When people look back on films based on video games, they tend to skew towards the good (Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia) or the bad (Mario, Double Dragon). They don’t talk about the greats because there haven’t been any.
And they don’t talk about Wing Commander because it’s just too damn painful.
Wing Commander, if you’ve never played any of its games, is a series of space combat titles released mostly on the PC (with select titles ported to other platforms) and mostly during the 1990s. Just one of a number of “cinematic” flight game franchises released by developers Origin and created by Chris Roberts, it remains to this day one of the most successful and best-loved sci-fi series in gaming.
When in the late 1990’s a movie adaptation was planned, then, people got excited. After all, the Wing Commander series was a perfect fit for the big screen: it had a simple good vs evil plot, and thanks to the game’s own cinematic aspirations, came pre-loaded with a range of well-rounded characters and interesting storylines touching on everything from betrayal and corruption to ultimate victory.
It even, via the expensive full-motion video sequences of later games, had en established and good-looking visual signature, resting somewhere between the original Battlestar Galactica and Top Gun.
Best of all, though, the movie was going to be directed by none other than Chris Roberts himself, the series’ creator. So unlike other misguided attempts at bringing video games to the big screen, this one would be overseen by the franchise’s gatekeeper himself. What could possibly go wrong?
How about everything.
At first glance, it seems surprisingly faithful! There’s a Confederation of humans fighting a war against the cat-like alien Kilrathi. The principal characters all have the exact same names as their game counterparts, and in many cases (like Maniac and Angel) the actors follow that through with performances matching the existing role. Even some of the Confederation’s uniforms look pretty close to those found in the game.
It also seems serious! There is a degree of starpower involved (hey, it was 1999, Freddie Prinze was “big”), and the movie had a $US30 million budget, resulting in some surprisingly impressive visual effects.
Watch the trailer once and those bits may just get you through the thing excited! Or at least excited enough to distract you from everything that is suddenly, and in some cases inexplicably, different.
Example 2: the Kilrathi are cats. In the games, they’re shown as giant cats. Cats have fur. In the film, though, the cats are hairless, which is just…weird. Roberts tried to explain this away as saying he was never happy with how giant furry men looked on camera, but since they looked just fine in Wing Commanders III & IV, it didn’t wash with fans of the series.
Example 3: after the characters, the most iconic and important part of the Wing Commander universe are (were?) its ships. After so many games over so many years they’d become as identifiable to fans as an X-Wing or Viper. The movie, of course, turned the Confederate fighters into pieces of flying junk, basing their design on old British fighter jets in an attempt at the kind of “future retro” look Fallout 3 got so right. Only, Wing Commander got it wrong.
Example 4: in the games, the character of Maniac (later played by Tom Wilson) is a fucking asshole. But in a cool way. In the movie, he’s played by Matthew Lillard, whose a fucking asshole in a way that just makes him a fucking asshole.
Perhaps most perplexing about the changes made, though, was that they were for the worse when so much good material existed already. The designs and plots of Wing Commanders III or IV were already perfect for the big screen, and the cast assembled for those games – which included the likes of Mark Hamill, Malcolm MCDowell and John Rhys-Davies – had done an amazing job. Simply taking all that and making a movie out of it all was the safe, sensible and easy option.
But so what, you might ask! Changes are always made to books, or comics when they’re made into a movie. It’s part of the process. But it’s the strange divide that makes Wing Commander’s alterations so infuriating to fans. Why were some aspects of the universe kept so steadfastly intact while others were either changed out of sight or completely fabricated? I often think it would have been better for the movie to make a clean break and leave the games behind than try and straddle the fence.
Especially since in straddling the fence the movie ended up being so bloody awful. By making changes it alienated fans of the games, and by being a terrible movie it pissed off everyone else. The acting is for the most part poor, especially from Prinze Jnr. (though Tchéky Karyo is his usual awesome self), and while some of the dogfights are OK, everything else – you know, the parts that required writing, where people are talking – is horrifying.
It’s even got not one, not two, but multiple basic spelling errors, which you can see in this great review of the flick.
Wing Commander ended up a total disaster. It lost 20th Century Fox a ton of money (it only made back $US11.5 million of its $US30 million budget), is one of the worst-reviewed films of all time and, perhaps most telling of all, it managed to kill both the future of the franchise (which has barely been seen or heard from since) and the directorial ambitions of Roberts, who would never helm another picture again.
Ultimately, what has consigned Wing Commander to the dustbin of history more than the lost money and wrecked dreams, I think, been that crushing sense of disappointment. That this was a series so mature and well-developed already in its games that to see it reduced to such garbage on the big screen makes it too painful to remember.
Except for today. Sorry about that.
Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends