By Merle Bertrand | March 15, 1999

Oh, to have been a fly on the 20th Century Fox wall during the “Wing Commander”/”Star Wars Episode 1” promo meetings where the suits, no doubt, were torn over discussions on how best to cross-pollinate the hype for these two films. I’d be willing to bet that just the debate over the “Hamill Dilemma” — “Star Wars” cultural icon Mark Hamill was also a recurring actor in the hugely successful Wing Commande computer games upon which this film is based — was far more entertaining than first time director Chris Roberts’ movie version, at least if you’re older than, say, twelve.
When the evil alien race the Kilrathi destroy a Confederation (i.e. “human”) military base, it’s up to interstellar Top Guns Lt. Christopher Blair (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) and Todd “Maniac” Marshall (Matthew Lillard) to deliver an encrypted message to the Rebels, er, a Confederation Battle Group. After safely delivering their precious information, they settle in on the “Diligent,” the deep space starfighter carrier that’s their new home. Blair, a “Pilgrim” half-breed who’s inherited his reviled space colonizing ancestors’ quasi-mystical, very “Force”-like penchant for interstellar navigation, immediately gets off on the wrong foot by mistaking his sexy Wing Commander Jeanette “Angel” Marshall (Saffron Burrows) for a mechanic. Can anyone say Tom Cruise meeting Kelly Willis in “Top Gun”? Meanwhile, Maniac, who’s not nearly as emotionally encumbered as his pal, starts mixing it up with the “Diligent’s” tightly knit crew of cocky, smart-assed Marines and fighter pilots; a crew that must’ve trained at the same academy as Ripley’s cocky, smart-assed Marine allies in “Aliens”. From here on in, it’s pretty much an insipid shoot ’em up to save the Earth.
And also, as you may have gathered, THE most derivative movie I’ve ever seen; a tepid knock-off of several films, but especially “Star Wars” with all the pizzazz of yesterday’s cold pizza. In fact, “Wing Commander” is the cheesy, geeky movie all those studio execs who turned down George Lucas twenty-plus years ago feared “Star Wars” would be.
There are some bright moments. Austin, TX-based Digital Anvil’s digital effects are generally brilliant and non-intrusive; thus realizing at last, the potential of computer effects first hinted at in “The Last Starfighter”. There’s also a few nice chuckles scattered throughout and most of the supporting cast members, particularly Lillard’s Maniac, are distinct and likable.
However, while needless and redundant plot exposition runs amuck, all that talking somehow fails to staunch the blood gushing through the film’s gaping plot holes, inconsistencies and outright contradictions. And then, there’s the Kilrathi. While it’s hard to dislike any enemy you hardly ever see, it’s even harder when they look more like the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” with a hangover than a race hell-bent on Earth’s destruction.
When all is said and done, then, the only thing this juvenile and shameless “Star Wars” knock-off does is whet your appetite for the real deal.

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