13 April 2014

Broken Promises: The 1999 WING COMMANDER Film

In 1999, 20th Century Fox  would release a picture that could have been a great military science fiction film that mixed elements of Star Wars and Space: Above and Beyond and to a small degree, Enemy Mine and rolled them all into a space fighter sci-fi war movie. Not only could this have given us fans of military sci-fi a new franchise to invest in, but also, finally allowing for a successful video-game-to-movie property. After all, Wing Commander was one of the most successful and beloved computer video games of the 1990's, and it seemed that a translation to film should have been easy. Especially considering that Wing Commander full motion titles were considered the best of that gaming format. Sadly, this film that could have also been the best video game-to-film ever was transformed into shit. Pure shit. While the Wing Commander video game series, of the most part, were some of the best games of the 1990's, this movie has been called one of the worst sci-fi films of all time. This blogpost was getting moldy in my draft pile, until I started obsessively watching The Spoony Experiment and his review made me pull this one out. Everytime, I talk to someone about this movie, their face displays the reaction I imagine to finding fresh dog shit on their suede shoes. So, here we go, one of the worst crimes in military sci-fi history: Wing Commander the movie. Someone pour me a drink!

The Promise and Historical Context of Wing Commander
During the 1990's, there were three home video game consoles jousting for the soul, loyalty, and the cash of the gamer. While ATARI, Sega, and Nintendo battled it out, there was one more option in the household, the computer. Some gamers, like me, had tired of the side-scroller shit that polluted the early 90's console games, and looked towards the grey box in their office: the home computer. With their power and modular nature, computer games allowed for a different experience than the console gaming systems. One area were computers shined was in the flight simulator. Computer space combat simulator games have been around since 1962's "Spacewar!", and continued to be developed throughout today. While in the 1990's, these types of games reached an apex in popularity mainly due to technological advancement. I can still recall many happy memories of late nights playing WC during my Freshman year in High School, and upgrading my HP computer with audio and video cards to run the next installment of WC. 
Given the success and praise for the game, Origin Systems and Chris Roberts would pepper the 1990's with about 10 games, many expansion packs, and ports to other game systems. Wing Commander games would be released on the original Playstation, N64, Saturn (cancelled), 3DO, and Mac computers. I actually played Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger on my Playstation. For an entire generation of gamers, the WC saga would be fondly remembered and hold a special place in our hearts as the space simulator that allowed us to live out our space fighter jock fantasies. The success of the WC games led to other space combat simulators, namely the legendary X-Wing space flight simulator by LucasArts in 1993.

The Promise of the Wing Commander Movie
When I look back at what could have been with the WC feature film, I see the promise of another great military sci-fi cinema franchise that could have been a simple story of soldiers at war in deep space against an alien enemy that sought to dominate space and end any competition. This film could have been our Battle of Britain. But it wasn't. Not even close. Even 
if we strip away the layers of shit that is the 1999 movie storyline we can see that there was a nugget of promise in the very basic concept and story of the WC movie: the bad space kittes have gotten their hands on the location of Terra and are screaming to end the human race, and  the USS Enterprise...huh...sorry, the Tiger's Claw is the only starship in range.
The film plays around with the familiar sci-fi plot device of it being hard to locate the homeworld of their enemy, which would be true given our known of the galaxy and just how many bloody stars there are. This simple idea could have given rise to two more films. I can imagine that the first film (if altered) could have been called Wing Commander: the Battle of Earth, Blair and his merry band of space pilots defending the Earth against the bad space cats. In the second film, Wing Commander II: The Traitor, could have told the story of Hobbs, the only Kilrathi Terran Confederation pilot, and how he helps the Terrans located the furballs' homeworld.
And the last film, Wing Commander III: End Game, we could have a massive space battle over the kitty's homeworld. For me, some unpublished middle aged white guy from Dallas, it took minutes on a walk mental writing this blogpost to come up with that. And that was better than the film.
I know that I am harping on this, but the successful translation to film from video game was there in the DNA of the game, and we already had several very successful WC full motion video games during the FMV fad of the 1990's. WC III and WC IV are considered the best examples of how to use the FMV technology for gaming and storytelling in the medium of video games.

The Sins of the Wing Commander Film
The bipolar way the film treats the Pilgrims. On one hand, they are regarded as the scum of the human race, because the Pilgrim believed that their navigation skills give them authority over the unwashed masses of humanity and thought of themselves as gods. This resulted in a war and bitter feelings during the movie. However, Blair is half-Pilgrim and his gifts save the day several times throughout the film. While Blair and Paladin are the Pilgrim heroes, the Terrans are betrayed by two other Pilgrims that sell out the human race to the Kilrathi by proving them with the NAVCOM AI core. And the basic question remains, why are the Pilgrims in this movie? Never in the WC universe is this sub-group of humanity even mentioned, or that the main character of the WC universe, Blair, is one. This subplot is just completely unneeded, and it smells of Jedi-like people being shoehorned into the film. Overall, it offers little in the way of story…it just takes up time that could have devoted to other story elements.

On of the biggest sins of the entire movie is the entire casting. The studio wanted to tap into the trend of young horror movies, and so, Chris Roberts was forced to use Matthew Lillard as Manic and Freddie Prince Junior as Blair, and Saffron Burrows as Angel. While these actors have their roles that are good in (Scooby Doo anyone?), they simply do work here. Even the more accomplished actors like David Warner, Jurgen Prochnow, and Richard Dillane were not able to savage this picture, partly due to the script and dialog. I guess the golden rule here is if you have Mark Hamill, you keep Mark Hamill

The Rapier class Terran fighter. Originally, this the second to last fighters you unlocked in the original 1990 game, and it was a fast attack fighter that could hang in a firefight with some furballs. The design itself was based around the Firefox MiG from the old Clint Eastwood 1982 movie. However, in one of the real stunners of movie, the sleek long profile was replaced by the A-10 Warthog inspirited CF-117 Rapier (the actually prop piece was built from a British Electric Lightning fighter) that looked low-tech and the overall design was dominated with a DEW rotary cannon. The design was steer rubbish and completely outside of the designs presented in the video games for Terran fighters.Vast changes to the familiar core characters of the games, especially the full motion games. While changes may be warranted, this was not so, and undercut the 1999 movie by making the new variants of the core game characters seem hollow

The effect of gravity in space. Okay, to be fair, the Tiger Claw generates a shielding allowing for Earth Normal conditions in the flight bay, much like the shuttle bay shields on ST:TNG. However, this was done for stylistic reasons, allowing for a critical damaged Rapier to be dumped “overboard” and the fighters to dip when launching off of the flight line. Of course the use of a flattop carrier is not conforming to physics.

The interior sets. The idea of the internal look of starships and space stations was forever altered by Star Wars, Outland, ALIEN, and Star Trek, and WC is no different. However, it can be taken to extreme, and most of the starship sets of the film were based on the director’s desire to mimic a submarine interior. The Tiger Claw carrier does not look like a place where I would want to spend any time, and an overdone example of the style laid down by those other works

The oddball attitude and behavior of the Tiger Claw pilots towards their fallen comrades. When Blair meet his fellow fighter jocks onboard the carrier, they deny the existence of a pilot who died. They repeat the phase “he never existed”. No military organization I know of denies the fallen, even if, like the CIA, they can only honor via just plain star.

The Kilrathi. Killer space kitties are a standard of science fiction, as FWS demonstrated some months back, and they were loosely based on the Kzin from Niven’s Known Space universe. However, their appearance in the 1999 movie is racially different than previously seen in the games. They were now hairless cats (think Mr. Bigglesworth) with goatees, and dumb as rocks. The Kilrathi’s new appearance was rejected and mocked by fans. The genesis behind their comical appearance rests in budget constraints and an inability to bring the director's vision to the screen. This resulted in the majority of the Kilrathi scenes being cut from the film.

When Lt. Rose Forbes crash lands onto the deck of the Tiger Claw, the rest of the pilots and the deck gang standby and watch the wreck of the Rapier be unceremoniously down over the side of the carrier without anyone bothering to check if their fellow pilot is alive. Total rubbish and total dishonor of soldiers promises to one another.

The submarine theme for the film. Chris Roberts wanted to channel Das Boot for this movie, and even put a completely bullshit unrealistic space depth-charge scene in the film along Das Boot actor Jurgen Prochnow. The best part of that “nuking every crater” scene is that Tcheky Karyo tells everyone, (while Jurgen Prochnow is having U-Boat flashbacks) to shut up, so that the space kitty warship wouldn’t hear them. Hear them on an airless moon. Hear them. Who wrote this script? As Spoony said “they could have Slayer performing in the galley and no one outside of the ship would hear them!” This goes hand-in-hand with the mushy, jumbled plot that often has no sense of itself or the dire nature of the situation. Hell, what do you expect when the names of the core characters are misspelled on-screen, along with words like: SECURITY BREACH (appears as BREECH).

The monocle eye patch aiming device used by the Terran pilots. I believed that it was based on the AH-64 Apache gunnery helmet, but not as cool and looks just silly in the film. This goes for much of the costumes, which are worse than Star Trek: the motion picture.

Several times in the film, people keep running into a massive black hole in the Sol System, and  even use to destroy a Kilrathi warship. Just plain stupid and a childish plot device.

The steer stupidly of our mortal enemy, the Kilrathi. Instead of running for Terra to bombard the holy jesus out of the homeworld of their enemy, they wait around for the Terrans to mount a counter-strike. When you the enemy by the throat, you don't let go.

Why Did This Happen? WHY?!
Noah "Spoony" Antwiler raised an excellent point in his 2010 video review of the movie, if the creator of the Wing Commander games, Chris Roberts, directed the 1999 film, why was the movie such a disaster? That question was answered by Chris Roberts himself on Reddit about this very topic in 2013:

"The Wing Commander movies was not the movie I saw in my head when I developed it, so it was disappointing, as on my games I pretty much always to realize the picture in my head on the screen. I think there was a combination factors that contributed to this":
  1. My inexperience as a film director. I had directed live action for WC3 and WC4, but a film is a while other level of subtly and finesse.
  2. I needed a producer that could do more than just do a good deal. I needed someone to help me on the set, to tell me, "hey, Chris, I know you want to do these 10 things, but we only have money to do 5 things really well. So let's pick what they are and knock them out of the park and cut the others." This is what a strong creative producer does, and its what I've tired to for other directors I've worked with over the last 10 years.
  3. We had a ridiculously short pre-production timeline. The movie wasn't greenlit until December (1997) and we were in production towards the end of February - we basiclly had three months of pre-production, which for a complicated sci-fi movie, is way too short. Most films like this have 6 months, some much longer. Its why the Kilrathi and a lot of other stuff ended up being cut - we didn't get to test/work them out in pre-production. So, we had to rely on what we got - and a lot of it just didn't work. Originally, we had more time, but when FOX signed the deal to distribute the next three Star Wars films from Lucas, they insisted that we deliver (the film) before Star Wars: Episode I. So, they could release before hand. So, we were given a 1998 December delivery date. Given the time needed for the VFX, we had to move up the shoot date. 
  4. I gave into some of the studio's casting choices. In the same situation I would not. They were very keen to bring all the young horror fans that were seeing movies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer - but that really wasn't the Wing Commander audience. 
If I made the movie today, it would be 10 times better...I've learnt a lot over the last ten years and have matured as a person/storyteller. Having said that, there are still some things in it that I'm quite proud of - there's some really great visual moments. But I would do a better job of the emotion and feeling if I was making it today.

The Toys...Oh, God, There Were Toys?!
Star Wars laid down the foundation and expectation of a toyline to compliment a film, especially one as similar to Star Wars.  The studio, Carousel Picture Company (Dog Soldiers and The Lost Battalion) was under pressure from the distributor, Fox, to get WC done in time for the Star Wars Episode I trailer to be attached. This forced pre-production to be shortened as well as any mechanizing. X-Toys of New Jersey was tapped to product a line of 3 3/4 inch action figures with two vehicle toys and possibly a line of 9 inch figures. X-Toys had hopes of riding the success of the film into a long-term licence agreement. Sadly, only the first series of nine 3 3/4 inch figures were produced after the movie completely bombed, and hauled all further toy development, including the fighters. The timetable for the release of the Episode I trailer was March 12th, and the film was rushed to completion, forcing X-Toys to rush their toyline. As the movie was bombing and moved out to the dollar theater, X-Toys WC movie toyline was just hitting the stores. According to the website wcnews.com, only 10,000 figures were produced, with some being quite rare, but there is no collector's market for these.  I have some experience with the "Pilgrim traitor" figure from the line, and how basic these figures were. The interesting figure was the "Pilgrim traitor" of the toyline was not in the movie, and those scenes were dumped. This traitor character in the film was Admiral Bill Wilson, who gave the Kilrathi the NAVCOM AI, so they could finish off Earth. The presence of the "Pilgrim Traitor" character tell me that this portion of the plot was jettisoned very shortly to the film's release.
For many fans of the WC series, the fighters were the main dish, and despite the horror of the movie, there were those that were looking forward to collecting the fighters. Fighters were promised by the back of the box-art, however, by the time WC  movie toys were in the bargain bin, the fighters were cancelled...why? Given that the movie bombed at the box-office, and X-Toys was losing money on the figures, there was no money or reason for the company to develop them beyond the prototype stage. These prototypes still exist of the Terran Rapier and the Kilrathi Dralthi, and were owned by X-Toys founder. Both would have taken the figures, had detachable missiles, and special variant figures packaged with them, and both appeared on-screen. While some claim that these fighters actually appeared in stores, X-Toys founder says that the fighters only made it to the prototype phase. At present, these toy fighters are in the hands of the Origin Museum website, which is now gone.

The Aftermath of the Film
Hopes were high that WC would lead to a series of movies, propelling the Wing Commander franchise into the next level. There were rumors of a planned trilogy of films, and a video game that tied more to the film universe. All of that went right down the tubes when the first weekend box-office figures were released. With a budget of around $30 million, Wing Commander only made $5 million, and by the time the movie was taken out of the theater, it had only made a total of $11 million, labelling the film a complete bomb. Even after the home video release, it still did not recover its money. Even today, the WC film ranks up there with the Super Mario Brothers movie, for the worse video-game-to-film-productions in cinema history. 
The fallout from the film was that Chris Roberts never directed another feature film again, (however, he is involved in TV and film as a producer) and while it may be a coincidence, the WC video game empire nearly hauled after the film. Wing Commander VII and Privateer 3 were cancelled, taking the planned Nephilim trilogy storyline along with it.Take for example: from 1990-1996, over a dozen games were released, and this slowed down considerable after 1999. This could be due to issues between Origin Systems and EA, or the popularity of home console gaming cutting into the popularity of computer gaming, or the popularity of flight sim games was down as well, or just that the film sucked so bad that sucked the life out of the WC franchise. A few games were released, like Wing Commander Arena, but nothing to the level of the mid-1990’s. Recently, there has been news that Chris Roberts is about to get the rights to the film, and the original music will be restored. Some fans have taken this to mean that the Pilgrim traitor subplot will be restored, along with other deleted scenes…however, it still will not help how broken the film is at its core. At the present time, Chris Roberts is busy with his newest venture Star Citizen.  

Is There a Future For Wing Commander?
There has been little new in the WC universe in over 14 years, besides the Xbox Arcade beat'em up WC: Arena. However, that changed about year this March, with the release of Wing Commander: the Darkest Dawn. This game was fan developed using the Freespace 2 engine, and the reviews have been, for the most part, very positive. Given the success of the game, there could be a sequel in the works. However, Chris Roberts is devoting his time and money to Star Citizen, the space trading and combat simulator that was partly funded by Kickstarter, and seems based on the idea behind WC: Privateer. As for a mainstream sequel or rebbot to WC, I doubt that EA is going to funnel the money needed to create a next-gen combat space flight simulator based on Wing Commander anything in the near future.


Here is an interview where Chris Roberts explains the horror that was this movie:

Here is the 1999 Starlog special on the upcoming movie:

1up's excellent overview of the film:

Kotaku's Total Recall series

The Man. The Myth. The Legend. He is the Spoony One!

Spoony's Commentary on his 2010 review...very interesting

Chris Roberts Reddit threat

Next Time on FWS....
Science fiction predicts that when computers fully achieve artificial intelligence, they will see themselves as slaves to the meat bags, and rebel..and there will be blood. Lots of blood. This fear as been with us since the 1920 Czech play of R.U.R, and continues to be a popular genesis of future wars. In the next installment of What We Will Fight Over blog-serial, we will examine the possibility of your iPhone leading to the Robot Apocalypse.   


  1. I found this beast of a film as disappointing as the un- Starship Troopers franchise that apart from the bugs (and they didn't even get those right) had nothing to do with the great book by Robert A. Heinlein.....where was the power armor...etc etc I some times wonder if film producers can in fact read....

  2. Really, the only thing I liked was the music.

  3. I read once that Paul Verhoeven was original going to call SST "Bug Hunt on Outpost 9" and never finished the novel, calling it "boring" and "depressing". However, at least it watchable, and has it's own interesting elements...and I'm talking about the shower scene. I am hoping we will get a better SST soon. Wing Commander is not just watchable...a real pity.
    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Great blog! Reminds me of the old days when my uncle who passed away back in the 90's, when we would discuss military influence, weapons and such in SciFi films.
    On things also, what weapons from world war 2 were used to create small arms in the star wars films and Battlestar Galactica TV series. Anyways, great blog. Ty for the memories. ☺

  5. Glad you enjoy what FWS is! I've worked hard over the last three years to make FWS a home for MSF and related topics. One day, FWS will be covering the real steel guns under the skin of famous prop weapons.