Freddie Prinze Jr. is the new Mark Hamill. Kind of. In the upcoming sci-fi movie Wing Commander, opening March 12, Prinze plays rebellious pilot Christopher Blair, the role the Star Wars icon essayed in the CD-ROM series of games on which the movie is loosely based.
Prinze, the red-hot star of the recent hit She's All That and son of the late comedian Freddie Prinze, admits that stepping into Hamill's boots caused him some serious grief.
"People started a controversy on the Internet," says the personable, energetic Prinze during a conversation at a Manhattan hotel. "People wanted to kill me because Hamill was Blair in the game, and suddenly he wasn't Blair anymore.
"I tried to explain to people, 'This is NOT an issue. Blair is 22 years old in the movie, and they just can't have Hamill do it.' Hamill is not 22, and he doesn't look 22.
"People were saying, 'You have big shoes to fill.' I did, but I wasn't going to do Mark Hamill playing Blair. He did his thing, and I'm doing my thing," Prinze says.
"Hopefully, that's how it will be received and, hopefully, the loyal fans of the game won't assassinate me."
The movie's plot: Blair carries with him knowledge of an impending invasion by an alien threat called the Kilrathi, and he teams with mates Maniac (Matthew Lillard), Deveraux (Saffron Burrows) and their commander (Tcheky Karyo) to marshal the forces of the Confederation and battle the Kilrathi.
"I was a huge fan of the game, but the film is basically World War II set 700 years from now," says Prinze, 22, whose other credits include I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and its sequel (1998), The House of Yes (1998) and Sparkler, a soon-to-be-released dark comedy in which he co-stars with Jamie Kennedy, Park Overall and Veronica Cartwright.
"Wing Commander all takes place in space, on these giant ships that are like submarines. It's very Das Boot'-ish, and (Das Boot star) Jurgen Prochnow is in the movie. He plays another commander and he hates me because I'm half-Pilgrim."
"Imagine if Nazi Germany still existed and America had to team up with Nazi Germany to fight a common foe. There would be a lot of bad blood.
"In the movie, the Pilgrims were completely destroyed by the Confederation, which is basically Earth, and I'm half-Pilgrim. When everybody finds out about that there's this mad racism going on, and Jurgen's character, who was in the Pilgrim Wars, hates me."
Directed by Chris Roberts, who devised the CD-ROM games, Commander boasts more than 300 special effects shots (many of them digitally produced), a production design courtesy of Titanic's Peter Lamont and a cast that also includes David Warner as Adm. Tolwyn.
Ironically, Warner assumed his role after Malcolm McDowell, who played Tolwyn in the games and shared the screen with Warner in Time After Time (1979), passed due to his commitment to the recently canceled television series "Fantasy Island."
"We ended up making a really cool, character-driven movie," says Prinze, who's open to the idea of a sequel and looks forward to the avalanche of Commander tie-in merchandise, which includes action figures and a licensed magazine, jewelry and posters. "It's not silly sci-fi crap.
"The two kinds of movies I had to make before I died were a sci-fi movie and a war movie. Actually, I still have to be in a boxing movie and a Western before I die." Prinze laughs, then adds to his wish list.
"I also have to play a superhero before I die, and then I'll be happy. So, Wing Commander took care of two of my dreams at once."