Supernova (2000)

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“Supernova” is one of that rare breed of movies where the stories surrounding its creation are more interesting than the movie itself. Wait, don’t stop reading yet! I’ll give you all the most fun stories, continue my admiration of James Spader and bang on about hard sci-fi for a while. What more do you want from a review?

Up to the late 90s, “Alan Smithee” was the name the Directors Guild of America used when a director wanted his name taken off a movie for whatever reason. After 1997’s “An Alan Smithee Film”, the name became too well-known so the pseudonym was changed to “Thomas Lee”, and the first film it was ever used on was this. All this is down to director Walter Hill (“The Warriors”, “48 Hours”, producer of the “Alien” franchise), and ongoing problems with the head of United Artists, whose pet script he rewrote; UA hired a guy to re-edit Hill’s footage, and that tested terribly; they asked Hill to come back, and he only agreed on the proviso he be allowed to do $5 million worth of reshoots and special effects. They refused, and he walked again; then Francis Ford Coppola, at the time a board member at MGM (UA’s partners), spent $1 million on yet another re-edit; this tested terribly as well; then a final edit became the actual released version of the movie, a movie which currently sits at 10% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Although its history started with a pitch for “Dead Star”, which would’ve resembled “Hellraiser” in outer space, then briefly became “Dead Calm” in outer space, the version of “Supernova” we now enjoy is about a medical ship in deep space. James Spader is co-pilot Nick Vanzant, and we’ve also got Robert Forster as the captain, Angela Bassett as the medical officer, and Lou Diamond Philips and Robin Tunney as the engineers. Not a bad cast, really (although a shade light on super-star power for a $90 million film, excepting Spader, who we love).

After receiving a distress call from a far-distant ice mine, the “Nightingale 229” has to do a dimensional jump to get there, and as this messes with your molecules in a slightly more aggressive and risky way than Star Trek’s transporter or warp drive (it seems like a weird mix of both) Forster is left as a red soup at the other end, and an asteroid belt damages the ship. They have an 11 minute gap between them recharging their engines in 17 hours time and the nearby star sucking them into its gravity well and killing them all, and this is all complicated when an emergency vessel comes up from the planet’s surface, with…a passenger who’s apparently the son of Angela Bassett’s ex-boyfriend? Described as the evilest man in the universe (the dad, not the son).

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This is all pretty exciting to this point. It just starts falling apart almost immediately, and there’s been so many cooks in this particular broth it’s impossible to know which one of them messed it up. Spader’s a recovering drug addict, and Bassett seems to take over the ship, yet a few scenes later she defers to him as captain, and his drug addiction plays no part in the movie whatsoever. The “son” (Peter Facinelli, better known these days as the head of the vampire family in the “Twilight” movies) is so obviously a bad lad that you keep expecting them to twist it, only they never do. He talks about travelling to see his father after a sudden aneurysm made him sick, but sudden aneurysms kill you, especially when you’re billions of miles from the nearest medical facility…and the qualified doctor on board doesn’t spot this. Robin Tunney, despite being in a serious relationship with Lou Diamond Philips, almost immediately has sex with Facinelli, despite him being the sleaziest evilest douchebag…and then there’s the glowing thing.

The glowing thing is actually a pretty interesting idea (I’ll try and avoid spoiling everything, although the title of the movie is a bit of a giveaway) but the problem is the timescale. All the twists and turns and activity of the plot basically occurs in that 17 hour period, and I just don’t buy it, and I’m sure at least one of the edits of the movie doesn’t buy it either. It feels like it’s got too many competing ideas to fit into 90 minutes, and it feels weird to say this about any movie, but it would have benefited from being a good half hour longer.

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For such a short movie, there was a lot of sex in it (including what is rumoured to be a colour-shifted Robin Tunney standing in for Angela Bassett) and way too many dropped plot threads. The end-game of the movie isn’t really mentioned til about 15 minutes before the end, too…I’m not sure any of the multiple edits could have fixed this. I’m honestly not sure if anything could have done. Facinelli being way less broad in the beginning would have helped; the computer being much more or much less of a character, too; and them fleshing out just one or two ideas (what was the deal with pregnancy, anyway?) would have helped immeasurably. More Spader, too. He’s great, and Facinelli isn’t, a fact which isn’t reflected in the relevant screentime for the both of them.

Not quite as bad as its reputation would have you believe, but a wasted opportunity to make a really interesting “proper” sci-fi film with deep-space ships and mining colonies and completely alien concepts like the glowing thing.

Rating: thumbs down

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