In a perfect world, Walter Hill’s record as a director would be unblemished. Streets Of Fire, 48 Hours, The Warriors, Southern Comfort, Red Heat. Any of them would define the 70’s and 80’s in American cinema and its goals. Unfortunately, everybody’s run ends somewhere. Hill’s ended with this abomination of a film, Supernova, and took him over twelve years to be trusted with another movie. Which is sad given that the film could have been a great film both in terms of pacing and execution.
Set in the 22nd century, the film follows the medical rescue ship Nightingale 229 as it answers a distress call from a mining outpost, Titan 37, 3,000 lyr away around a blue giant star. After jumping through a standard dimensional fold, the ship encounters a calamity with personnel being lost, the ship critically damaged and the people they were supposed to rescue turning out to be the son of a man one of the Nightingale’s crew knew once. Along for the ride is a strange alien object which starts doing funny things to some of the crew.
On the strength of that intro alone, you have a basic Alien clone with a little bit of variation thrown in to avoid legalities with the more famous film’s owners. That in and of itself is not grounds for the film to be bad. No, there was a far worse fate in store for the film. More horrible than the fates of the crew who get bumped off in the course of the film. This is a film where the original script was modified before filming began, was rewritten just before cameras were rolling, changed after filming was over, reshot by a new director and re-edited, re-edited by another director (FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA NO LESS!!!) and finally arrived looking rather haggard. By the time it arrived in cinemas, whatever big ideas it had wanted to get across were well and truly washed away. Now, I’m going to comment on the film as it is and not the parts that were cut. After that, I’ll suggest on what could have been. That way, I’ll give the film its best shot.
The crew of the Nightingale are a very disparate group. Capt. A.J. Marley (Robert Forster) commands his ship with an easy manner while preparing for a doctorate in anthropology by watching cartoons from the 20th century. Chief Medical Officer Kaela Evers (Angela Bassett) maintains a quiet rule over the medical bay while her two main orderlies Yerzy Penalosa (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Danika Lund (Robin Tunney) go at it like rabbits and plan to apply for a pregnancy license. Main computer tech Benjamin Sotomejor (Wilson Cruz) flirts with his emotionless girl Sweetie, the ship’s main computer. Finally Nick Vanzant (James Spader), the ship’s new pilot is settling in and trying to figure the crew out. You’re not going to find a crew in film like this, I guarantee it. They have these conversations that verge on trivial but they go about their duties while doing it so. They have these pesky things called emotions that bring them into conflict with a lot of the film. They actually emote like real people do, the trouble is the script doesn’t make much sense as to what they do when they’re not being emotional beings. The film has Robert Forster saw true heroism before he leaves the picture but nobody seems to know what to do after that, despite Nick stepping into the breach. It’s as if they’ve forgotten what to do in a crisis which doesn’t say a lot since they’re rescue personnel. As the film goes on, they never look like they’re in danger despite the film giving them a countdown. They have time to give in to baser feelings and screw those up but they never look like they’re thinking what will happen if they all die. I only say this because the blue giant they’re trapped in the orbit of is kind of big and there are windows and observation bubbles you could see it from.
Nick is presented as a man with problems (drug related) which then magically never come up again except when Nick has conversations with Kaela and their rescued charge Troy Larson (Peter Facinelli) about Hazen, the drug in question. Spader and Bassett have such a command over their characters that he and she can discuss the merits of drug abuse and be angry with each other and still not act out of character. Nick is the character that every science fiction film should have: he says the sh^t that sensible people should. We’re flying toward a giant star, concentrate on fixing the orbit. There’s a weird object on board that was buried on a moon? Get rid of it. Then you have Lou Diamond Phillips who has these amazing scenes where he interacts with the alien device Troy brings aboard and gets changed by it. With some good lighting, some CG, a little bit of makeup and Phillips’ performance we see him being manifestly changed without having to play from the William Shatner book of Reacting Against Alien Devices. Then for no reason, he starts acting like a drug addict (what it it and drug analogies?) when Troy who was also exposed to the same device for longer doesn’t look like he needs another hit. As for Troy, his creepy act has Kaela on edge (some of it comes from Kaela knowing his father earlier in life) so why does Danika fall for the same weird act, hook, line and sinker? Like I said, the film has the cast in the right place but doing the wrong thing.
The film has its moments. The special effects are amazing. I remember seeing behind the scenes film programmes made at the time of the film’s release that showed the Nightingale model, the sets and CG being filmed and there’s so much love on screen for old school practical effect work. Even when CG is called for, it’s used to get a point across and to move on with the scene. The blue giant is depicted with a lot of love and never goes into detail as to why it’s about to go nova. It just is. The alien device looks really weird and phallic, covered by a sophisticated amount of CG and optical effects so you don’t really ever get a sense of what the damn thing’s really supposed to do, whatever it’s eventually use becomes in the plot (Troy explains a purpose but that’s from an unreliable narrator source). It’s criminal when you learn Hill wanted more elaborate sets and effects and MGM cut the budget for all of it. I guess directors and designers are sometimes slaves to the people who give them work.
Yerzy and Danika’s frank depiction of a loving, sexual relationship is something that you don’t get to see in films, especially in sci-fi. Usually, and regrettably, sex for sci-fi couples comes across as crisis sex and wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. Here, our medical techs have sex, do their job and get on with life. Maddeningly, there’s bits of what I take to be Walter Hill’s original script left dealing with pregnancy licenses and needing permission to breed. Is that across the galaxy or just with certain couples? Yerzy is certain that this time they’ll get permission while Danika doesn’t know. What was the meaning of this? At the same time, Nick and Kaela have sex and it doesn’t devolve into a “Help I’m trapped, Nick!” “Don’t worry, I arrived in the nick of time, my love!” kind of thing. They did it (in zero-g, no less), they’re professionals and they got on with it. Why can’t more films be like this?
On the other hand, MGM (the studio that released it) mangled the film’s better points by casting Peter Facinelli as the main antagonist. He’s just not a good baddie. He comes across like the jock who hangs around the girls locker room than a man exposed and changed by an alien device. When the crew figure out his real reason for wanting to be rescued, the film turns him into Frankenstein. Why the hell did they do that? If played right, Troy could have been a serial killer in a haunted house with all the weapons, just like (spoilers) Sam Neill became in Event Horizon which coincidentally had been released the year before Supernova was supposed to come out. Instead, Troy has the murderous equivalent of a tantrum and a “YOU’ll ALL BE SORRY YOU DID THAT!!!!” finishing act. Kaela, because of all the editing jumps, gets left behind by Benjamin in the cockpit of the ship when he goes to try and stop Troy. He doesn’t and then Kaela turns out to be better at defending herself than the other crew members who got taken out like punks by Troy. Finally, James Spader gets to be a hero for once in his earlier career but I can’t help but feel that he could have played Troy instead of Facinelli and it would have been a better film. Of course, that would have meant that someone else would have played Nick and I suspect the film would have lost another good point. Another point that’s never addressed is how Troy is able to use devices and systems on the ship without any security checks. He fiddles with stuff that can kill people and Sweetie never checks that he’s got authorization to do so. Remember, the film actually makes a point of the need to secure devices and travel pods earlier in the film so the new directors and writers just ignored the film’s earlier logic. Go figure. Plus the film was being rewritten by MGM during production. From Lou Diamond Phillips: “It was being rewritten every day. The entire cast, we would have a 7 am call and the callsheet was TBD: To Be Determined. We never knew what we were filming on any given day.” * It’s amazing there’s a coherent plot to the film, much less definable characters.
On top of the bizarre script changes, the film suffers from a need to be, for lack of a word, hip. Yes, I know, the cast is ridiculously photogenic but every science fiction in the 2000’s was like that (I’m looking at you, Serenity). But what I mean is, the film can’t seem to be happy to be a film about the loneliness of space and the need for companionship (the sex and frequent talks by the cast about getting along are a testament to this). No, on top of that, it has to be a film about a weird alien device, a creepy survivor and a crew desperate to get away from the burning ball of death. It’s got to have all of this plus a haunted house murderer running loose on the ship. It’s so busy, it can’t catch its breath. Plus the studio had no idea have to market this. Don’t believe me? Check out the trailer at the top of the page. It was Firefly and Guardians of the Galaxy from the way they tried to push it. It’s a shame because the film could have been a great counterpoint to the Hell on Earth of alien intentions espoused by films out at the time like the aforementioned Event Horizon. I’d love to see what Hill’s original script looked like and to have seen what his proper direction would have looked like. I’m sure that the original version (from a 1990’s sourced script called Dark Star) that he reworked would have also been better than what we got.
Flawed to a point, there is a decent movie trying to escape the gravity of studio interference in Supernova. Worth a look.
* Taken from Scream Factory’s Youtube clip of an interview with Lou Diamond Phillips about the making of Supernova
Netflix review. Please consider supporting Capricorn Theater by purchasing the US blu ray release from Scream Factory.
Check out more details about Supernova on Letterboxd.com