The success of the series, and the fact that by the late 90's, several of the titles had been ported to home consoles and there were spin off computer games, meant that there was much thought given about a jump to the cinema screen. When Chris Roberts, creator, director and producer of the games series decided he wanted his games production company Digital Anvil to move into film production, Wing Commander had its big screen debut.
|Got to love the marketing blurb!|
|And remember, this is a family friendly film too...|
Principal photography was completed in Luxembourg and an above average number of British actors; Saffron Burrows, David Warner, David Suchet, Simon MacCorkindale, Hugh Quarshie and many lesser known names join Jurgen Prochnow, Tcheky Karyo, alongside Freddie Prinze Jr and Matthew Lillard.
That Prinze Jr and Lillard headline the film should be cause for concern. Whilst they worked very well together in Scooby Doo (hell, their casting was a minor work of genius!), their acting styles are poorly suited for this film and it's plain to see that their acting abilities were not at the top of the list of reasons why they were cast. Lillard gives his usual one note slacker performance whilst Prinze Jr lacks the acting chops to give his character any gravitas. This is evident when he is supposed to look all moody and thoughtful and ends up looking like he's forgotten is credit card pin number. Still, they don't sink the film by themselves.
Most of the rest of the cast look bored, like they know they are in a crap film but at least the cheque has cleared so they might as well make as best they can of the situation. Suchet is wasted (as in underused, not sloshed!), a sub-plot about treason is jettisoned from the film (but is a full plot point in the novelisation of the film), and he ends up getting conked on the head and carried off. I swear he has a smile on his face when that happens. Prochnow gives it his all, proving once again that whilst his (unearned) reputation as a journeyman actor is evidenced here, he is good value for money and hey, the guy's gotta earn a living! He is at least giving it some welly! Burrows has another mis-cast role, she really can't play the hard-ass (but with a soft centre) commanding officer who slowly comes to appreciate Prinze Jr's character. By the way, that characterisation continues to the group of fighter pilots under her command: one is portrayed as a bastard just because he smokes in a mean fashion, smirks at the lead and has a scar. That is the depth of his character.
It's not all bad, acting wise. Ginny Holder has a ball as the proto love interest for Lillard until an unfortunate crash landing (that's the Top Gun link on the DVD case!) and David Warner serenely occupies the screen , head held high, with the while thing beneath him. For him, he accepts the cheque has cleared and he knows he is a professional. Quarshie is shirt-changed but good value anyway, whilst Simon "Manimal" MacCorkindale is a blink and you'll miss him Deck Boss.
So, we know the cast got paid, but what about the rest of the film?
The CGI was passable at the time (think about Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, much higher budget, similarly ropey visuals today!) and the sets weren't too bad. The fighter cockpits were taken from old English Electric Lightning frames and these shaped the CGI design of the complete fighter which, to be honest, look kinda naff. Iconic ship designs, they are not. The same can be said for the Kilrathi, the feline aliens bent on destroying humanity. Roberts was never happy with the look and the sets were completed before the look was locked down, leading to overly tall costumes and a cramped, stooped appearance. Human costumes were another sign of penny pinching, looking cheap and ill-fitting and I swear that the hat and jumper combo was in a boyband music video sometime in the 90's.
Then there is the tone of the film. It essentially wants to be a World War 2 movie, with screaming dive bombers (in space!), tense U-boat style hunts (including "pings", depth charges and ship to ship torpedoes - if you want to see how that should be done, try Prochnow's career defining role in Das Boot), and a bombastic fighter pilot story on an pseudo aircraft carrier (Top Gun again - btw, the Starship Troopers link from the DVD cover is the fighter pilot as elite combat troops doing a ship boarding set piece - yeah, like highly trained pilots would be used as grunts! - I am looking at you, Space: Above and Beyond!). Seriously though, when Ginny Holder's character, Rosie, dies after her damaged fighter hits the carrier a tad too hard, the wreckage is removed by a tractor with a plough. In space. With no gravity. Sigh.
The problem here is that Roberts wants an old fashioned war movie, dark and gritty, but as it's in space, there are a few, in no way minor, practical differences that can't be glossed over. That and the low budget, poor cinematography and PG rating means that it comes off looking amateurish and crap.
And yet, Wing Commander remains a guilty pleasure. Sure, it's cheesy, loud and brash, lacking subtlety, but you can see that some people were putting the effort in (as mentioned above), Karyo in particular attacks each scene like he's in a totally different film and mention must be made of David Arnold's score, which is typically good for that period of his career.
I know, I have panned this film, but that doesn't mean to say it does not have its place in the world as a dumb, mindless sci-fi film. Indeed, the so-bad-it's-good card comes into play here and I have found myself laughing at so called serious moments where reality is well and truly put to one side. If you haven't seen this film yet, grab a few cans of lager/bottle of wine/whatever your favourite tipple is, and sit back and enjoy. As a Friday night chillout film, this one is hard to beat.
So, what are your thought? Have you seen Wing Commander? Played the games? Let me know in the comments.