. Too bad, too.

Don’t get me wrong, I doubt it’ll ever take home any awards, but Wing Commander is a very enjoyable film. It brought feelings of WWII movies to mind, and I really enjoy that. Particularly the fighters; they look like snub-winged war planes, and even fire guns that sound a lot like machine guns, not your typical sci-fi zaps and squawks. What’s great is that it doesn’t seem out of place. The characters rarely seem to like each other, but are brought together by the common knowledge that there is no place to fall back to if Earth falls. The multi-accented crews of the various ships suggest a real melting pot of cultures, not unlike the Allied Forces of earlier this century. Very cool.

The plot revolves heavily around the difficulties of navigation in deep space. Apparently, to accurately jump from one place to another requires very precise knowledge of the origin, the goal, and all points in between. You can’t go from one random place to another. A computer holding the whereabouts of Earth and the path to it falls into the hands (claws?) of the Kilrathi, a rubbery race of feline mauraders bent on taking over the galaxy, yada yada yada. You get the point. I’m not going to go much further with the story, cause it is kind of simple. A couple of young heroes, a grizzled veteran, a stuffy commanding officer, and a real babe later, mankind is once again safe. No big surprise.

I suppose it’s the serial-like feeling the movie brings up in me that I like. It feels episodic, like there’s a story to come next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. Somehow, I wouldn’t mind. I’d really like to see a sequel, truth be told. Considering the limitations I’d heard on WC‘s budget compared to others, this is very visually unique and appealing.

Unfortunately, most of the pretty good eye candy of this flick will never again be shown on the big screen, but I still would recommend it for a fun home viewing. Lock and load, folks.

Justin’s rating: Your six is clear, Houston

Justin’s review: Can somebody please, please explain to me why Wing Commander got such lousy reviews?

Let me back up a bit. I make no small point that I was royally disappointed with The Phantom Menace, particularly when it came to the final dogfight. After the spectacular Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, I expected more and got much less in Episode One. I love space combat, and will take it where I can get it, even if it comes from a 1999 film based on  series of computer games where humans battle large cat-like aliens.

Wing Commander has a great feel to it from start to finish. Instead of sleek, futuristic designs, we’re treated to retro-World War II styles and interiors. The combat that takes place (and there’s lots of it, folks) is fought with gatling guns and torpedoes, with large-scale battles involving both capital ships and fighters. And even one brief ground battle, for you Starship Troopers fans.

The main carrier, Tiger Claw, is part aircraft carrier, part sub, and even (in one scene) reminiscent of an old warship firing cannons. Inside, we’re treated to airlocks, a spectacular flight deck, and even torpedo rooms. Special effects are top-notch, and only rarely can you tell it’s CGI, not models. My only complaints about the overall design of the film lies with some of the costumes (the vests look stitched together out of spare fabrics, and what is UP with those dorky Russian hats?) and the abysmal Kilrathi alien makeup.

The Tiger Claw is on a mission to locate an invading fleet of Kilrathi and warn Earth before the cats hit the fan — and they have 24 hours in which to do it. Fighter pilots “Maverick” Blair (Freddy Prinze Jr.), “Maniac” Marshall (Matthew Lillard), “Angel,” “Paladin,” and the rest of the Wing Commander cast have brief interaction between flying missions, but not really enough to develop anything deep. The whole paranoia, “we won’t trust the good guy” theme felt old and tired, but it got dropped somewhere in the middle of the film. I particularly enjoyed the brief romance between Maniac and Rosie, which is cute and humorous.

So why the lackluster reviews and failed box office? Yes, the human factor is sorely lacking, but it really isn’t as bad as a lot of critics made out. At least they had a capable cast that could act, and they accomplish something when I don’t finish the film hating Prinze Jr. (who bugs me with his jockish grin). I think this movie needs to be compared with such battle films like Midway, where each character only has time for brief intros, since the bulk of the film is the war itself. With Star Wars a flailing prospect, at least in terms of space battles, and the jet movies of the ’80s gone for some time, solid fighter films like Wing Commander should be welcome… and I know it was when I watched it.

DnaError’s rating: All the excitement of watching someone else play a video game….

DnaError’s review: Man, you know a movie is bad when you go in with low expectations and are still disappointed. Video game movies have a bad rap to begin with, since they tend to be made from games which sell a lot of copies, but the reason they sell a lot of copies is cause they have good gameplay and structure, not because they are epic works of character drama and emotion. (Lets hope the Final Fantasy movie changes this…)

On occasion, the movie is good..because they take a totally freaky and bizarre take on the game (See, Super Mario Bros.) Or because they give basically what the game was (See, Mortal Kombat). Is it true to the game or not, I can’t tell you, cause I never played Wing Commander (Although I have a bud who was a big fan of the game and was whipped into a nasty little Gamer Fit over it, a geek in pain is never a nice thing.) Even if a game movie is good, it tends to be “guilty pleasure.”

However, there is no pleasure in Wing Commander. It is not unmatchable, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to. The set design is bland and unimaginative, the characters are cardboard, the dialogue awkward and hammy, the plot is cookie-cutter sci-fi, and … worse of all…it’s boring. There is not an ounce of excitement in this movie, no one seems excited or even having an emotion more then vague concern. (The exception being Lillard, he seems to be enjoying himself, but one character does not a movie make.) So, another bland, boring little movie based on a video game which placed gameplay over story….

When is Final Fantasy coming out again?

One comment

  1. A movie I have watched over and over.
    FPJ and Lillard are amazing in almost everything they do together (we kinda give them a pass on Scooby Doo 2… nothing was saving that).
    It’s just a good story broken by limits of technology (which they stretched), negative reviews, and a few D and C list actors that fill in the gaps in the way that all cult movies require (badly).
    And hey, Chris Roberts is at the end, cause of course he is.

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