Five (Well, Six, Actually) Things Writers Can Learn From Watching Wing Commander (1999)

WingCommanderMovieOur work offices are located in the State Library of Queensland, which means I’ll occasionally walk past signs for upcoming library events on my way into work. Last week, one of those signs advertised the library’s classic movie screening of the German submarine classic Das Boot and I was…well, mildly interested.

Unfortunately, the screening was during work hours and I missed it, so I went home and made do with the next best thing – Das Boot in space, AKA the cinematic adaptation of the Wing Commander computer games.

Fans of the game hate this film. Like, passionately hate this film. My former flatmate, who reveled in the shittiest of films during our #TrashyTuesdayMovie run, chose not to sit through Wing Commander when it was scheduled. My friends who love the games claim that it fails as an adaptation on multiple levels, but I can’t really speak to that. I never actually played the games, so I was forced to take the film on its own merits (what few there are).

And by those standards…well, I’m in a definite minority here, but I actually like the Wing Commander film. It’s not a great piece of cinema by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a sense that it’s the product of an ambitious, first-time director working at the limits of his ability and budget. Writer/Director Chris Roberts was the man behind the Wing Commander games and by all accounts he hustled like hell to get this movie made. Then, once it was green-lit, he was given thirty-million dollars and a truncated pre-production time – Fox acquired the rights to the Star Wars prequels, and basically told Robert he needed to beat Phantom Menace out by twelve moths.

When you factor in the limitations of time, budget, and experience, Roberts actually tries to make an interesting film. He’s just not comfortable with the form yet, nor has he learned the skills that would let his reach match his ambition. Couple that with a budget that is woefully achieving the kind of FX people expected of SF by the late end of the nineties – let alone the expectations that came from fans of the franchise – and the results is a flawed film that is widely panned as a failure.

He also makes some choices that are just outright dumb, not least of which is this: if you want to hide the obvious debt your film owes to Das Boot, don’t cast Jürgen Prochnow in a major role.

While that’s good advice for film makers, it’s not a mistake most writers are inclined to make. With that in mind, I turn my attention to the lessons the film has for those of us who work in prose fiction.

ONE: WRITING SKILLS AREN’T AUTOMATICALLY TRANSFERABLE BETWEEN GENRES

Although we’re used to thinking of genre in terms of bookstore categories like fantasy or horror, there are parts of literary theory where the word is used to describe any collection of expectations related to form. In this respect, the novel is a genre, as films, and poems, and computer games. Each of these have broad-scale expectations that creators need to understand before they can really make great works within the genre.

Chris Roberts is a man who’d mastered the art of making computer games. The success of the Wing Commander games were somewhat phenomenal, and he probably could have kept making successful computer games for a long stretch if he’d put his mind to it. His games – which often involved filming live-action cut-scenes – probably felt like they were preparing him for his foray into film, but you only have to look at this movie to see that isn’t true.

The truth is, creative skills aren’t necessarily transferable between genres. Just because someone is a fantastic novelist or poet, it doesn’t automatically hold that they’d be a great film writer. Just because one works in computer games, it doesn’t hold that you’ll automatically know how to direct a play or a movie. The one that always seems to catch people off-guard, including me: just because you can write a decent short story, you’re not automatically going to understand the form of a novel.

You can develop that understanding, certainly, but it’s never a good idea to assume that just because you can write in one form, you’re automatically going to understand the next one you try. There may be a handful of naturals in the world, but the people who generally master a form of expression are those who have taken the time to immerse themselves as a consumer and worked to understand the expectations of the audience on an instinctual level.

Wing Commander is very much a journeyman film – there’s a baseline level of competence, but the understanding of film as a specific medium just isn’t there (Roberts admits as much in his interview with Penny Arcade about the film’s failings, which is recommended reading for any creative type).

TWO: PROLOGUES ARE HARD, OKAY?

Wing Commander fits its prologue over the opening credits, telling the story of humanity’s journey into space, our initial colonies, the rise of the pilgrim explorers, the invention of the navcom AI that would replace the pilgrims, and then the war with the Kilrathi. It’s a lot of information dumped in two-and-a-half minutes…and every single bit of it is important to the plot, somewhere along the way.

It’s followed by another long scene – essentially a second prologue – where the Kilrathi attack a human base and take their AI navigator, which leads a long expository section about how this will doom the earth because the invading Kilrathi can jump into earth space ahead of humanity’s fleet.

The second prologue actually does a pretty good job of establishing how valuable the AI McGuffin is to the plot – there’s a nice sequence where they’re doing everything they can to destroy it before it falls into enemy hands, only to be thwarted by the fact that it’s too well defended by bulletproof glass and other defenses.

Still, we’re sitting through a lot of set-up before we’re finally introduced to the protagonist of the film, Christopher Blair, seven and a half minutes into the film. Proportionally, that’s like investing 7000 words of a 100,000 word novel as a prologue, when most editors would normally wince the moment you cross the 1,000 threshold.

The main problem with prologues is pretty simple: you’re putting roadblocks between your audience and the protagonist, telling people no, really, you need to know all this, before actually introducing them to the person you’re hoping they’re interested in and willing to empathise with.

The average films gets its main protagonist on-screen as quickly as possible, so you know who you’re meant to be paying attention too. Focusing elsewhere may seem like you’re escalating the stakes by showing us how all of humanity is in peril, but…well, we don’t care. People are very good at caring about individual characters; they’re very bad at caring about the deaths of millions.

THREE: COUNTDOWNS ONLY MATTER WHEN TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE

The core of the plot in Wing Commander is based on a ticking clock: the Kilrathi fleet will reach earth in 20 hours, the human fleet will make it in 22. The pilots in the Tiger Claw are responsible for slowing the Kilrathi down.

Thing is…time doesn’t matter much. There’s issues of time dilation, which I’ll touch on again in a couple of points, but there’s also…well, lots of faffing around. No-one acts like time is of the essence. People flirt, fall in love, and get one-another killed within the space of a single sub-plot. People go to bed and get woken up by other characters, and it’s leisurely wake-up rather than the exhausted, jerk-into-consciousness of people grabbing an hour or two of sleep where they can between missions. The ship is damaged and repaired at least once, and it’s not presented as a hard decision. One whole subplot in the film revolves around the long-term effects of missions in space on the psyche of the pilots.

Basically, everything the film can do to make it feel like days are passing, rather than hours, it goes out of its way to do.

It robs the entire situation of its urgency – a situation the film has spent about eight percent of its total running time setting up – and basically kills the central plot. If you’re going to count down to doomsday, you have to treat the clock like it matters.

FOUR: YOUR BACK STORY NEEDS TO SERVE YOUR PRESENT

Remember how I said this film was ambitious? One of the ways that presents itself is the back story, which involves a subset of humanity that was capable of charting jumps across space without the help of a computer. These people started the exploration of space, made colonization of other planets possible, and eventually went to war with the rest of humanity prior to the arrival of the Kilrathi. There are still hints that “Pilgrim Saboteurs” are disrupting the war effort, despite other hints that the Pilgrims are wiped out in other parts of the movie.

Consider this exchange:

Taggart: Sit down. You’re one of the last descendants of a dying race. Pilgrims were the first space explorers and sailors. For five centuries they defied the odds. They embraced space, and for that, they were rewarded with a flawless sense of direction. They could feel magnetic fields created by quasars and black holes, negotiate singularities, navigate not just the stars, but space-time itself.

Blair: Like a Navcom AI?

Taggart: No no, you’ve got it backwards. The billions of calculations each second necessary to lead us through a black hole or quasar is the Navcom recreation of the mind of a single Pilgrim.

Blair: Then why did the war start?

Taggart: You spend so much time out here alone, you end up losing your humanity. When Pilgrims began to lose touch with their heritage, they saw themselves as superior to man. And in their arrogance, they chose to abandon all things human and follow what they called their destiny. Some say they believed they were gods.

This? All of this sound way, way more interesting than the film we’re watching. It’s an intriguing set of circumstances and there’s something about the notion of people “touched by the gods” who are capable of crossing space that appeals to me, as does a war fueled by human jealousy and Pilgrim arrogance.

Instead, the story with the Kilrathi revolves around a stolen computer and…well, the giant hairless space cats are presumably after something with their war, but I’m fucked if I can tell you what by the end of the story.

Your back story needs to serve your present conflict, not over-power it. Don’t make the story that preceded the one you’re telling seem like the really exciting one. There is nothing worse than an audience sitting there thinking holy shit, why aren’t you telling that story? That sounds awesome…

FIVE: SUBTEXT IS THE TEXTURE THAT MAKES YOUR FILM INTERESTING

One of the strengths of Wing Commander are the little touches – subplot elements that get thrown out in a scatter-shot approach, any one of which could have been fleshed out into a strong sub-plot that would provide the movie with depth if it was given more time and nuance. It’s a film that’s actually interested in being science-fiction and exploring what being a space-faring culture means, but it doesn’t know how to make it interesting yet.

Forbes: Remember the briefing. By the time you return, everyone you know will be dead and buried.

This is a future where going to space is a serious deal. Time dilation is in full effect, which means getting deployed is a sure sign the world you left won’t resemble the one you come home too. There are any number of SF writers who could make a meal of that particular set-up, exploring the psychology behind military service in such a future and how it manifests in things like the Tiger Claw’s tradition of “he never existed.”

Angel: Let me give you a reality check. In all likelihood you’re going to die out here. We’re all going to die out here, but none of us need to be reminded of that fact. So you die, you never existed. Understand?

The same is true of Blair’s status as a descendant of the pilgrims, facing moments of racism throughout the film. This is a kid “touched by the gods” in the films mythology, capable of things no-one else is capable of, struggling to understand the reality of his new life. It’s a solid sub-plot, the kind of thing that could easily carry a better-constructed film, and there’s a part of me that wants to go in and rewrite the entire thing to really

The reason neither of sub-plots add the depth they should to the film is simple: they’re only relevant in the scenes that are designated as “sub-plot beats.”

There are a handful of scenes that revolve around Blair’s heritage and the associated racism – just enough to keep it in the forefront of your mind and keep the climax of the film from being pure deus ex machina – but it only happens in those scenes, when another character articulates it. Blair never acts like a kid whose worried about being excluded; the rest of the crew, for the most part, never actually seem to discriminate against him. The racism is limited to the crew members whose role, by and large, is designated as “racist secondary antagonist.”

It’s these elements that give the film its sense of ambition – it wants to be doing something with these tropes – but there’s an element of nuance that’s missing throughout the film. The little things that happen in the background of scenes that aren’t about advancing the sub-plot, or the quiet moments between the dialogue where you can see the relationship between two characters by their body language. Wing Commander struggles with its more ambitious elements because it doesn’t have that level of subtext, only text; there’s no space for the viewer to interpret and confirm for themselves what the characters are saying.

SIX: YOU NEED MORE THAN TWO CHARACTERS SHARING SCREEN TIME TO MAKE A ROMANCE SUB-PLOT WORK

You could probably show me a hundred films and I’ll make this complaint about 95 of them, but you really do need to do more than put a guy and a girl in the same scene a couple of times in order to justify a romance subplot. The thing that pisses me off more than anything else in this movie is the final two minutes, where Blair and Deveraux fall into one another’s arms and kiss because…well, they went on missions together, and she was his commanding officer, and apparently they had a moment just before Blair saved all of humanity.

It’s one of those moments that feels tacked on – an unnecessary sub-plot for either character, but one that’s thrown in because…well, the ending felt flat due the lack of a moral choice being made to give a strong context to what happened.

There’s already a romance sub-plot in the film that’s crudely built, but necessary to the plot, in the form of Maniac and Forbes. They, at least, are given scenes where they actually seem to flirt with one another and express their desire. The film would actually be far better if they’d ended the film with Blair and Deveraux respecting one another as fellow pilots, rather than making out.

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