There have now been a couple dozen terrible movies based on video games, but that wasn’t the case in the late 1990s. Back then, there had only been a few terrible movies based on video games, so the idea of making one that wasn’t terrible was not completely implausible.
The chances diminished rapidly, however, when Freddie Prinze Jr. was cast as the lead. Remember Freddie Prinze Jr.? He was the dullest heartthrob who ever throbbed a heart. He was like human Ambien. What ever happened to that guy? Eh, never mind, I don’t care, let’s just make fun of “Wing Commander.”
“Wing Commander” was based on a series of video games that one assumes involved wings and the commanding thereof, though one cannot be certain because one never played them. The movie is set in the far-distant year of 2654, when mankind has colonized the galaxy, and Betty White is thinking of retiring. Naturally, the humans are having a space war with some aliens, because this is what happens when you colonize the galaxy. You can’t make a galaxy-colonizing omelette without breaking a few space-war eggs! The enemy aliens are called the Kilrathi, as calling them the Murderangry would have been too on-the-nose.
At the beginning of the film, the Kilrathi destroy an Earth vessel in the Vega sector (which everyone knows is a pretty tough neighborhood after dark) and obtain its navigation-communication device. The nav-comm will show the Kilrathi where certain “quasar jump points” are, and they can use these “quasar jump points” to hop over to Earth’s solar system and kill us all. Without the “quasar jump points,” Earth is much too far away for the Kilrathi, who don’t like to travel and frankly aren’t that ambitious. It may also be that the Kilrathi, like me, do not believe that “quasar jump points” are actual things.
Now somebody has to stop the Kilrathi from figuring out how to use the nav-comm. And that somebody is a guy named Chris!
Chris is the cocky but boring space pilot played by Freddie Prinze Jr. He and his cocky but irritating friend, Todd (Matthew Lillard), have just gotten out of space academy and are on their way to the carrier ship Tiger Claw to replace a couple pilots who got killed, probably for not being cocky enough.
Chris balances out his cockiness by being a pretty good pilot, and by reading Homer’s “The Odyssey” in his spare time. The character is given this trait to counteract the viewer’s initial impression that any character played by Freddie Prinze Jr. must be a dope. Chris also says very complicated and smart-sounding technical things like, “Have we reached the entry vector’s PNR yet?” But despite Chris’ efforts, one of his superiors, Gerald (Jurgen Prochnow), doesn’t trust him. That’s because Chris’ mother was a “pilgrim” — and everybody hates pilgrims, what with their buckled shoes and their first Thanksgivings and their smallpox blankets. No, I kid. The “pilgrims” in “Wing Commander” lore were a group of people who rejected their emotions and became human computers. They also fought against the good guys hundreds of years ago before aligning with them, and there’s still some resentment toward pilgrims and half-pilgrims, similar to the way people in Boston still have a problem with Redcoats.
Thanks to his half-pilgrim heritage, Chris can navigate a spaceship through a quasar or a black hole without the aid of a nav-comm computer, doing all the split-second calculations himself. This may sound impressive, but Chris works them out on a keypad with only 15 buttons on it, so I suspect we are not talking about graduate-level calculus here.
The first thing Chris and Todd do as new arrivals on the Tiger Claw is act like hotshots and make their fellow pilots dislike them. That includes Angel (Saffron Burrows), the lieutenant commander, who is required to become Chris’ love interest once she gets over disliking him, which doesn’t take as long as you’d think. The tough-as-nails Angel explains that there’s no time for grief on the Tiger Claw. When someone dies, you pretend that person never existed. Those pilots that Chris and Todd are here to replace? What pilots? Angel doesn’t know what you’re talking about. What were their names? Nope, those names don’t sound familiar to Angel.
So it should be nothing but smooth sailing for the crew of the Tiger Claw, mental-health-wise.
Meanwhile, Todd gives all his fellow pilots some liquor. This makes them overlook his grating, grinning, self-assured idiocy — his Matthew Lillard-ness, in other words — and he hooks up with a lady pilot named Rosie (Ginny Holder), who finds his reckless disregard for caution sexy. After one particularly douchebaggy stunt, they have this exchange:
ROSIE: You’ve got big balls.
TODD: You should see ’em.
ROSIE: Mine are bigger.
TODD: I’ve been told size doesn’t matter.
Wait, what were we talking about? Rosie obviously meant “balls” metaphorically, referring to Todd’s braveness, but then Todd switched to the literal meaning, referring to his actual testicles, but then Rosie made reference to her own balls, which would have to be metaphorical again since she’s a woman, but then Todd goes back to the literal meaning. What we learn from this is either that double entendre doesn’t work on Todd, or that Rosie is a she-male.
Everyone eventually gets around to having some space battles with the Kilrathi. You know what these battles look like if you’ve ever seen the end of “Star Wars,” especially if you saw the version that was made on an Apple IIe. Also, it turns out the Kilrathi look like kitty-cats! They speak an adorable guttural language that is subtitled for viewers. Cute!
In the course of the Lucas-esque feline war, Todd does something dangerous and foolhardy, with Rosie accompanying him because she also enjoys danger, except she’s not as good at it as Todd is, and she dies; whoops. Todd feels guilty about her death — which is appropriate, given that it was his fault — and Angel is very grumpy with him. Fortunately, Chris is able to talk Angel out of her grumpiness. You can’t be angry when you’re talking to Chris, as he is too boring to produce strong emotions of any kind. Chris also persuades Angel to quit pretending Rosie never existed. It never occurred to Angel until now that this was a stupid way to deal with death. Thank goodness Chris is here!
There is more thanking of goodness a little later, when they have to pilot their ship through a pulsar field or something, and Chris gets to use his half-pilgrim calculating skills to save the day. Perhaps it does not sound very exciting to watch Freddie Prinze Jr. stare intently at an instrument panel while doing math. It isn’t. But it’s better than his moments of high emotion, like when Angel is wounded and he says, “Don’t you die on me!,” or when Angel tells him, “You disobey my order and I’ll have you court-martialed” and he replies, “Like I care!”
I submit that there has never been a high-quality action movie in which the supposedly noble and brave lead character has said, “Like I care.” There has never been a high-quality action movie based on a video game, either, but at least that isn’t impossible.