The bomb at the far end of the galaxy: Why is ‘Supernova’ so bad, and why can’t I stop liking it?

October 9, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 9, 2014

Oh, Supernova. You could have been so, so good. Instead, you were so completely awful.

Supernova, the 2000 science fiction/horror movie, is a famously bad film. Its credited director is Thomas Lee, the pseudonym chosen to replace Alan Smithee after the cover of that moniker was blown by 1997’s An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. According to the Internet Movie Database, the actual main director of Supernova was Walter Hill, the writer-director of 48 Hrs. and a producer of Aliens and several lesser science-fiction movies. IMDB also says that Supernova had uncredited directorial and/or editing contributions from cinema immortal Francis Ford Coppola (yes, the man who filmed The Godfather and Apocalypse Now!) and B-movie director Jack Sholder (The Hidden, which I actually remember as being quite good).

(Spoilers ahead.)

The movie’s setup is fairly straightforward. As ambulance vessel Nightingale patrols remote areas of deep space, its crew slowly adjusts to its newest member — pilot Nick Vanzant (James Spader), a former military man who recently finished rehabilitation for his addiction to a futuristic drug named hazen. The crew finds Vanzant to be cool and distant; he finds them to be gruff and unorthodox.

Captain A.J. Marley (Robert Forster) is working on his doctorate in anthropology, a pursuit that requires him to watch (and comment disparagingly about) violent 20th century cartoons. Benj Sotomejor (Wilson Cruz), who is either the ship’s navigator or its information technology guy — it’s never made clear — has reprogrammed and is becoming emotionally intimate with the Nightingale’s computer, Sweetie (voiced by Vanessa Marshall). Paramedics Danika Lund (Robin Tunney) and Yerzy Penalosa (Lou Diamond Phillips) are rutting like rabbits and considering whether to have a child together. (He’s gung-ho; she’s reluctant.) Dr. Kaela Evers (Angela Bassett), who had a hurtful relationship years ago with a hazen addict, seems to spend most of her time glowering and lecturing Vanzant.

The plot kicks into gear when Nightingale receives a distress signal from a distant mine that is supposed to be abandoned. The caller is identified as (duh-duh-duh-DUH!) Karl Larson, who just happens to be that Certain Special Someone that Evers told us about a few minutes previously.

Nightingale makes a rare and dangerous long-distance “dimension jump” reach the mine. In the course of it, Marley sustains fatal injuries. As the crew struggles to save him, the ship is caught in the gravitational field of a nearby sun, struck by asteroids and bled of most of its fuel. Nightingale will be able to jump away once its dimension drive recharges — something that will occur just 11 minutes before the ship’s decaying orbit sends it plunging into the path of a rogue moon.

Things start to get really complicated when a shuttle from the mine crash-lands on Nightingale. The craft is carrying an unconscious Larson (Peter Facinelli) — whom Evers does not recognize at first. He exudes an oily, unsettling aura once he awakens. The man tells his would-be rescuers that his associates, a band of scavengers, left him in the mine after their search turned up little of value.

The Nightingale crew soon finds that Larson’s shuttle is also carrying a strange glowing artifact that was dug up from the mine. Larson says that the object provides definitive proof of intelligent alien life, and he offers to cut the crew in on profits from its sale. To Larson’s intense displeasure, Vanzant rebuffs this offer, instead declaring his intent to jettison the artifact once the ship is out of danger.

Vanzant travels to the mine to search for fuel as well as to see if the devious Larson has left behind any survivors. Larson takes advantage of this interlude to seduce Lund and to eliminate crew members as they begin to catch on to his malevolent intent. Since exposure to the artifact has imbued Larson with telepathy, nearly instantaneous self-healing capabilities and inhuman strength, he proves to be a very tricky foe.

Eventually, the heroes deduce that the artifact is some kind of universe-destroying bomb. By film’s end, only Evers and Vanzant are left to battle the increasingly powerful Larson in a desperate confrontation that occurs as the Nightingale counts down towards a fatal collision.

There’s nothing wr with the basic plot here. The early acts create and sustain a nice atmosphere of mystery and menace. Bassett projects a fierce intensity and intelligence as Evers, while Spader gives Vanzant an intriguing combination of coolness and steeliness. So why is Supernova so bad?

It doesn’t help that a lot of the action sequences, particularly when Vanzant visits the mine, is choppy to the point of near-incoherence.

A much bigger problem is that the script — by David C. Wilson, working off a story by William Malone and Daniel Chuba — fails to imbue any of the characters beyond Vanzant and Evers with much depth. The sex-obsessed Lund in particular comes off as astonishingly insipid. Sotomejor comes off as nearly as ineffectual, if slightly more self-aware. Sotomejor’s Pygmalion-like relationship with the Nightingale’s computer is doubly unfortunate, both because it plays as something very silly and awkward and because the writers never bother to do much with it.

Another problem is the production design. There’s no one set component that is visually off-putting, but the interior of the Nightingale collectively seems silly and generic — even a little cheap. The biggest design misstep is probably the ship’s silent humanoid robot, Flyboy (Eddy Rice Jr.), which is attired with a World War II pilot outfit and sports a severe limp for reasons that are never adequately explained. (Evers suggests that the droid’s eccentricities reflect the crew’s fun-loving spirit — an unlikely proposition, since the ship’s complement never shows any other sign of having such a spirit.)

The Supernova DVD that I have features an alternative ending that, despite being a huge downer, plays much better than the original conclusion.

In the theatrical version, after the survivors safely jump away, Sweetie tells Evers that she is pregnant, evidently after having sex with Vanzant during a few quiet hours after Marley died. It’s a strangely hopeful note on which to end a film that has striven to be dark and grim.

Sweetie conveys a different message in the alternative version. She tells the survivors that the alien artifact appears to have been detonated, causing a chain reaction that will destroy Earth in about two and a half centuries. In the closing shot, as Vanzant narrates his final log entry about the tumultuous voyage, we see stars flaring and then burning out as a pool of darkness expands across the galaxy. The soundtrack features voices screaming as the menace nears the viewer’s vantage point.

The alternative ending is effective, but in a way, it seems just as unearned as the heroine’s pregnancy in the version that the studio released. As intelligent and/or menacing as they occasionally seem, Evers, Vanzant and Larson ultimately just don’t seem competent enough to trigger an apocalyptic event of the kind the alternative ending shows.

Despite all its flaws, I still sort of like Supernova. I’ve watched the movie twice, and each time I’ve been thrilled by the promise of adventure and horror that are conveyed in the early parts — even as the missteps make me cringe. Spader is a rather unlikely action hero, but I still love the moment when he growls, “I’m coming for you, Karl,” before the climactic showdown.

Supernova could have been a contender; it could have had class. Unfortunately, in this universe, we’re stuck with a very odd and unlikeable story — one that suggests a much better movie which we’ll never get to see.

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