Wing Commander is on Netflix. The 1999 space action flick that time forgot. With good reason, sure. I remember renting this from Blockbuster in the early days of my 10th grade year and being enamored with it until it was due back and then totally forgotten until this very day when it came up in the “New to Netflix” row. I needed background noise so figured, eh, why not?
It was hard to look away from the screen as this movie, this little gem of Millennium goodness, just spewed life lessons forth.
So here it is:
Three Writing Lessons I Learned Watching the Wing Commander Movie
1: Treat Your Audience Like Smart Folk
Every bit of dialogue in Wing Commander explains what just happened. Not in a natural way either, like a character just reacting to the situation. I can handle character reactions. We the audience want to know how a character feels and how their pulse races with good news and stomach churns at bad news. What the audience does not care to have said aloud is that the feat of obviously impressive flying was impressive. It’s like watching Monday Night Football and hearing a commentator say the interception was a real turning point for the defense. Some things the audience has already figured out for themselves.
There’s a scene in the movie involving what amounts to a jump through hyperspace. There’s special Wing Commander terminology involved, but who cares. Freddie Prinze Jr is on the command deck, that film effect from the Matrix is inexplicably used, and the ship goes through a worm hole arriving exactly where they said they would arrive for the last five minutes. The audience must have forgotten what was happening because the first thing that happens is Freddie must explain where the ship arrived to his friggin’ boss who was standing next to the guy saying where they will be arriving for the last five minutes. I cannot even write this scene description coherently, that is how upsetting I found it. The whole line of questioning exists to keep the audience up to speed, but no one, not even the 14-18 year old demographic the movie was made for, could have missed it.
I think this was the point in the film I said, “oh. that’s why it bombed.” If you treat your audience like idiots, they will rebel and rebel hard. Like, only making 1/3 of the budget back rebellion.
2: Practice Pays Off
Wing Commander was the directorial debut of Chris Roberts. He made the Wing Commander video games, which were amazing for all the right reasons. That’s a different medium though. The film was a mess. According to IMDB, Mr. Roberts went on to produce some much better films (though not great. Lord of War?). Now with more experience under his belt he made Star Citizen. He honed his craft, built his world and now Star Citizen is a masterpiece.
Matthew Lillard and Freddie Prinze Jr. had some major movies to their names by the time Wing Commander came out. Notably teen scream movies, Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. I forgot these two were in these movies. Lillard did SLC Punk which had way too much influence on my youth. And who can forget Hackers? These two did their best in Wing Commander and that has to be commended. They kept working on their craft and now really rock and what they do.
Practice. There will be bad things produced and some regrettable articles or posts or books or any number of projects are unavoidable. It makes no sense to stop when something does not land as expected or hoped. Keep going and before long there’ll be a Scooby Doo level of amazing in your catalog.
Scooby Doo was awesome.
3: Cliches are so very fklsadhgawds
Matthew Lillard’s character (I have the IMDB page open right now, but I don’t care enough to learn the name) has a love interest in the first half of the movie. The basis of their relationship? Examining the differences between male and female capabilities and making gender role jokes. It was tired in 1999 and hard to listen to here in 2015. The conversation should happen, but not as a punchline. The love interest, Angel I think was her name (I know this because Lillard shows off his classical theater training in a fairly dramatic fashion when she dies. Sorry, spoiler alert? The movie is 16 years old and bad, do you care at this point? The character was not even a real character, just there as a plot point. Three years into the existence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even Daria, and the character was still nothing more than a plot point. Ugh.) Anyway, when the love interest dies Lillard is blamed for it and the commanding officer says he committed treason, pulls a gun on him and there’s a really tense moment of Freddie pleading for his friend’s life.
For as we all know, in the future military trials are done beside burning wreckage with no judges or sentencing whatsoever. Treason is a one way ticket to the dead zone, mofo. There’s a character that suddenly reveals he’s a secret high ranking military intelligence officer, the bad guys are Kilraths (pronounced Kill Wraiths. Seriously), the lead pilot is introduced through a wacky misunderstanding. All of these are fine and dandy on their own, but put together in one movie it just goes along with the treating the audience like idiots idea.
Cliches are hard to avoid. They are easy to write and use and the audience is familiar with the feelings they are meant to feel in those situations. I have used many a cliched situation before. The thing that Wing Commander taught me today is that cliches can be used poorly or properly to make a story work better. Wing Commander mostly used them poorly, but there was so much potential. Slow down, think about the story and make the cliche work for you. It’s all or nothing, go big or go home time. Cliches are for closers and then they get hit by a bus!
How about you? What lessons have you learned from bad movies lately?