Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Supernova (2000)

Supernova (2000) is just the kind of genre film that -- I readily admit -- I’m inclined to enjoy. It involves a doomed space mission skirting the edge of the cosmic map. Specifically, Supernova recounts the most dangerous journey of the Medical Rescue Vehicle Nightingale as -- in response to an emergency signal -- it “jumps” to a rogue moon where a mining outpost, Titan-37, once operated.

Unfortunately, the Nightingale’s crew learns, post-jump, that the wandering satellite is now desperately close to a blue giant star, one destined to go supernova in less-than-a-day.

And that’s just the beginning of the action.The film also involves an alien artifact -- a ninth dimensional bomb, -- and a super-strong psychopath, Troy (Peter Facinelli) determined to keep ownership of the WMD.

Buttressed by some solid year 2000 visual special effects, Supernova also features a promising cast, including James Spader, Angela Bassett, Robin Tunney, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Robert Forster. 

And yet despite such virtues, this science-fiction film never quite comes together as powerfully as one might hope it would.

The action and death scenes are largely run-of-the-mill affairs, less kinetic and less effective than similar scenes you will find in pictures of this vintage and type, like Event Horizon (1997) or Pitch Black (2000), for example.

Behind-the-scenes turmoil on Supernova is the stuff of legend, with director Walter Hill opting to be credited by the pseudonym “Thomas Lee.” When MGM refused to approve the budget necessary for special effects, Hill left the production, allegedly, and Jack Sholder was brought on to complete the film.  Then, Francis Ford Coppola attempted to save the film in the editing process.

Not good.

Given a history like that, Supernova is actually a bit more coherent than one might expect. Legendary box office “bomb” or no, the film boasts a few facets that even today hold the interest.

The first is the deliberate aping of the Dead Calm (1989) narrative, which was writer William Malone’s intent. 

The second quality of value is the film’s steadfast refusal to clear up the ambiguity of the final act, and the fate that may befall Earth.

Third and finally, Supernova provides an interesting contrast in “percentages,” in a subplot that suggests the greatest treasure in the universe may not be ninth-dimensional matter, but rather the human capability to connect with his fellow man or woman, right down to the genetic level.

“I like deep space…People tend to respect your privacy.”
In a few centuries, the rescue ship Nightingale receives an emergency distress signal from Titan-37, an abandoned mining operation on a rogue moon. 
New to the ship is the co-pilot, Vanzant (Spader), an ex-junkie who has earned the dislike of the ship’s doctor, Evers (Bassett), in part because of her personal past with a violent junkie named Karl Nelson.
After a dangerous jump, the ship’s captain, Marley (Forster) is mutilated in his bio-protection chamber, and asks to be killed.  And the sender of the distress call turns out to be the son of Karl Nelson, Troy (Facinelli).  
While the ship’s crew tends to repairs from the dimensional jump, and prepares to escape a nearby blue giant’s supernova, the crew also learns that Troy has in his possession an unstable alien artifact…

“That whole place is like a ghost ship.”

The most notable aspect of Supernova’s story, perhaps, is its dedicated repetition of the plot-points of Philip Noyce’s sea-based thriller, Dead Calm. In that film, as you may recall, a couple played by Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman go to sea following the death of their child, only to help out the last survivor of a ruined vessel, played by Billy Zane. Zane’s character turns out to be a dangerous psychopath, and he strands Neill’s character on his useless old boat while he terrorizes Kidman’s character on the family yacht.

In Supernova, we also get the passenger from the ruined “other” location, in this case a moon-based mining operation. The film also finds Spader’s lead character, Vanzant marooned there, and fighting his way to get back to his ship, much as Neill did in the earlier picture. Facinelli, like Zane, is a physically-fit, twitchy psychotic who, before his reign of terror ends, has his way with a female shipmate. Outer space, obviously, substitutes for the terrestrial high seas.

Supernova has its problems to be sure, but the idea behind it, of bringing Dead Calm into the future, is not one of them. You may recognize the Dead Calm flourishes and consider them derivative -- because they are -- but Supernova is also original enough to introduce some new elements to the formula. In this case, it’s the presence of the ultimate WMD, the alien artifact that elevates the film’s ending. The movie’s denouement, which eschews our desire for closure, also leaves audiences to ponder what might could happen in the brave new world following the finale.

There’s also a present -- if irregularly enunciated -- through-line here about the human race, or more accurately, human nature. Once rescued by the crew of the Nightingale, the evil Troy/Karl tries to bring them around to his cause. He promises them each five percent of the wealth he plans to acquire from the alien artifact. He prizes monetary wealth, and is surprised that there are no takers, save for Yerzy. 

At film’s end, uniquely, Vanzant and Dr. Evers are forced to share a biological containment unit so as to survive the space jump away from the super nova. In the process, they each swap 2.5 % of their DNA with the other.  Add those figures up, and you have 5% percent, Troy’s proposed figure for recompense. 

The notion here may be, simply, that one “treasure” may be more worthwhile or more valuable than other. Troy promises material wealth to the crew, but at the risk of everything, at the risk of the universe itself.  By contrast, the biological transfer renders Evers pregnant, ostensibly with Vanzant’s child.

Who needs the magic of unstable, 9th dimensional matter, when human matter can, likewise, “replenish” life, and in a way that is safe?

Finally, Supernova ends with a terrifying thought. The shock-wave from the supernova will detonate the 9th dimensional bomb, and the ensuing shock-wave will spread out, to all corners of the universe. It will strike Earth in fifty one years, we are told.  When it strikes, it will either destroy the planet, or change the very nature of human life. 

Supernova gives us no idea which outcome is more likely, or what that change could be. But I’ve got to give the movie credit for setting up an apocalypse that it never intends to depict, and asking viewers to consider the possibilities. 

Would the shock-wave render all men and women physically powerful, but mentally unhinged, like Troy?  Or would it usher in the very “leap in evolution” that the mad Troy foresees? There are many ways that the movie could have ended. Troy could have been killed. The ship could have escaped. There could have been a final sting in the tail/tale. Instead, Supernova leaves audiences to ponder the idea that a “wave” is coming for mankind, and that it is something he can’t avoid.  The future will be…different.

When one couples this idea of some force changing man’s physical nature with the moment early in the film in which Captain Marley (Robert Forster) discusses “violent animation” of the 20th century (meaning Tom and Jerry), and calling it a “catharsis” that can, under some circumstances, unleash “human malevolence,” the film’s theme starts to become clearer. 

Tom and Jerry live in a world in which there are no physical limits or restraints.They bash, bruise and bludgeon each other with that power, and do almost nothing else. If the shock wave unshackles man from his biological restraints, will he find a better use for that power than the animated cat and mouse, his artistic creations, do?

A further connection to the film’s leitmotif comes in characterization of the ship’s computer, Sweetie.  The ship’s navigator, Benjamin (Wilson Cruz) attempts to over-write her programming when under duress, when threatened with death by Troy.He attempts to unshackle her, however, so she can kill.  Again, there’s the notion here that without “programming” (or biological) restraints, the universe tends to violence.  Man creates Tom and Jerry and Sweetie the Computer, and directs them both towards such that violence.  What chance is there he won’t act violently if transformed into a superman?

Supernova falters, largely, in that most of the crew deaths seem to happen all at once, and without tremendous or even modest distinction. Two crew members, one after the other, get ejected into space without protection, and die there. Similarly, the battle scenes on Titan and aboard the Nightingale seem claustrophobic and messy, but not in an intentional or good way. The scuffles are virtually incoherent, and so some sense of suspense is sacrificed.

There are gaps in the storytelling too. Danika Lund is shown to be in an intense (and apparently rewarding…) romantic relationship with Yerzy. So much so that they are hoping to be approved as parents when they return home. They want to have a child together.  But after seeing Troy naked (and with an apparently sizable erection), Danika makes love to him. She does not seem to be under duress when she does so.  She is not executing a strategy (as Nicole Kidman’s character was, once more, in a similar scene in Dead Calm). Instead, we have no understanding of why -- besides carnal lust -- she would sacrifice everything to be with this (admittedly hot…) guy for the right fifteen minutes. 

I’m not arguing that people don’t make impulsive decisions about sex all the time, only that we don’t have a lot of insight into Danika’s character, and her decisions. Does she feel trapped by Yerzy? Does she really not want children? Is this her way of avoiding those responsibilities?  It would be nice to have just a bit more clarity in terms of character motivations. If we knew Danika’s reasons, we might be able to fit them into the film’s larger puzzle or leitmotif.  Sex, like violence, might be deemed the result of our biological programming, and this aspect could have been explored in the context of the rest of the film’s themes.

It’s pretty clear that Supernova overcame incredible odds just to get to theaters, and given the tumult of its production, it’s a little amazing that the film succeeds to the degree it does. The silver-blue palette that suffuses the film gives it a sense of visual consistency, and from time to time, the script really gets close to expressing a meaningful thought about mankind, and what kind of creature he is, or might become, given a giant leap forward.

It’s no Sunshine (2007), Pitch Black, or Event Horizon, but Supernova occasionally shines very brightly. You can either enjoy the flashes of ingenuity on their own terms, or curse the general darkness of the enterprise.


  1. 1

    For me, the through-line of Supernova is simple: this is a movie about sex ...literally, thematically and on just about every other level in-between. I would argue that such the film's singular running motif.

    There are sexual, or at least intimate, relationships between-and-overlapping every two characters (sans Robert Forster, who's suspiciously iced earl on) and even serving as backstory to a degree. Danika and Yerzy fuck like space-bunnies, yet theirs’ proves to be an empty physical relationship bent purely on procreation practice. Implicitly due to lack of confidence with real women, Benjamin (re)programs the ship's A.I., Sweetie, as his personal girlfriend but, obviously, the bond between softy nerd and phone-sex-voiced computer is hindered by fundamental limitations; Sweetie can never escape the boxed behavior as idealized by her lover, no less resulting in the latter's demise. Evers recounts a former toxic relationship that *spoilers* soon resurfaces tenfold in the form of young stud Troy—Troy overall acts as villainous disruptor of the various crew couplings.

    Only does Evers and Vanzant’s romance possess a deeper emotional link between two lonely souls amidst the outskirts of the spaceways, sharing genuine honesty and empathy towards each other’s human flaws. In tandem as the motivating sci-fi related device is the alien artifact itself. Upon inspection, one character passingly describes it as an "alien sex object" and indeed said object seems to exist in some constant, 9th-dimensional orgasmic state -- the ultimate vibrator -- seducing certain crewmembers and functioning as a kind of cosmic aphrodisiac. Is it really a WMD, or is it the universe’s very own Spanish Fly method of rebirthing itself every eon?

    Yes, Supernova is rather junky in terms of narrative, never fully developing secondary characters and with one or two production set-pieces feeling under-budgeted or ill-conceived. Yet its larger story remains not only intact but further achieves a distinctly laidback, sensual tone that is the film’s defining 'Casanova' characteristic. This isn’t the id-heavy horror of Alien or Event Horizon, or the pseudo-philosophical hipster bullshit of Sunshine. It’s more like Red Shoe Diaries with the trappings of an outer space, sci-fi thriller, some of which are admittedly cheap while a few others give the movie a certain playful kick. There’s also a je ne sais quoi to its 2000 release, tail-ending that certain aspect of 90s postmodern 'free love' pop-futurism accentuated by kinky night club colors of glowing neon pink/purple hues (both the set design of ship and the FX alien artifact) and accompanied by erotic jazzy trance music. Hell, even the ship’s name, Nightingale, is similarly idiomatic.

  2. 2

    Central to all of this is the casting of the two leads and their nonchalant interracial chemistry, where Angela Bassett’s steely cool reserve is the perfect ebony to James Spader’s rakish ivory. And Spader sorta owns this movie, having long since graduated from his 80s yuppie persona and with a following decade’s worth of carnal endeavors such as Sex, Lies and Videotape, White Palace, Dream Lover and Cronenberg’s Crash. Here, he’s in peak buff mode but also older and more mature with his smooth charms and innate talent for phonetic foreplay. Note this particular innuendo spell casting and its clever subtexting of the film’s entire 'supernova rebirth' conceit during their late night interlude over a bottle of pear brandy:

    "How do ya think they get that in there?"

    "They put the bottles on the branches so that the buds are inside, and the pears grow right in them. Then, when they’re ripe, the pick the bottles, pour in the brandy and...voilà."

    (come-hithering, in a whisper) "Of course, the real question is, how the hell do ya get it out?"

    Cue zero-gravity sex scene.

    And, yeah, no doubt the two left with no choice but to gene mix while sharing a single remaining pod for the climactic dimension jump ties together core themes of conception strengthened on human affection that in turn mirrors a hopeful outcome for the film’s ambiguous ending concerning the fate of Earth and all mankind.

    That aside, I just dig the casual rhythms of Supernova along with the styled personalities of its two lead characters. Some periodic amateur staging and camerawork weakens the film’s technical merits, but such is not a total loss either. Again, like its color scheme, even if it is a tad kitschy. I like some of the throwaway details in verisimilitude such as Tom and Jerry cartoons and ping pong along with schlockier bits involving genetically mutated aberrations and Spader going batshit in a mining suit equipped with...robot claws!—stuff thrown in seemingly at random, merely for bananas’ sake.

    FF Coppola purportedly salvaged the film through editing and I suspect he’s responsible for a couple of its neater tricks in presentation, one regarding the opening scene (perhaps inspired in part by De Palma’s opening for Mission: Impossible) that forgoes any title cards or opening credits for an event-in-motion dimension jump sequence that flashes images from the third act, almost precognitively, like a mini-trailer for the movie within the movie; another is the eventual closing credits reveal of the title over a montage of Earth’s orbit in a fashion befitting the film’s aforementioned slick millennial attitude.

    I’m not defending this as a "great movie" by any means but I do think it a scrappy underdog that deserves a (second) chance by anyone with a fondness for the genre touched up with off-beat lyricism. If nothing else, it actually makes for a pretty damn good at-home date movie, if you catch my drift.