Wing Commander vs. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

All I know is that Star Wars impacted my youth far more than any video game.

This is probably the most uneven comparison yet. I never fully expected the makers of Wing Commander to measure up to the grandmaster of Science Fiction, George Lucas. But, it’s obvious that the folks behind Commander were eager to release their final print just before Star Wars: The Phantom Menace opened. And who wouldn’t? It was the perfect time to cash in on all the pre-Star Wars prequel hype. The fact that a large number of people bought tickets to Commander just to see the Menace trailer and then promptly left is indicative of the following Star Wars has commanded.

To be fair, perhaps it would be appropriate to compare several of the recent sci-fi movies against Lucas’ new trilogy chapter. If you combined the war-is-cool action of Starship Troopers, the time-twisting escapades of Lost in Space, and the original fantasy of The 5th Element, you might have a good contender for the new Star Wars prequels.

But for the sake of conciseness we’ll focus just on Wing Commander, a mediocre movie compared to The Phantom Menace, but solid in its own right.

The Force (Similarities)

  1. Mark Hamill and some guy named Hugh Quarshie
  2. Science fiction modeled after earthly counterparts
  3. Technical liberties
  4. Reliance on big names to carry story
  5. Quirky New Age philosophies

For those unfamiliar with its legacy, Commander was first a video game before it hit the big screen. Like so many tragedies before it (Super Mario Brothers, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat), Commander was destined for the bad idea scrap heap. Still it had its moments.

For starters, Wing Commander was probably the first video game to have nearly full length feature films to move its plot along. While other games have similar small “movies” strewn throughout, Commander had a real production with a human cast in full costume. Interestingly enough, among the cast was Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker.

Another bridge between the two movies is some guy named Hugh Quarshie. He played Obutu in the movie version of Commander as well as the captain of Queen Amadala’s guard in Menace.

Commander traces its origin to very earth-bound war machines. The entire feel of the movie is modeled after a mix between submarines and aircraft carriers with fighter planes. It reminded me of the old movie and subsequent TV series Battlestar Galactica and its “ragtag fleet” of starships traversing the galaxy in constant threat of war with another menacing race, relying solely on individual fighter pilots.

Aboard the TCS Tiger Claw, a huge starfighter carrier in Commander, the captain barks orders like “Hard to port!” Never mind that ships in space have several more degrees of freedom than simply “port” and “starboard.” Oh well. Then there are the fighter ships that have a distinctly World War II prop plane look to them. They even have rather large rotary cannons in the nose that make gun-powder sounding explosions (in the vacuum of space) when they fire, even though bright laser beams are emitted.

Menace isn’t without its problems: ships that roar when they fly by in space, dogfights that react as they would in an atmosphere, gravity on all the ships. But again, it’s hard to get too caught up with the technicalities when it comes to sci-fi fantasy.

In hindsight, Lucas’ tales aren’t terribly original either but refreshing in a usually barren sci-fi genre. For Star Wars, he borrowed heavily from Arthurian legend. In his first trilogy, Lucas told the story of an innocent coming-of-age farm boy (Luke Skywalker) trained by a mysterious wizard (Obi-Wan Kenobi) to protect a royal princess (Leia), with the aid of a swashbuckling pirate (Han Solo), against a dark sword-wielding villain (Darth Vader). It had something to entertain everyone, and the new series is no different. Menace is formulaic with regard to the existing trilogy, but a vibrantly fresh new sci-fi on its own.

The vehicles in the Star Wars saga also have some terrestrial familiarities. Lucas used World War II dogfights as inspiration for the X-Wing and Tie Fighter battles; great motorcycle chases are evident with the forest speeders of Return of the Jedi; and now the breathtaking “pod” race in Menace is reminiscent of Ben-Hur‘s chariot race.

The two movies have some recognizable faces. Commander relies heavily on teen slasher star power to carry its meager plot. Enter Freddie Prinze, Jr. from I Know What You Did Last Summer and its sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, and Matthew Lillard the psycho killer from Scream. Lillard is forgivable doing his crazy-man schtick, but Prinze’s melodrama is just too ingenuous.

Menace also has its share of big names on its billing. The first time around, Lucas had a limited budget and it was reflected in his casting. With the exception of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher hadn’t had much experience. Things are different now as Lucas has Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Natalie Portman filling the credits. All very capable actors, they do a fine job enlivening their sometimes stiff dialog.

Both Menace and Commander peddle some interesting philosophy. In Commander, when the pilots lose a fighter in battle they consider him/her to have never existed. Because of such heavy casualties in this war, they reason that emotion is a pilot’s worst enemy.

Lucas is of course fond of the Eastern religions and he layers a lot of their philosophies in his Star Wars saga. In Menace, he expands his famous “Force” with notions of predestination. We hear Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) tell the mother of young Anakin Skywalker that “nothing happens by accident.” He’s referring to the prophecy of her son’s birth. Like some quasi-manifest destiny, he later tells Anakin (Jake Loyd), “Your focus determines your destiny.”

The Dark Side of the Force (Differences)

  1. Shallow characters in Wing Commander
  2. Anachronous timeline and spectacular originality of Phantom Menace

Other than token similarities, Commander and Menace are two very different flicks, beginning with the characters. Stomaching the cheesy sentimentality in Commander may prove to be too much, while a couple characters — most notably Jar Jar Binks — was a mouth full for most critics of Menace. These latter complaints are identical to the ones raised over the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. One must keep in mind that Lucas’ secondary audience is the next generation of fans: the kids.

I suppose that like Menace, it takes a fan of the Commander video game series to really appreciate the characters and know the whole story. But then never having played the game, for all I know, what I saw in the Commander movie is all there is to these characters. What I do know is that Star Wars has impacted my youth far more than any video game.

To my knowledge, a “prequel” has never been done before. Leave it to Lucas to try something bold and new. It’s beyond me why he would take such a nonlinear approach to storytelling, starting his story with the fourth episode in the saga as the original 1977 Star Wars movie was. More difficult yet would be to tell the preceding chapters 22 years later without making them seem anachronous.

To fit the two trilogies seamlessly together, Lucas and his digital wizards at ILM (Industrial Light and Magic, his special effects company) crafted a lot of fantastic artistry and subtle “revelations” concerning the established characters of the original trilogy. The result is a huge payoff to diehard fans.

For instance, this time we get to see the Jedi knights in their prime. Played by Sir Alec Guinness in 1977, McGregor does an admirable job impersonating him as the new Obi-Wan Kenobi. He’s under the tutelage of Qui-Gon Jinn and the two make a methodical, relentless duo as opposed to Luke’s reckless rise to power in the original series.

On their journeys, the Jedi encounter young Anakin Skywalker on Tatooine, the same desert planet where his future son Luke will grow up in Star Wars. We also see Jabba the Hut presiding over the incredible pod racing events, where Anakin displays his prodigious gift as a pilot and later his keen sense of the Force. The truly haunting fact is that this sweet little boy will one day turn to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader.

Every bit as daunting as Darth Vader is Darth Maul, the newest light saber-brandishing villain. He’s the apprentice of one Lord Sidious who looks suspiciously like Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. The final dual between Maul and the Jedi will stun you with both its sheer intensity and surprising conclusion.

There are many vistas in Menace that vividly come to life. The first is Naboo, a Grecian-like planet of extravagant beauty with domed buildings and spires as far as the eye can see. Its teenaged queen, Amidala (Portman), wears ornate regalia reminiscent of Asian dynastic garb.

The Naboo are being blockaded by the evil Trade Federation, whose embargoes are a prelude to war. Their blockading control stations have familiar spherical cores, akin to the Death Star. It’s troops are mindless robotic Battle Droids, the new menacing foe to take the mantle from the dreaded Stormtroopers of Star Wars.

These cold metallic Droids and their fleets of tanks are a stark contrast to the Gungan, an amphibious race indigenous to Naboo’s oceans. Resembling Jamaicans spouting jibber-English, the Gungan aid their Naboo neighbors in their fight against the Federation. The Gungan are very biological and earthen in their warfare, donning decorative feathers and using ostrich-like beasts to charge the enemy.

Unable to quell the trade dispute is the Republic. On its home planet of Coruscant, a towering over-developed city world, the Galactic Senate is mired in bureaucratic filibustering over the request to send aid to Naboo. Seeing these very different worlds incredibly unfold is a thrill to watch as well as an intriguing stage for the existing trilogy.

By its very nature, I don’t think Menace fully stands on its own. Indeed, Lucas didn’t intend it to. The tale is complete only with the context of the original trilogy. One would do themselves a favor in watching all three first to be familiar with the Star Wars universe; then go a couple times to a theater (seeing it on a TV wouldn’t do it justice) and see The Phantom Menace. Save Wing Commander for a bored weekend rental.

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