“Based on a video game.” Are there five words more reviled in the realm of cinema? Only two such films have topped 60% among Rotten Tomatoes critics while 11 of them have hit the 10% mark or lower. Not one has cracked the half-billion hallmark at the global box office. So few unlocked achievements, so many respawns. Oftentimes, the only thing less fun than watching someone else play video games is watching someone else make a video game movie. This month, we’ll find out if the latest Mortal Kombat film is boss level or a misfire along the lines of Leeroy Jenkins. In the meantime, Game On looks at some of the more interesting, inspiring or, yes, insufferable video-game movies. Good, bad, average. It’s all about the experience points.
Video games have come a long way — from bouncing white dots on a black screen to photorealistic adventures with rich, cinematic stories. But the story of the video-game franchise Wing Commander, which originated in 1990, is basically a Star Wars knockoff with the “evil empire” consisting of cat-like creatures called the Kilrathi. However, the third game in the series, 1994’s Heart of the Tiger, could’ve made for a cool movie given its live-action interstitial scenes featuring such stars as Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell and John Rhys-Davies.
Hamill does make a voiceover appearance in the 1999 film adaptation, but he wisely chose to go uncredited in this dreck starring a perpetually panting, wide-eyed Freddie Prinze Jr. and an obnoxiously macho Matthew Lillard. (Don’t worry, the She’s All That stars got other chances to reunite in Summer Catch, Scooby-Doo and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.)
I saw Wing Commander in the theater with my brother and I loved it, probably because I was hyped from seeing the trailer for Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace beforehand.
The setup is silly sci-fi mumbo jumbo. Fighter pilot Christopher Blair (Prinze Jr.) is ordered to deliver encrypted information to the Tiger Claw ship about the Kilrathi’s plan to take the Quasar Leap through space time … or something like that.
There’s a lot of chatter about time jumps and coordinates, and none of it really matters. All you need to know is humans good, Kilrathi bad. Well, unless the human has Pilgrim in their blood like Blair. You see, during the Pilgrim Wars, Blair’s father fell in love with a Pilgrim woman. Bad juju! The film never explains who the Pilgrims were exactly, just that they were … different. They’re said to have had a symbiotic relationship with space, as if their spirits aligned with the stars and made them shine brighter. Blair’s Pilgrim heritage makes him a natural navigator of space.
This film would be more enjoyable if it didn’t take itself so seriously. Prinze Jr. and Lillard signed up based on a completely different script. Based on the kinds of films they were making in that era, I imagine it was funnier and edgier, more in the vein of Starship Troopers. Beyond Lillard’s generally amusing performance as a hotheaded horndog and a line about a “Kilrathi gangbang,” the film doesn’t have much of a sense of humor. But it doesn’t earn its dramatic moments. Spoiler Alert for a Bad 22-Year-Old Movie: After Lillard’s love interest dies in battle, she’s suddenly depicted as his soulmate rather than a woman he slept with once and was slowly getting to know. It’s understandable for him to be broken up about her death, but when Commander Angel Deveraux (Saffron Burrows) pulls a gun on him out of anger, he tearfully encourages her to pull the trigger. Come on.
These moments are jarring because they’re dropped in between long battle scenes. Given the first-person angles and low-quality visual effects, watching this film is like sitting in a video-game booth at an arcade. But is that what we want from a film adaptation of a video game? The same sort of experience but on the big screen?
Wing Commander is unique in that it’s directed by the creator of the video game, Chris Roberts. So you’d think it would be a passion project rather than a cash grab. But beyond recreating the look and feel of the game, Roberts doesn’t bring it to cinematic life in an interesting way. The film ultimately feels like the work of slick studio executives who saw the live-action scenes in the third Wing Commander video game and thought, “Let’s replace Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell with two young hunks and make this less like Star Wars and more like Top Gun. High five!”
The film is so focused on battles and brawn that you don’t even get a good look at the Kilrathi until the last 10 minutes. But that might be for the best.
Like the video games I played as a kid — mostly Sega Genesis and Nintendo 64 — I look back at the Wing Commander movie and think, “This isn’t that exciting, and it doesn’t even look good. Why did I like this?” At least video games, and their film adaptations, have taken quite a Quasar Leap since this hunk of junk.