Wing Commander [1999]

Okay, something does not blow up every other second, but it does make for an exciting take introduction.

Wing Commander is an under-appreciated science-fiction film with slick effects and solid production values. It tried to accomplish much, and like most movies, did not hit everything aimed for. At times it touches upon poignant themes that resonate with the nature of mankind. Occasionally, it lapses into derivative moments not worthy of these higher concepts.

“What are you doing Admiral Towlyn?” — “Ruminating on poignant themes that resonate with the nature of mankind.”

It also stars Freddie Prinze Jr., who we enjoyed in the role. However, he did use this expression an awful lot.

Our patented synopsis in a sentence: Humanity, still recovering from a civil war, now face an alien cat-like (and poorly realized) enemy who after conspiring with a traitor (cut from the movie) are on the verge of destroying Earth not realizing they are about to be stopped by a fresh faced young band of hip (and good-looking)  heroes with attitude, flying skinny fighters, getting oppressed by “the man,” squeezing in some smooching, and occasionally breaking the laws of physics.

“Look Ma! I’m breakin’ the laws of physics!”

“I’m your wing commander. What? Not what you were expecting? We’re just as fabulous looking as movie archeologists.” (See Jack Hunter & Librarian takes.)

Chris Roberts, the father of the popular Wing Commander games of the 1990s, got a rare chance to realize his vision on the big screen. Did he get enough time and money to realize it fully? No. But was he bold enough, and perhaps new enough to Hollywood to include uncommon, worthwhile themes? Yes.

Chris Roberts does his cameo. (Don’t think it’s easy performing a salute in a skinny little fighter.)

Chris Roberts: “Hey, I’m gonna grab a beer, you direct this scene yourself.”

Dedication, selflessness, (occasional stupidity,) and duty are exemplified by our endangered heroes. While none of them are exactly Audie Murphy (the most decorated United States soldier of World War II), they do personify the brash, indestructibility of youth. They play off veterans of varying character and temperament who put up with their juvenile notions of fighter jock-ism.

Some early Wing Commander test footage.

Jürgen Prochnow plays a veteran of one temperament: Puckered.

Yup. Freddie Prinze Jr. really liked this expression…

There is also a Pilgrim subplot highlighting heritage and faith. This is quite the departure from modern era, faithless, counterculture garbage Hollywood often upchucks (believe us, we know). We found it to be a most pleasing foundation which gives the movie depth beyond that provided by hipster actors and quick action.

“I am not a hipster.” Tcheky Karyo (don’t ask us to pronounce it , we speak Kryptonian) did a fine job with an interesting character.

“Physics dead ahead captain!” — “Prepare to break the law!”

Young Christopher Blair, the part made famous by Mark Hamil in the later Wing Commander games, was portrayed by Freddie Prinze Jr. He was pleasantly likable.

… uh… It’s a good thing we liked Freddie Prinze Jr.’s (over)use of this expression. Now what does it remind us of. . .

Tcheky Karyo played the grizzled mentor with the mysterious past (classic; like Obi Wan Kenobi, but with 70% more grizzle). His role, like Prinze’s, was not one that pushed acting to its very experimental limit. But both hit solid notes within the material they were given, and bettered the movie.

“You young whipper snappers and your fancy armor. When I was young, all we took into battle were these cool-looking camouflage pajamas.”

Perhaps mistakenly, the movie tried to reinvent the Wing Commander franchise. This may have alienated and disappointed those familiar with it. Additionally, 20th Century Fox gave the film a bum deal, poorly marketing it because they were only its distributor, not its producer. They also bungled the release date. All these factors contributed to a rough box-office run.

Hmm. You don’t think they literally meant that it was only in theaters that one day… It would explain a lot.

Buy the toy now! Oh, wait. Never mind.

The production design was instructed to make World War II in space; they largely succeeded in an entertaining, occasionally silly way. Digital Anvil’s computer graphics and pilot displays added interesting, distinctive spice. However one area in which the visuals fell flat was the alien Kilrathi. Ugh.

Matthew Lillard takes it to the Axis powers!

Zany expressions for everyone! It’s the new rage in space.

The Kilrathi were brought to life well in the filmed game scenes, and at reasonable (though not cheap) cost. The “expensive” movie versions, however, did not even live up to that, looking horribly plastic. The producers knew it too, cutting scenes which featured them and reducing their shots to quarter-second flash cuts.

“No pictures! No pictures!”

The flight deck was a big set made from some old industrial facility. (It was later converted into a sweatshop for Twilight merchandise.)

You will enjoy computer-generated space scenes that look as good as model work, huge sets, full-sized fighter mockups, and lots of goofy expressions from likable actors.

Don’t let this happen to your Rapier.

David Arnold’s music is excellent background to scenes which often showcase the wonder and majesty of nebula colored space.

If you like science fiction, and like action, and are capable of tuning out the fair in order to enjoy the good, we suggest you try Wing Commander. Go in with no expectations, and just enjoy yourself.

13 thoughts on “Wing Commander [1999]

  1. yay for Wing Commander!! I can’t tell you how many times I watched that on VHS (yes, VHS!) with the man who I later married. Freddie Prinz Jr was a total dork in the movie, but come on, Jürgen Prochnow (fire tubes one and two!”) and Tcheky Karyo (which I always pronounced as “Jackie Kario” until I saw how his name was spelled, and now I have no idea how to pronounce it), the gorgeous Saffron Burrows and even the gooftastically adorable Matthew Lillard?

    all I have to say about Wing Commander is YES PLEASE. Such a purely fun scifi movie. thanks for the nostalgia!!

    • What a fun comment. You had us laughing about Jackie -er, Tcheky and how to pronounce it. Also props for “gooftastically,” a somehow appropriate word in this case. ;)

      The movie is enjoyable nostalgia as you say. While it falls short in many ways, it can still be fun. It is nice, too, that you have the personal connection of marrying a fellow appreciator of the flick.

      Stop by any time.

      Behind the Scenes

    • We understand those in your position Bullion. There are intellectual properties of which we care about, be they games, comics, or books. When they get their shot at the big screen and the opportunity is squandered, disappointment can result. How much more so for Wing Commander with the movie helmed by the father of the franchise?

      We are familiar enough with this intellectual property to see where the mark was missed, and to question many of their decisions. But some out there who do not have the attachment to the game may still enjoy the fun, sometimes ridiculous, space romp.

      We sympathize with you and the missed opportunity. (Though we did like the Pilgrim sub-plot we believe was not in the games.)

  2. It pleases me exponentially that you liked Wing Commander. I saw this in high school and was promptly ridiculed by all of my friends. It’s not my fault I love any Matthew Lillard movie by default!
    Definitely agree about the Kilrathi effects. I went in expecting Hobbes , but was disappointed. Loved the action though, and loved Matthew Lillard! Did I mention that already?

    • The Fortress likes all kinds of things, sometimes what others make fun of with faux superiority. We are from Krypton, so we have learned to shrug off such things. But we hear where you are coming from.

      We think Lillard did what he could within his acting abilities and with the material he was given. But why so many goofy expressions? Why? ;)

      a quick goofy expression

  3. Very nice… I would get on ya for praising the movie as much as you did (the Pilgrim subplot ugh… not a fan), but you have your own view which you’ve supported, so I can respect that. Plus, I’m the guy that defended Highlander 2 and the Warrior comic books so I really can’t throw stones.

    The thing is if they took cutscenes from Wing Commander 3 and 4, glued them together, they’d end up with a superior movie in almost every way: cast, story, special affects, costume (the Kilrathi, as you mentioned, look awful!) & props, ship designs, etc

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment. We will not argue that Wing Commander is a great movie. It isn’t. We only put forth that we like it. A guilty pleasure, like sleeping late. (Perhaps some of the movie’s decision makers were also asleep at critical times.)

      We appreciate your likening it to your own similar situation. (We do not even acknowledge the existence of Highlander 2. Ha.)

      Why did they not build upon the quite competent art design from the games? Was it Hollywood thinking they could do it better their way? The movie Kilrathi were inexcusable. We enjoy the movie and still cringe at their appearances… and apparent stupidity (or really bad sensors).

      Full Power apparently means reverse...
      Too bad they did not realize “Full Power” was apparently reverse.

  4. You have a lot of interesting and good thoughts on this movie, more so than I had thought of myself. I just had the pleasure of viewing this movie for the first time recently, and for someone who doesn’t watch much science fiction I thought it was a very fun adventure.

    As for the acting, sets, wardrobe, etc issues, I could very easily look past those–actually, I personally didn’t see anything that bothered me except the alien enemy costumes? I mean, I love the 80s and we all know the cartoons and the movies from that genre were not exactly picture-perfect (but I say that lovingly). So even more so with this late 90s flick. When I watched Wing Commander the only things I paid attention to were the character arcs and the plot, along with trying to get a grasp on the technical terms and physics of this universe. Yeah, so the enemy kitty-cats weren’t that great to look at, that’s true. But who said a movie had to be perfect in execution to fully enjoy it? We’ve all seen movies that have “perfect” sets, actors, wardrobes, and all other foundational aspects, but at the same time we’d never want to watch them again because they are lacking a good plot and good characters. Budget-busting flops.

    Wing Commander was fun from beginning to end. It held my attention and got my emotions running. I cared about the characters. I wanted to see them succeed. And I am always eager for adventure stories, ones that are worldly (or inter-worldly), ones of travel, ones of change. The Pilgrim plot was a nice bonus, not typically done in Hollywood at all in the last decade or two? I enjoy deeper plots. I was interested in the background history of Christopher Blair. His was unique because it tied together an origin and a faith plot.

    There were probably a fair amount of plot and technical points I missed since I only watched the movie one time through, but like with Lord of the Rings and even Harry Potter, I wouldn’t mind watching this one through a few more times. Then I can get to the point where I’m quoting character lines. ;)

    • Thanks for weighing in again Zhanneel. You make a good point. “But who said a movie had to be perfect in execution to fully enjoy it?” So true. There are many movies out there that could use a bigger dose of “fun” and less grittiness, depression, and glorification of less than noble ideals (that is putting it mildly).

      Wing Commander contains some lovely space shots and sets. You do get that feeling of distant adventure and travel you mention. And, like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, there is some growing up and maturing for the leads to do.

      We are gratified you also enjoy it enough to watch again. We have in the Fortress, and will again.

      The Pilgrim Cross

  5. I can see you point guys and i can even understand what is the fun part in it. I did see it more then once even if i don’t like it that much. So it has to have something.
    But for me this was also the first movie where i sat in the theatre comming up with better ideas and even with the same solution as Spoony when saying to just show the video footage from the games.

    It has it’s plusses:
    It’s goofy, it’s fun and has actors that carry a lot of it, like Tcheky Karyo or David Warner. For me it was these guys that saved the movie for me.

    But it has a lot of things that just rubbed me the wrong way:
    - The ships look actually absolutely nothing like in the games, which would have helped the fans i think if they could at least have something to look after, even if it where small similarities
    - The Kilrathy looked terrible, i actually laughed in theatre
    - Sounds like warplanes from WWI, like diesel-engines and the guns sound like maschine-guns… in the future… in space…….. really?
    - Keeping quiet on a warship in space cause they are searching them by sound in space. You know, this stuff that hasn’t much atoms around that could transport the sound? … I mean… Chris come on you’re not even trying to convince me that this ship could be something like “Das Boot”.

    - I couldn’t relate with either Blair nor Mainiac. That doesn’t mean they could not be newbs or have humans traits like liking a good laugh or something but for me they seemed utterly bland. Maybe it would have been better if they exposed the pilgrim-plot a bit more. It would have made at least Blairs story more interesting and maybe more relatable. Or they should have explained a bit of why Blair and Maniac are such good friends. I think there is an enjoyable story behind that too.

    So much for my 2 cents. Have fun with whatever movie you like guys. Remember it’s always the fun YOU can make out of it. :)

    • Ben,
      Thanks for taking the time to make such a great comment on a fun movie we at the Fortress like. Your points are well made.

      It was a good cast with heavy hitters and lightweight fun actors. They worked, to the varying degrees of their skills, with the material they were given. The movie was a little too short. We definitely agree some more elucidation on the Pilgrim sub-plot would have been most helpful. And we like your idea about more background on Blair and Maniac’s friendship.

      Sure, there are plot points to question. The submarine hunting/no noise sonar scene should have been re-thought. Especially with the level of physics knowledge many have today. We think the decision to go with hard machine-gun sounding guns and the roar of those engines was an editorial decision they made for recognizable war grittiness. Certainly, there is no sound in vacuum, but I think many of us enjoy space movies with a little noise. But could they have made the tech and sound “spacier?” Yes.

      Some of the criticisms stem from familiarity with the popular game franchise, to which many may be oblivious. The movie Kilrathy looked terrible and were so much better in the some of the games, although many probably did not know the latter point. They should have chosen to model the ships more after the game designs, because what they came up with was NOT more interesting. Then again, they converted some surplus airplane hulks into life-sized movie prop cockpits, so that was a (budget based) limitation.

      We liked your wrap-up point, and know that you understand what we are about. A movie does not have to be a tour de force to be fun and enjoyable.

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