Wing Commander

 First Wave
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 Total Recall 2070
 Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us?
 What If.... A Film About Judith Merril
 My Favorite Martian
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 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World

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The future's not what it used to be

* Futurama
* Voiced by Billy West, Katey Sagal, John DiMaggio
* Created by Matt Groening
* Fox
* Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m.
* Premieres March 28, 8:30 p.m.

Review by Patrick Lee

New York City delivery boy and all-around loser Fry (West) manages to get himself cryogenically frozen on Dec. 31, 1999, and--in a time-lapse sequence reminiscent of The Time Machine--awakens on New Year's Eve a thousand years later. "My parents, my coworkers, my girlfriend--I'll never see any of them again!" he realizes. "Yahoo!"

Our Pick: A-

He meets Leela (Sagal of Married With Children), a sexy alien who's sensitive about the fact she only has one eye; and Bender (DiMaggio), an alcoholic robot with suicidal tendencies. Fry will need their help because the future is rife with dangers, from suicide booths to career police who want to make sure Fry abides by his destiny as a delivery guy.

Fry wins Leela over with an argument for free will, and she defends his ineptness: "He's just a poor kid from the Stupid Ages."

On the lam from those who want to reprogram him, Fry and his new friends find Fry's only living relative: a great, great, great etc. nephew who just happens to have a starship. As the New Year countdown progresses, the three blast off amid laser fire. In the nick of time they make their escape into deep space.

Now what? Seems the elderly great nephew needs a new crew for the little family business he's put together. The job? Delivering intergalactic packages.

"Now strip naked and get on the probulator."

Futurama is the newest animated series from Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, and it shares that show's biting sense of humor and rapid-fire satirical sensibility. In this case, the satire is aimed at the conventions of science fiction. The pilot--the only episode available for review--contains a montage of future New York, complete with flying cars, Angelyne billboards and "The Implant Hut." People get around by pneumatic tube, like so many memos.

There are countless allusions to SF movies and TV shows, from the underground ruins of New York (Beneath the Planet of the Apes) to the Star Wars light sabers used inexpertly by the robo-police. The automatic Star Trek doors always close on people before they get through them, and there's one hilarious cameo. Careful viewers will catch dozens of wry jokes that zip by so quickly only freeze-frame will catch them all: from New Year's Eve newspaper headlines that read "Doomsayers Cautiously Upbeat" to the shelf of noggins in the "Head Museum."

It almost seems ungracious to point out that Futurama, for all its cleverness, just isn't as funny as its admittedly ground-breaking predecessor. It doesn't help that the satire is leavened with treacly sentimental bits about free will and loneliness.

Still, the first episode of Futurama has enough entertaining stuff to warrant further viewing, and clearly the sky's the limit for satire of the SF genre.

I especially like Bender's nasty names for humans: "meatbag" and "skin-tube." And his libation of choice: "Old Fortran" malt liquor. -- P.L.

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Wing Commander

Oscar material it's not, but is it as bad as you've heard?

* Wing Commander
* Rated PG-13
* Starring Freddie Prinze Jr., Mathew Lillard, Saffron Burrows, Tcheky Karyo
* Directed by Chris Roberts
* Written by Kevin Droney

Review by Mark H. Walker

It's the year 2664 and the Earth is once again in peril (does any other species have this much trouble with aliens?). The good guys, known as the Terran Confederation, are fresh off their defeat of the pesky Pilgrim colonies. Nevertheless, there's no rest for the weary, and in this case the alarm clock is an alien species known as the Kilrathi.

Our Pick: C

Earth is inexplicably attractive to any extraterrestrial within whiffing distance, and so it is with the Kilrathi. The story opens as the green-skinned aliens take out a Terran base. No sweat, it's a long war and there are bound to be some losses along the way. Unfortunately, a Kilrathi assault force captures the base navigation computer--complete with the coordinates to Earth--and the race to incinerate the human homeworld is on.

In the Kilrathi's way stand two rookie pilots, Todd "Maniac" Marshall (Lillard) and Christopher Blair (Prinze); their squadron commander, "Angel" Deveraux (Burrows); and their carrier, the Tiger Claw. The Tiger Claw, and its contingent of Rapier fighters, must delay the Kilrathi at least two hours in order to give the Confederation home fleet time to beat the aliens to Earth. It's not an easy job, and Devereaux flies her pilots hard in order to stumble-step the bad guys, but nothing seems to work until they find the stolen navigation computer aboard a Kilrathi ship.

Blair is elected to deliver the newfound coordinates to the Terran fleet, and off he goes, Deveraux in tow. But as luck would have it, they run into trouble, and Blair must decide between the full-lipped Deveraux and the survival of humanity.

Believable? Nah! Fun? Sort of.

There are several believability lapses in this movie large enough to fly a destroyer through. How did the humans delay the Kilrathi? It's never adequately addressed. Why does the Confederation train Blair, Deveraux et al. to fly space fighters and them slap automatic rifles into their hands and order them to assault an alien ship? Isn't that what they pay Marines to do? But lapses aside--and in this case that's a pretty darn big conjunctive phrase--Wing Commander is an enjoyable movie.

Prinze is believable as the half-Pilgrim pilot with the weight of the galaxy on his wings. And Burrows does a great job of mixing sultry beauty with a rock-hard commander's demeanor. But Lillard is a joke. His ultra-cocky casualness is totally out of place on a rookie pilot who has yet to see his first Kilrathi.

Like a bad X-Files episode, the plot takes liberties with continuity, jumping from point to point without explaining how or even why. Nevertheless, it moves and provides an adequate stage for both the rip-roaring battle scenes and the somewhat interesting love-spark between Burrows and Prinze.

Ambiance is also one of Wing Commander's strength. The Terran equipment has a Das Boot-meets-Event Horizon retro-feel that's intriguing. Nothing is shiny, nothing is new, burnished metal plates are riveted together, and the Rapiers look like stubby-winged P-47s. Sounds squirrelly, but it works. And, in the ultra-retro scene of the movie, Tiger Claw destroys her chief Kilrathi nemesis with a full-blown torpedo broadside at less than a few hundred meters. Believable? Not really. Fun? Definitely.

None of Wing Commander's cast is waiting on Oscar nominations, nor will the movie's special effects set the benchmark for coming films, but the movie works in spite of itself. It's not one of the best flicks of the year, but it's worth a peek nonetheless.

SF movies (and their critics) are a strange breed. This one has been nearly universally panned, but frankly, I didn't see any more mistakes in this one--or unbelievable events or bad acting or leaps of faith--than I did in Return of the Jedi, Independence Day, or 2001. In short, I've seen equally bad movies get better reviews. -- Mark

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