Director: Thomas Lee (or Walter Hill)
Starring: James Spader, Angela Bassett, Robin Tunney
Space… vast, unknowable… what lies beyond its endless, intemerate dark? Perhaps worlds of zephyrean solitude, or monstrous, despairing horrors the human mind was never meant to comprehend. Or maybe it’s just a bum-fluffed cockwomble blatting endlessly about sod all. From visionary director Thomas Lee comes this exercise in SF terror as a medical ship receives a distress call from a distant mining colony and on arrival the crew discovers a lone survivor in possession of a glowing alien artifact… May contain the bamboozling sight of a 1970’s robot dressed as a 1940’s fighter pilot & spoilers.
Did you know this movie was so bad even Alan Smithee demanded his name took off it? Nah, kidding. Hollywood retired Smithee, a name that had by now become too well known for its connotation, a pseudonym for those directors wishing to expunge their name from the credits for a variety reasons, none good. And so, Thomas Lee was born. And the first recipient of this nom de plume? Step forward, Mr. Walter Hill. He wasn’t the only director attached to Supernova; Geoffrey Romper Stomper Wright was due to film what had been described as ‘Hellraiser in space’ but he sacked it in dispute over script re-writes about a month before filming was due to begin. At least that’s the (un)official line, but I wouldn’t be surprised if MGM booted Wright through a lack of confidence trusting a little-known director with a (mooted) $90 million movie. So, Hill came in and delivered the film but MGM were severely displeased with the end product and requested a screening for a test audience which Hill refused. They screened it anyway and Hill walked. Supernova got shelved and languished in the post-production dead zone for a couple of years until Jack The Hidden Sholder was brought onboard to rescue the project, reshooting extensively. Even more surprisingly, Apocalypse Coppola stuck his oar in and commenced re-editing the picture; I think his brief was ‘more sexy’. Somewhere in the midst of this fall-out, Walter Hill declined a credit.
Honestly, can Hill’s cut have been any worse? It’s impossible to tell how much of what he filmed is in the final cut. Certainly the deleted scenes hint at a darker, gorier, yet more thoughtful movie but it’s unlikely everything he shot got scrapped. So who’s to blame – Wright, Hill, Sholder… Lee? The sad thing is there are signs of life in the film, medical vessel the Nightingale (I know, I know…) dropping out of warp and into a whole shed-load of trouble, one disaster stacking up on top of another – an exploding blue giant, ship spinning out of control and a captain looking like he’s on the wrong end of the Philadelphia Experiment. Whoever is responsible for this portion of the film did a good job generating at least some tension and excitement. Unfortunately, everything else is a patchwork of scenes, particularly early on; it’s like watching a kid pick up a toy, play with it for a minute then get bored and pick up something else instead – repeat as unnecessary.
I can’t for the life of me see what it was they wanted to do here; it positively is not ‘Hellraiser in space’. I believe William Malone’s initial story was geared in such a direction however his version, Dead Star, didn’t get picked up by a studio. A few years later it resurfaced in the hands of a bloke called Daniel Chuba who re-wrote the script and re-titled it Supernova. Things get sketchy here but I would hypothesise that the spectacle of Event Horizon (a movie not so much Hellraiser – irrespective of ‘in space’ – as an SF/ horror ‘how d’yer do’) thudding onto screens certainly set a few sphincters oscillating on Team Supernova. Another writer came in, David Campbell Wilson, presumably to shift the movie away from Event’s events and into something else but no-one could agree on what. All of the above took place over the course of, I dunno, eight years or so, I’ve had a hell of a job piecing it together and I can’t honestly say I’ve got it spot on. You’d be astonished at how much of a dog’s dinner was made of Supernova, the production must’ve gone backwards and sideways more times than an Italian tank. What is it Nick says in the film? “I’m in favour of order. I’d say right now order is up by one point with one minute left and chaos has the ball…” Prophetic, though I don’t think they were up one by this point.
The crew introductions are almost unwatchable, haphazard and inconsistent as they are. From the off, there’s an initial attempt to HAL-ify the ship computer, Sweetie, right down to ‘would you like to play a game of chess’. We go to Nick Vanzant (James Spader), who is a recovering junkie and the doctor, Kaela (Angela Bassett) isn’t happy about having him around. Nick’s quite pithy about his reason for getting a job on the Nightingale, “I like deep space; it’s quiet.” But she ain’t convinced. Her urging him to get to know the crew is puzzling as we’ve already seen him playing ping-pong with Captain Marley (Robert Forster) during the opening (as well as Yerzy & Danika shagging). Off he goes for a pointless chat with Benjamin (Wilson Cruz, replacing Vincent D’Onofrio who sensibly bailed when Wright walked), then Nick reports back to Kaela and they have, in effect, the same conversation as before only in close-up, then off he goes again. Still not content, we get a third match up whereupon (and despite no significant sea change from their previous encounters) they become intimate after a leading discussion about how you get a whole pear in and out of a sealed brandy bottle. As conversations loaded with ambiguity go, it’s not quite ‘snails and oysters’. Then it’s all systems go with the Space Erotica™, allowing for a spot more weightless sex (but not in the same league as The Uranus Experiment) and random nudity thanks to the perfectly formed Danika (Robin Tunney) and then having her fall under the seductive spell of the enigmatic Karl Larson (Peter Facinelli), who amazingly is also Bassett’s ex – but not as she remembers him, he’s impossibly youthful for a start. So he says ‘Bah, you got me’ and admits to being Karl’s son, Troy…
The crew has a robot assistant, about as basic as you can get, dressed up like a 1940’s aircraft pilot. When I watched this movie for the first time I recall pointing at the screen and shouting ‘Sleeper!’ Flyboy looks uncannily like Woody Allen disguised as a robot in Sleeper. I cannot fathom what the Nightingale is doing with such an ungainly robotic assistant; even when controlled by Kaela via a VR device Flyboy appears to be having an epileptic fit. I know there was a notion to cheer up Malone’s script and I’m presuming this is one example. Nick’s deadpan reaction speaks for the audience and the explanation for Flyboy’s decor is hung on a personal quirk of Marley’s but the script doesn’t give the captain an opportunity to explain himself and nothing is made of the Flyboy character, save for a deus ex machina moment later on. This scene, Spader and Bassett with the scatty bot’s introduction, is infused with a peculiar sea-faring camera motion; the picture queasily rolls back and forth, up and down… Was this DP Lloyd Ahern’s idea? They’re in space for pity’s sake! They’ve got artificial gravity, they aren’t weightless (shagging apart) – they are not pulling leeward amid the wild briny on a creaking galleon. This irrational, vom-inducing camera stunt continues to irritate for the entire running time and is about as welcome as George W. Bush would be at a wake for Hugo Chavez.
Karl Larson isn’t a scary person. Remember Karl? The bloke who isn’t Karl but is actually Troy? Well, he’s not Troy, he’s Karl. See? Yeh, anyway, he blathers on about rock all intended as having a deeper meaning and you only have to listen to a couple of minutes of his patter before an overwhelming desire to cave his smug face in comes violently upon you. His courting of Danika is painful. Danika and Yerzy (the legendary Lou Diamond Phillips) are an item but she’s not altogether on the same page with Yerzy’s desire to have a child with her. It is this hesitancy Karl uses – “…it’s not mind reading, it’s just knowing…” – to get Danika out of her knickers with some cringingly foul hogwash about only ever being sure how she feels about Yerzy if she allows Karl to chuck his muck in her direction first. It’s not properly communicated how she falls for this unmitigated honk; she just does. Then she falls out of it again forcing you to wonder ever more how she fell in it in the first place. Phillips attempts an arc, good guy displaying his darker side under the artifact’s influence but that goes as far as Flyboy’s reason for being does, i.e. nowhere; Yerzy, ahem, ‘joins’ with the translucent, phallic object while ethereal orgasms emanate from within it. And, sadly, his obsession with the object turns Karl jealous. Who can forget Yerzy’s head getting smashed to a pulp, yet when Karl disposes of the body, J’s head is suspiciously intact…
Benjamin, meanwhile, (I think he’s the comic relief, the bloke we’re meant to relate to) becomes the ‘female in peril’, mainly due to the various shades of mince Cruz has been painting into his character. But here, and there’s no way of telling if this is deliberate or not, the film chisels out a semblance of drama by having Sweetie refuse to take a life – Karl’s – thereby dooming Benj even as she tries to compute his request for help. This scene is so very nearly good and I like the way the ‘HAL’ thing from the beginning gets flipped. Anyhow, knowing Karl isn’t scary they stick ‘evil’ make-up on Facinelli’s gibb from here on in… and he’s still not scary. Karl is just a weakly written non-entity, devoid of charisma and screen presence. It’s almost a relief when Nick announces, fully in keeping with the Space Erotica™, “I’m coming for you, Karl…” The diaphanous glowing cock, it transpires, is made up of (deep breath) 9th dimensional isotopic matter destined to blow up the Universe and replenish the resulting space with all the essential elements for life; in other words, a right bunch of bosons to you, mate.
James Spader gamely tries to hold the movie together. I like his performance here, the lower pitch in his voice, the quiet resolve with which he takes control of the situation. Maybe they should’ve cast Spader as Karl. Bassett, too, does some good work (there’s an odd moment when her lips are saying something the ADR isn’t) but I’m not buying those two as star-crossed lovers no matter how many fuzzy close-ups of the smouldering couple Hill/ Sholder throw in. It is also amusing to note that the copulating figures we see floating in an observation bubble don’t belong to Bassett or Spader; it’s an out-take of Facinelli and Tunney getting it on, with Tunney’s skin darkened digitally to match Bassett. Potentially her best scene gets bum-rushed by trigger-happy editing, when Kaela must decide whether to save Marley or put him out of his misery after a traumatic hypersleep capsule malfunction – he’s biologically fused to the inside of it. Her final decision gets lost in the mayhem and doesn’t pack the emotional wallop it should. Not that Forster’s complaining, his input had already been hacked down to bare bones judging by the deleted scenes, it’s barely worth him turning up for work.
There’s some good design work and a few fairly decent FX. From an artistic viewpoint, considering the amount of blue tones on display they probably should have avoided the crew having blue uniforms as well, but that’s the least of Supernova’s problems. Bizarrely, the movie picks the pockets of Roger Corman, specifically Forbidden World, by having the film play out in flash-forward imagery during the Nightingale’s dash through hyperspace, a product (we’re to believe) of faster-than-light travel. Technically, I suppose, not incorrect because by outpacing light you would be zipping into the future, but then again it’s a future that hasn’t happened yet and… oh, is that time?
A terrible, mystifying mess and I’ve gone on far too long about it.
Trailer: http://tinyurl.com/bxbaork – complete with stuff not in the movie, alternate takes and a musical choice that turns the entire debacle into a comedy.
You can have 1 Woody-bot, coz I like Spader
ThereWolf, March 2013