If you were around back in the turn of the most recent century, you may remember a brief resurgence in science fiction theatrical attention: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Wing Commander, Titan A.E., the re-imagined Lost in Space, Virus, Pitch Black, Mission to Mars, Red Planet; it was a virtual parade of space sci-fi that had my friends and I never far from the ticket booth as the 1990s became the early 2000’s.
Amidst that procession came Supernova; a relatively under-hyped piece that more closely resembled horror-tones in its gritty futuristic space tale of predecessors “ALIEN” or “Event Horizon” over the more user-friendly nature of say George Lucas’s universe.
The tale centers on a deep-space medical vessel (the Nightingale) that receives a distress call from a lunar mining colony some 3,000 light-years away. Due to the vast distance, their only option for reaching the anguishing colonists is to exercise a risky space-fold jump that entails the atomic disassembly then reassembly of all of the matter onboard (including the crew). And speaking of, the crew is fairly ragtag group of characters led by Captain Marley (Robert Forster), an ex-drug-addict pilot Nick Vanzant (James Spader), Dr. Evers (Angela Bassett), computer tech Benj (Wilson Cruz), and finally Yerzy and Danika (Lou Diamond Phillips and Robin Tunney respectively): a horny couple seemingly chosen simply to meet the film’s T&A quotient.
Now interestingly enough, moviegoers back in Y2K would have enjoyed a PG-13 cut of the film with the female topless nudity almost completely removed from the film while the DVD release benefits from a Rated R edit that includes much more sexuality (mostly thanks to Robin Tunney’s bare breasts) and graphic violence.
But anyway, the Nightingale arrives to the distant moon only to discover that it is in dangerously close orbit to a blue-giant (a star that’s nearing the end of its life-cycle) and all that remains of the once-flourishing colony is a single individual with a story that raises suspicion on many levels. Worse still, since the jump coordinates placed the ship amidst an uncharted debris field, a collision with a meteor upon reassembly causes a massive tear in the fuel tank that results in the Nightingale’s near-complete fuel loss.
In case my summation of the film’s plot and the 91-minute runtime fail to suggest it, rest assured that the pacing is rip-roaring quick (unlike say, ALIEN) with the action coming on nearly immediately and never really easing up until the final credits roll.
Visually, the film actually manages to succeed with a consistency between its understated special effects and nicely lit (see: gritty) interior sets. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength in fact could be considered its ability to establish a dark and foreboding tone of the dangers of space travel and the claustrophobia associated with living on a spacecraft. If forced to draw comparisons to other motion pictures in this category, I would state with certainty that Supernova’s feel harkens to Paul WS Anderson’s Event Horizon or the later Danny Boyle film, Sunshine.
So let’s recap: Pacing is brisk, effect work is solid, casting is spot-on, character development is passable, and the premise succeeds on many levels. So why the mediocre review score? Good question! The answer is that, while the picture doesn’t fail in any single category, neither does it manage to impress. Don’t take my word for it: The production was plagued with problems to the point where originally attached director, Geoffrey Wright quit over a script dispute a mere five weeks before principal photography was set to begin. The replacement director (Walter Hill) literally walked onto the set into a wall of creative differences with the studio; which upon viewing the completed work was unhappy enough to request a re-edit from Francis Ford Coppola. Hill, rightfully angered, apparently ended up requesting that his name be removed from the credits instead opting for a contemporary version of the infamous "Alan Smithee" designation: "Thomas Lee".
Behind-the-scenes drama aside, some flaws made the transition to the finished product as well. Namely the editing feels a bit eschew, with some sections being dusted over where one would expect emphasis and emphasis on sequences that do little to advance the overall plot. Additionally, and perhaps the result of swapping directors, the direction is a bit cobby and lackluster. I guess the best way to articulate the feeling it inspires would be to say that directorial work, while passable, never fully instills that sense of earning the viewer’s confidence in just letting go and being swept away by the prose.
In all, Supernova was a bit of a pleasant surprise for me and I attribute it to a flood of negative reviews and poor press that my pre-purchase research retuned. The movie is generally frowned upon by the media (and apparently has been since its initial release) and, while certainly not a masterpiece, succeeds on many of the same levels that make pictures like Event Horizon and Sunshine successful: Space is a formidable place and a natural backdrop for a scientifically-laced horror tale. If you can go into the picture with that mind-set, it will manage to deliver a pretty exciting hour and a half’s worth of entertainment and the graphically thorough R-Rated version adds a little bit of welcomed intensity to the package.
What did you think of this review?