Space opera invaders

If you absolutely, positively can't wait for 'Star Wars,' 'Wing Commander' works as frivolous filler.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 12, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

If your space-opera addiction is so severe you can't wait the eight or 10 weeks for the new "Star Wars" film, and you've watched all your bootleg videotapes of "Space: Above and Beyond" more than four times, you could do worse than "Wing Commander." OK, maybe not a lot worse. Pretty much everything in this high-space war yarn has been swiped from other, better movies, and a lot of time is wasted setting creaking plot machinery into motion that never leads anywhere (except to some computer-graphics battle scenes that range from the dull to the laughable). But "Wing Commander" does offer an enjoyably consistent view of the 27th century as an age when space travel has become a grim and grimy grind, as well as appealing performances from its international cast of B-minus character actors, especially goofballish Matthew Lillard (one of the "Scream" villains) and saucy Ginny Holder as a randy space-pilot couple.

Although it's based on characters and situations from the computer game of the same name, "Wing Commander" doesn't bring the random transitions of gaming to the screen, as the baffling but oddly likable "Mortal Kombat" movies did. Instead it seeks to combine the moral certainty of the Lucas universe with the "Melrose Place"-in-space mode of "Starship Troopers" (an underappreciated ironic classic) and hints of "Alien" claustrophobia. Freddie Prinze Jr. ("I Know What You Did Last Summer") and Lillard are Blair and Marshall, two hothead rookie flyboys who get caught up in the human Confederation's war against the Kilrathi, an alien race bent on destroying Earth. Unfortunately, when we finally see the fearsome Kilrathi, they look more likely to cough up hairballs on your Aunt Patrice's carpet than to waste the whole planet.

Blair, who was played in the video game by no less a star warrior than Mark Hamill, has a convoluted back story that's supposedly fraught with significance. He's descended, as a crusty older pilot (Tchiky Karyo) informs him, from the Pilgrims, early human space travelers who developed special navigational powers and eventually turned against Earth in a bloody rebellion. The net result of figuring that out is that he's able to "jump" his ship through a quasar or a black hole or something in a 10-second scene resembling a Laserium show. As for Prinze, he doesn't get a lot of help from Kevin Droney's screenplay -- when threatened with court-martial for disobeying orders, Blair's response is, "Like I care!" -- but he must shoulder some blame for one of the weakest and most mechanical recent performances by a leading man. Lacking his late father's natural camera-hog charisma and marred by a petulant valley-boy delivery, Prinze has a bright smile but otherwise fades into the other actors' shadows. When Blair finally gets to kiss Angel, the icy Wing Commander herself (leggy Saffron Burrows), all I could think was that she's been in space too long.

Generic limitations aside, the first 40 minutes or so of "Wing Commander" is perfectly acceptable TV-grade entertainment. But the "action" sequences -- produced, like most of the film, at some no-name studio in Luxembourg -- are likely to seem tedious and disappointing even to hardcore adherents of the game. Things get truly dispiriting when the character dramas recede and the spark provided by Lillard and Holder goes out, leaving us only one incomprehensible battle after another. If director (and game creator) Chris Roberts can't be bothered to figure out the difference between the human spaceships and the Meow Mix spaceships, I don't see why I should. On balance, you're probably better off making a pot of tea, giving the Kilrathi some kibble and bidding on eBay for "Battlestar Galactica" figurines.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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