Retro review: ‘Wing Commander’

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that it’s 1999. “Genie in a Bottle” by Christina Aguilera is a chart-topper, and the Budweiser Frogs commercials were still on TV. There were distant rumblings of the thing called “Y2K,” and shiny AOL CDs were probably delivered to your house a few times a month.

Enter Wing Commander, a sci-fi action movie that was released in March of 1999. It should have been a commercial success. Instead, it was a box office failure, earning under $12 million in the US and Canada combined. The movie was adapted from EA/Origin’s top-rated Wing Commander video game series from the early 90s. 

Given the video game’s massive and passionate fan base, you’d assume the movie would be a hit. So why did it fail when it had a built-in audience? Let’s talk about some of the hits and misses.

The Stakes:  

Earth is threatened with annihilation when the Kilrathi, an alien race of giant warrior space cats, get ahold of the powerful Pegasus Navcom unit that allows their spaceship fleets to jump travel through space. The main character, Lt. Christopher Blair (played by Freddie Prinze Jr.), is charged with delivering an encrypted message that warns Earth’s reinforcements about the upcoming Kilrathi attack.

This is the movie poster for Wing Commander.

What Works:

  • The movie leans into its campy-ness. It embraces the idea of being fun with incredible space battles with glorified space submarines instead of and being ultra-realistic.
  • The movie features strong female characters. Angel Devereaux (Saffron Burrows) and Rosie Forbes (Ginny Holder) are two kickass women fighter pilots. They’re at the top of their game professionally, with Angel as the CO of their fighter squadron. Rosie’s a hotshot pilot with a daredevil streak, and it’s fantastic because you don’t usually see women portrayed as adrenaline seekers. It ultimately gets her killed.
  • The cast is charismatic. Freddie Prince Jr. and Matthew Lillard have great chemistry. Five years after his iconic Goldeneye role as Mishkin, Tchéky Karyo, delivers a sense of old-world mystery. Saffron Burrows and Ginny Holder are badasses. 

What Doesn’t Work:

  • The thing that sticks out the most is that Wing Commander is such a character-driven video game series, and in the movie, we hardly see any of that. The characters fit into neat little boxes, and we don’t care about any of them. There’s no emotional tug. 
  • Blair, the main character, is a half-Pilgrim fighter pilot who has to embrace the special navigation powers he gets from his heritage to save Earth. There’s mention of the Pilgrim Wars, and there’s a lot of casual anti-Pilgrim racism thrown around by the other characters. Still, otherwise, there are no real obstacles to Blair using his special navigation powers. He wears a Pilgrim cross in memory of his dead parents but otherwise doesn’t show strong feelings about his heritage. There’s a moment of doubt when his computers are down, and he has to use his navigation powers, but Paladin anti-climatically talks Blair out of his self-doubt. He doesn’t change in the movie and just slow-rolls into acceptance of his superpower. It’s boring. 
  • Angel, the lead fighter pilot, is set up as a powerful and capable person. Blair and Angel don’t get along at first because he initially thinks she’s a mechanic and not a fighter pilot. She later holds a grudge against Blair and Maniac (Matthew Lillard), another fighter pilot who she blames for the death of Rosie. Blair and Angel are out on a mission against the Kilrathi and work together. There’s a tense moment where her ship is busted, and she is willing to sacrifice herself. It’s melodramatic without having any lead-in. There’s no tension build-up for the emotional payoff where she’s ready to sacrifice herself. And then, a few scenes later, to close out the movie, Angel is rescued by Paladin, Blair’s mentor. That’s great, but what’s infuriating is that after she’s rescued, Blair kisses her to close out the movie. It’s totally out of character and seems shoehorned in. The characters don’t have that relationship yet. 
  • The Kilrathi aliens themselves felt clumsy and not a threat. We first meet them pretty early on in the movie, and there’s no terror or tension there. They are just big green blobs. Fans point to the movie design of the Kilrathi, which got rid of their iconic fur from the video games, as being a real sore spot.

Fun Stuff:

  • Even in the year 2700, there’s product placement. Nokia makes the brand of computers that humans use in their ships. If you remember the Nokia brick phones of that era, this makes total sense.  
  • If you’re a fan of Star: Trek Voyager, you might do a double-take at Maniac. He could be Tom Paris’ blonder twin. Maniac’s bleach blonde hair is also a fun throwback to the 90s.

Here’s hoping that whoever owns the rights gives it another go because this world has so much potential for juicy conflict and fun.

Check out the trailer for Wing Commander below!

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