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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 9/8/99



Wing Commander
1999 (1999) 20th Century Fox

review by Andy Patrizio, special to The Digital Bits

Wing Commander Film Ratings: C-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A+/C+

Specs and Features

100 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, photo gallery of the actors, theatrical and teaser trailers, animated menu screens with sound effects, scene access (27 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 and 2.0), subtitles: English, Close Captioned


Wing Commander is based on a very popular computer game series, set in a future where the Earth is at war with a leonine race of beings called the Kilrathi. In it, you play a pilot stationed on a ship called the Tiger's Claw. The ship is a space carrier loaded with fighter craft. The game had you flying missions with a wingman, in which you'd frequently be jumped by the Kilrathi and you either shot them down or ran like hell. The game was enormously addicting back when it hit in 1990, introducing things like background animations and a branched storyline, where your success or failure determined how the game went. You could help defeat the Kilrathi or, if you failed, Earth would be seriously losing the war.

Wing Commander hit a peak of popularity in 1994, when it became the first game to make heavy use of full motion video and actors in the game itself. The Jedi Knight himself, Mark Hamill, played Colonel Blair, and twenty years after Star Wars, we saw that poor Mark still couldn't act his way out of a paper bag. Eventually however, Origin Systems, the developer of the game, fell victim to the same disease currently infecting all of Hollywood: it became obsessed with pretty computer pictures and forgot about the story. As a result, later sequels in the game's series were less than stellar.

Wing Commander's creator, Chris Roberts, left Origin a few years back to form his own gaming and movie development company, Digital Anvil. When I heard he was going to be directing the movie version of his game, I thought, "Good, he wants to be a movie maker anyway." And I had to figure that he could realize his own vision on the big screen better than anyone. Many authors have complained bitterly about Hollywood screwing up their stories/characters (Tom Clancy, Stephen King). That being said, you have to wonder how the guy who created theWing Commander game could foul up his own movie version of the same so completely. Chris Roberts has managed to do just that.

The basic plot of the film, has the Kilrathi stealing a plotting device for jumping through quasars and black holes, which lets them pass enormous amounts of space in a very short amount of time. The space forces charged with defending the Earth discover, to their horror, that the Kilrathi fleet can suddenly get to Earth before they can be intercepted. As the story opens, our hero, a wet-behind-the-ears cadet named Lt. Christopher Blair (played by pretty boy Freddie Prinze Jr., who reprises his doe-eyed and purse-lipped look from She's All That), is being transported to his new duty assignment aboard the Tiger's Claw. Blair is carrying an encoded message to the Captain of the Tiger Claw, which is basically that the Claw should haul ass back to Earth, in a desperate attempt to stop the Kilrathi invasion. Things of course go south almost immediately, and the film degenerates into a series of space battles, in which Blair, his fellow pilot Maniac and their commander Angel (played by Matthew Lillard and Saffron Burrows) get into all kinds of trouble.

Some things I can forgive, but there are plot points here that really started to bother me. Blair is described as the son of a "pilgrim" (a group of people who can somehow navigate the stars by instinct, instead of using computers), and there is some mistrust of these pilgrims for reasons that aren't explained. Yet Blair takes grief from many of his fellow pilots, and especially from the Claw's second-in-command Commander Paul Gerald (played by Jürgen Prochnow, the Captain from Das Boot). Also, I didn't like the relationship between Angel and Blair. This is actually a storyline that happened in the original game, but there the pair were simply fellow pilots, and not in a superior/subordinate position. I don't buy a pilot falling for his C.O., especially in the middle of a war.

This cast is not that strong, and to be honest, it's one of the homeliest movie casts I've seen in ages (pretty boy Prinze aside). And the production design leaves a lot to be desired. The Tiger's Claw looks impressive from space, but inside it's cramped, with tight bulkheads and pipes snaking all along the walls, like the inside of a submarine. The original Enterprise looked more advanced than this ship. Wing Commander is even more ridiculously archaic-looking than Starship Troopers (with its bullet-slinging machine guns). And the Kilrathi look terrible. They're supposed to be lion-like, and they end up looking like rubber suits. Add to that the implausible relationship, and a stupid subplot that only serves up pointless tension, and Chris Roberts has managed to really make a mess here.

Now on to the disc. For a non-anamorphic transfer, the picture looks beautiful. The colors are rich, bright, and stand out clearly, even in the dismal drab of the Tiger's Claw (and the spartan design of the ship's bridge). There's surprisingly good contrast and shadow detail, and little digital artifacting. The only real strike against the picture, is the occasional shimmer on fine detail caused by NTSC deficiencies (a high-def, anamorphic transfer would have corrected this).

But where the disc totally shines is the sound. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound is nothing short of awesome. Ships zoom around from left to right, or front to back. You really will find yourself spinning to look around the room. I can't remember a movie that used surround sound this well, except maybe Desperado. As for extras, you get a cast list and animated menus, which are actually quite cool. But the only other things you get are the movie trailer and teaser. Big deal.

Fans of the game were royally PO'ed by this film, and I can't say I blame them. First-time director Chris Roberts somehow managed to completely forget the very game concepts he created. It only cost $30 million to make Wing Commander, which just goes to show that you don't need to spend $150 million to make a movie that stinks (Armageddon, Wild Wild West, Godzilla, etc.). With a modicum of the spirit of the original game, Wing Commander might have really been something. At the very least, however, this weak movie is made a little more watchable on DVD, because it looks and sounds great.

Andy Patrizio
andy_la@yahoo.com




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