Could Mark Hamill Have Saved the Biggest Sci-Fi Flop of 1999?

Wing Commander could have been so much better.

Freddie Prinze Jr. in 'Wing Commander.'
20th Century Fox
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Just two months before Star Wars: The Phantom Menace hit theaters, 20th Century Fox released another sci-fi action movie. On March 12, 1999, the outer space war epic Wing Commander dropped, starring bro-buds Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard as hot-shot starfighter pilots Christopher Blair and Todd “Maniac” Marshall. You can call it Top Gun in space, or, you can call it what Freddie Prinze Jr. later called it — “a piece of crap.” Either way, Wing Commander represents a moment that had great potential and was tragically squandered. But, if this film was made today, one big casting decision would have almost certainly been different, and in that single pivot, a good movie could have been made out of a deeply underrated video game series.

Here’s why Wing Commander was both great and terrible and how it could have been so much better.

In 1990, Origin and Electronic Arts released a sci-fi flight simulator game called Wing Commander. Created by Chris Roberts, this game took place in the distant 27th century in which the Earth Confederacy is at war with the Kilrathi, aggressive aliens who look like giant cat people. (Think the Kzinti from Star Trek and Larry Niven books.) Like Battlestar Galactica, most of the action in the games involves small fighter craft being launched from carrier ships, and getting into dogfights and other complicated missions to defeat the Kilrathi. The first game was so successful, that by the third game — 1994’s Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger — the format was expanded significantly to include extensive cut scenes with live-action actors, and interactive video moments, giving the overall game a cinematic feel.

To boot, Heart of the Tiger had a who’s who cast of actors known for their roles in genre films: Mark Hamill, John Rhys Davies, Tom Wilson, and Malcolm McDowell. These actors also reprised their roles in Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom, which was released in 1996.

Mark Hamill and Tom Wilson in Wing Commander IV.


In the continuity of the games, Hamill and Wilson play sparring space fighter pilots Blair and Maniac. Blair is a steady by-the-books guy, and Maniac is nuts. If you played this game in the ‘90s you know how special it was, but if you didn’t, try to imagine a sci-fi game/movie in which Luke Skywalker and Biff from Back to the Future are constantly bickering, and also flying space fighters. The Wing Commander games have their faults, but if you were a fan of ‘80s sci-fi movies, then the Wing Commander games would have been an essential vector of several of your interests, and also a predictor of the sci-fi’s future.

Wing Commander was kind of a big deal in the late '90s, and just three years after Wing Commander IV, Chris Roberts managed to get a feature film adaptation of Wing Commander off the ground with Fox. In a move of huge historical significance, Roberts was the first video game creator to also direct the movie adaptation. This should have predicted greatness for the movie version of Wing Commander, but sadly, it didn’t.

In an effort to not confuse casual viewers, the film became a prequel/reboot to the entire franchise. Instead of presenting Col. Christopher Blair as a grizzled war veteran, the movie introduced both Blair and Maniac as young men. Mark Hamill and Tom Wilson were out, and Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard were in.

While both actors have done fantastic work in all sorts of corny movies — including two Scooby-Doo films — the idea of switching to younger versions of Blair and Maniac is the number one problem with Wing Commander. And, it’s a decision you simply can’t imagine a studio making today. Back then, Mark Hamill was only 48 years old, and was considered “too old” to have a part in the movie. This single decision sunk Wing Commander before it could take off.

The poster from Wing Commander from 1999, featuring Matthew Lillard, Saffron Burrows, and Freddie Prinze Jr.

20th Century Fox

In 1999, nerd nostalgia simply wasn’t mainstream the way it is now. Today, at least half of the movies featured at any given Comic-Con today are fueled by waves and waves of geek nostalgia. But, arguably, from a commercial point-of-view, that trend didn’t really begin until after The Phantom Menace. It makes sense that Wing Commander was rebooted with hot, young stars at the time. But if you were making that same movie now, you’d 100 percent hire Mark Hamill again.

Wing Commander had a dismal box office, which can be partially attributed to the fact that Fox clearly didn’t know how to market the movie. Some fans at the time blamed the aesthetic redesigns of the ships and the Kilrathi, but really, those issues would have required mainstream viewers to see the movie, which, at the time, they didn’t. By not bringing in any of their big genre stars — like Hamill, Tom Wilson, and John Rhys Davies — Wing Commander failed to actually attract the fans that should have come out and supported the movie. And, the one actor from the games who was supposed to be in the movie, Malcolm McDowell, couldn’t do it for scheduling reasons and was replaced by the late, great, David Warner.

In a sense, caring about Wing Commander now feels even stranger than caring about it in 1999. It was lost in the noise and confusion of pre-Phantom Menace hype, and, awkwardly, came out just a week before The Matrix. This all means that the movie never stood a chance. This was never going to be a classic sci-fi film. But, had it retained some of what made people love it in the first place, it could have become something even more interesting: a cult classic. Instead, Wing Commander is neither a cult classic nor a complete failure. This version of a Wing Commander movie simply didn’t work. But, unlike the game, there wasn’t a way to reboot the disc and start over again. But then again, who knows, now that Freddie Prinze Jr. is 100 percent in the Star Wars family thanks to his work on Rebels, this might be the perfect time to bring Wing Commander back. Because this time, there really would be nothing to lose.

Wing Commander is available for rental on YouTube and elsewhere.

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