On a Wing and a Prayer
Wing Commander Director Chris Roberts Shoots Game
Like most children of Pong, Chris Roberts grew up with two obsessions: video-games and Star Wars. He just may have been a little more obsessed than others. On gray days in his hometown of Manchester, England, Roberts spent afternoons assembling Lucasian spacecraft out of Legos. At 13, he taught himself digital animation. And by his late 20s, he had sold millions of his hit series of computer games, the intergalactic strategy adventure Wing Commander. He even got Mark Hamill to appear in two titles.
Now, with the March 12 release of Wing Commander, the motion picture, Roberts has, at 30, come full circle. Of course, the master's own Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace is also being released this spring, but Commander isn't entirely without ammo. The $27 million feature stars teen idol Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard, both hot in the wake of She's All That; Peter Lamont, the Oscar-winning production designer from Titanic, oversees the set decoration. Still, Roberts isn't planning to blow up the Death Star. "Star Wars is definitely the 800 pound gorilla," he says. "We're proud of our effects work, but we know we're not going to look that good."
This could be a bit of British modesty. Or maybe it's plain old fear. As the director of the movie version of Wing Commander, Roberts is going where no game maker has gone before. If the film tanks, he won't be able to simply blame it on someone else's lame interpretation of his material; he'll have to eat the reels himself. If that's not enough pressure, there's the inescapable stink factor of previous game-to-film conversions. Remember seeing Super Mario Bros. at the theaters? Hope not.
Ever since Tron (one of the few films that actually preceded the game) hit the screens in 1982, Hollywood has been drooling over the disposable income that has helped make computer games a multibillion dollar industry. Undaunted by the lackluster success of movies like Street Fighter, producers are gearing up to film recent gaming hits like Tomb Raider, Duke Nukem and Doom/Quake. Once you take out the interactivity, though, there had better be something to keep the audience's attention - namely, characters and a script. "Some games in the past have been brought [to the screen] simply because the game is successful," Roberts says, "not because of a compelling story."
Roberts, however, may have a fighting chance. After all, he's lived with his game's characters for nine years, and he does know a thing or two about filmmaking. After the success of the first three titles in the game series, Roberts reportedly procured an unprecedented $10 million budget from Origin Systems to produce 1996's Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom, using the cash to cast and direct his old heroes Hamill and Malcolm McDowell. WCIV, which follows the space war between the heroic Confederation and the lionlike alien Kilrathi, pioneered live-action filmmaking in games. Though the filmed scenes essentially served as transitions, they helped inject star power into the genre - a trend that has continued with titles like last year's Apocalypse, starring Bruce Willis.
Bitten by the movie bug, Roberts did something that seemed brash at the time. He negotiated the film rights from Origin and left to go on his own. But just after he opened his new company, Digital Anvil, in Austin, Tex., Roberts got a nice vote of confidence in the way of an estimated $75 million investment from Microsoft. And in case anyone wondered how serious he was about making his cinematic dreams come true, he signed director Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, The Faculty) as a partner - although Anvil's publicist admits that Rodriguez has since been too busy for much collaboration or even advice. Based in part on the success of his games, Roberts then struck a deal with Fox that helped him cast and distribute the big-screen Wing Commander.
While the Wing Commander film riffs on the original series - a newbie pilot, Christopher Blair (Prinze), has to fend off an alien attack - the film opts for a World War II aesthetic over the game's Star Wars-y vibe. "We're trying to include some surprises, but without alienating the fans," says the director. Meanwhile, if there's anyone more nervous than Roberts about the film's success, it's probably the folks over at Origin, which retains the Wing Commander name and continues to churn out products in the series. "[As the game's producers,] the concern is, what if the feature film doesn't perform well?" says Neil Young, Origin's general manager. "What if it just isn't very good?"
In that case, Roberts at least still has a lucrative day job; his next project is to complete Digital Anvil's upcoming game Freelancer, due in stores in 2000. And no matter the outcome of his directorial debut, Roberts says this trip to the far away galaxy of Hollywood won't be his last.
May the force be with him.