Wing Commander

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I have never been much of a video game person. I grew up in the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System through to the days of the Nintendo 64. Since then my taste in video games has existed in a state of arrested development. My favorite games are all 8-bit classics like Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti and Super Mario 3. I’ve played the original Wing Commander of course, but it hasn’t been one that I have returned to in the same way as I have other games. When I first saw the movie Wing Commander (1999) I saw it as a fan of science fiction movies and an admirer of Saffron Burrows, not as a fan of the game.

The movie Wing Commander was released just two months before George Lucas unveiled Star Wars: Episode I (1999). Both films were ravaged by critics though only Wing Commander bombed at the box office. In the intervening years George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels have found a loyal fanbase and some moderate reassessment by critics. The same cannot be said for Wing Commander, even when both films have many of the same shortcomings. Neither movie looks very good and each plays into all of the cliches of the genre with the blind confidence of a trailblazer.

Arguably Wing Commander has more going for it dramatically than any of Lucas’ prequel movies. The chemistry between Matthew Lillard and Ginny Holder is far more charismatic and affecting than any of the relationships in Star Wars. Additionally, the single performances of Saffron Burrows and Tchéky Karyo imbue the boiler plate plot of Wing Commander with a pathos it doesn’t really deserve and is missing entirely from Lucas’ trilogy. What Wing Commander never had and Star Wars always has is a loyal movie going fanbase and a promotional machine whose single job is to convince the public that Star Wars is high art.

In reality, none of these science fiction films is anything but expert craftsmanship for the sake of escapist entertainments. Neither Wing Commander nor Star Wars can be bothered by the same philosophical, social, and humanist quandaries as any of the Star Trek series or films. These are films that must be measured by how well they engross the spectator into their superficial spectacles as well as the originality of the said spectacle. To that effect Wing Commander mimics the original Star Wars (1977), adds in a slight racial commentary, and injects elements of the submarine battles from Das Boot (1981) into the WWI flying ace sequences.

I prefer the stupidity of Wing Commander to Lucas’ Star Wars prequels for all of these reasons. But perhaps the most important reason is that the people behind this Freddie Prinze Jr. space romp have no pretensions about being the next Joseph Campbell. Wing Commander promises adventure and nothing more. The attitude of Wing Commander is more akin to Battle Beyond The Stars (1980) than to anything George Lucas made post-1977. Which, in my mind, makes it a far better movie.