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Sunday, October 5, 2008

FILM REVIEW OF ''WING COMMANDER'' (1999)

Although its aliens resemble varmints, "Wing Commander" (**1/2 out of ****) emerges as a predictable but entertaining "Star War" clone distinguished by Digital Anvil's dazzling special effects, Oscar winner Peter Lamont's atmospheric production designs, and a first-class supporting cast. While his directorial film debut lacks originality, director Chris Roberts shows adequate ingenuity in his treatment of venerable science-fiction clich├ęs and conventions. "Wing Commander" recycles enough surefire elements from "Star Wars," "Star Trek 2," "Top Gun," "Starship Troopers," and "The Hunt for Red October" to satisfy hardcore sci-fi fans. Starring Freddie ("She's All That") Prinze Jr., and Matthew ("Scream") Lillard, "Wing Commander" charts the course of two audacious starship fighter pilots fresh out of the Confederation academy who find themselves thrown into the middle of an intergalactic war. The year is 2654. Earth is at war with the xenophobic Kilarthi, an ancient alien race of felines with retractable Freddy Krueger claws that resolve to obliterate the planet when diplomatic solutions fail.

Freshman director Chris Roberts and scenarist Kevin ("Mortal Combat") Droney launch the action with a devastating Kilarthi surprise attack on Pegasus, a secret Confederation outpost in an asteroid chain. The attack resembles the Japanese 'sneak' attack on Pearl Harbor, only instead of the U.S. Pacific Fleet getting destroyed, the Confederation's Vega System Fleet gets wiped out while in dry dock. The bad guys secure a fabled navigational device which will enable them to attack Earth before the Confederation can stop them.

Meanwhile, Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn (David Warner of "Titanic") relays a coded transmission to a freighter in route to the closest hope for Earth's survival: the aircraft carrier style starship Tiger Claw. Tolwyn entrusts the message to the son of a war hero, Chris 'Maverick' Blair. When he arrives aboard the Tiger Claw, Blair receives a chilly response from the second-in-command, Captain Gerald (Jurgen Prochnow of "Beverly Hills Cop 2"), who mistrusts the rookie pilot because he is a half-breed whose mother was an infamous Pilgrim.

According to Droney's expository rich screenplay, the Pilgrims explored the far corners of the universe first and cultivated unique genetic powers which allowed them to navigate through space time anomalies without the aid of computers. The Pilgrims, however, grew proud and arrogant. Eventually, they revolted against their fellow Earthlings, fought a terrible war, and became hated until their race died out. The point is that speed matters in the story, and Chris Blair knows which short cuts to take through space to beat the Kilrathi before they reach Earth. Blair's identity crisis lies at the heart of the action. Until this predicament, Blair knew nothing about either his Pilgrim heritage or his special qualities.

Sadly, everything falls apart when the villain storm onto the screen. Adventure movies live and die on the strength of their villains. The Kilrathi qualify as the all-time worst science fiction villains since "The Green Slime" back in 1968. Resembling "Karate Kid" star Pat Morita from the neck up, they dress like the cast of the Broadway musical "Cats" in tacky Naugahyde green suits from the neck down. Prudently, Roberts and Droney have pared down the screen time devoted to the Kilrathi to the absolute minimum. One glimpse at these farcical foes is enough to undermine either any suspense or credibility that "Wing Commander" generates during its trim PG-13 rated running time of 100 minutes.

Questions left unanswered about the Kilrathi may annoy some audiences. Who are the Kilrathi? Where did they come from? Why are they so determined to destroy Earth? Practically the only thing intimidating about the Kilrathi is the way their name sounds when anybody utters it.

What differentiates "Wing Commander" from the standard "Star Wars" clone is its anachronistic but novel hardware designs. Although its hackneyed story occurs in the 27th century, the Confederation deploys comparatively low-tech arsenals of bullets and torpedoes rather than high-tech lasers to battle the Kilrathi. Peter Lamont, who won an Oscar fro his production designs on "Titanic," models the space fighters on the gull-wing Chance-Vought Corsairs of World War II rather than the Tie fighter or X-Wing craft of "Star Wars." The space cruisers in "Wing Commander" have an antiquated but grungy look that links them with other notably grungy sci-fi thrillers such as "Outland," the "Alien" franchise, and "Event Horizon." Altogether, it is nothing new, but "Wing Commander" generates a lot of atmosphere with its retro-space look.

So obsessed is "Wing Commander" creator Chris Roberts with World War II technology that he shuns the usual Buck Rogers paraphernalia. An interstellar fight between the Tiger Claw and a Kilrathi vessel is staged like a confrontation between pirate ships.

Like "Starship Troopers," "Wing Commander" boasts independent, strong-willed female characters that don't flinch at the sight of blood and violence. Saffron ("Circle of Friends") Burrows is cast as the tight-lipped, dry ice title character, Jeanette 'Angel' Marshall who suffers nobody's insolence. She believes that they are all living on borrowed time, and the idealistic Blair does his best to refute that thinking. Burrows' sullen good looks and sexy Emma Peel presence make you forget about the laughable Kilrathi. Ginny Holden's daredevil fighter pilot make a memorable impression, too.

Tolerant sci-fi audiences will appreciate this serviceable sci-fi saga more than discriminating adults that expect more from Hollywood science fiction outings. "Wing Commander" has enough good things going for it so that its threadbare plot and enigmatic hairball villains don't sabotage it. Top lenser Thierry Arbogast, who filmed "The Fifth Element," bolsters "Wing Commander" with his exhilarating widescreen cinematography. Arbogast's stirring long shots of space vehicles zipping past planets to vanish into the distant vistas of stars makes "Wing Commander" a treat for the eyes. Kevin Kiner's rousing orchestral score, that David "Independence Day" Arnold helped compose, give the action a dignity and stature that it otherwise would lack.

Sure, the dog-eared scenario of "Wing Commander" has been replicated ad nauseam, but director Chris Roberts' generally competent helming of this $27-million production makes it worth watching once.

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