The Film: 3/5
The crew of the Nightingale 229, a deep space emergency medical ship, receives a distress call directly from Titan 37, a lunar mining colony long abandoned. Captain A.J. Marley (Robert Forster) is hesitant about answering the call but ultimately decides to use a dimensional jump so he and his crew, which includes new co-pilot Nick Vanzant (James Spader) and longtime chief medical officer Dr. Kaela Evers (Angela Bassett), can respond in a timely manner. Once they reach the planet a shipboard accident incapacitates the captain and Vanzant, a recovering drug addict who Kaela doesn't trust, is forced to assume command. The source of the distress call is revealed to be Troy Larson (Peter Facinelli), the son of a man Kaela once knew (and still fears), and he has brought to the ship a mysterious glowing alien object that has amazing transformative effects on whoever it comes into contact. It also contains a destructive and unstable ninth dimensional matter that could potentially destroy all life in the universe. Vanzant doesn't want it on the ship, but Larson begs to differ. Now the reluctant new captain has just seventeen hours to get the Nightingale repaired so the ship can escape the blue giant star about to go supernova that Titan 37 orbits while protecting himself and his crew from Troy's true intentions for them and the object.
What was originally intended to be a low-budget "Hellraiser in outer space" titled Dead Star with designs contributed by the late H.R. Giger blew up over the course of a decade into a large-scale attempt at making a blockbuster sci-fi adventure brought to us by MGM, the same studio that has gifted the world such cinematic genre classics as The Wizard of Oz, Forbidden Planet, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. In its earliest form as a $5 million indie production William Malone (Creature, the 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill) was attached to direct from a story he had conceived with Daniel Chuba, who would have put his considerable visual effects expertise to work on the feature. Once Dead Star was pretty much out of Malone and Chuba's hands Australian filmmaker Geoffrey Wright (Romper Stomper) signed on to direct, then was summarily replaced by Walter Hill. Given his experience working with ensemble casts and as one of the producers responsible for the Alien franchise Hill seemed a natural fit to direct the film now officially known as Supernova.
Hill went to work rewriting the script to his satisfaction, an action that continued well into principal photography. When the veteran filmmaker turned in his first cut executives at MGM demanded additional rewrites and reshoots after an early test screening yielded troublesome results. For this Hill was given the heave-ho and Jack Sholder (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, The Hidden) took his place in an uncredited capacity for the reshoots. Sholder also supervised the editing of a new cut of Supernova that the studio hoped would function better as the mass audience hit it needed. The film burned through multiple release dates as it went through one overhaul after another. Finally MGM employed the talents of cinema giant Francis Ford Coppola, a prominent member of its board of directors, for even more repair work.
The end result of years of development, filming, and studio interference was dumped into theaters on January 14, 2000 following a monumentally misguided marketing campaign in what had to be the most inauspicious fate for a motion picture with such promise. Bearing the generic director's credit "Thomas Lee" since "Alan Smithee" had long run its course, Supernova was savaged by critics, ignored by audiences, and written off by its parent studio long before its theatrical bow. I first watched it on VHS later that summer to see if it was really as bad as the hype had indicated. To my pleasant surprise I found it quite enjoyable in its R-rated home video cut - the film was release theatrically with a PG-13 - though it was hardly original. Knowing what I did of its complicated journey from rough treatment to celluloid I could spot in places the obvious signs of the studio's meddling, making the experience of watching Supernova for the first time more frustrating than entertaining.
Having watched it a time or two in the years since that irritation remained although I had long accepted the film for what it was. But it really grates my nerves when I watch Supernova to this day and think of what might have resulted had Walter Hill been left alone to make the film he wanted, or at the very least MGM knew what kind of film it wanted from the very beginning rather than attempt rather ineptly to make it into something it wasn't meant to be in the post-production stage. Hill clearly wanted to make a feature in line with the original Alien, a challenging and terrifying journey into the unknown with grotesque creatures and a talented ensemble cast providing us with a sympathetic buffet of human cannon fodder. The final product retains some of those noble intentions, but since most of the scenes shot by Hill were junked or reshot once his services were no longer required (a fate that had befallen Richard Donner on Superman II when Richard Lester took over filming) it's difficult to surmise where his work ended and the studio's began. The terse dialogue is lean on extraneous exposition and the cast delivers it well, a Walter Hill specialty, and the pace never lags thanks to the efforts of two credited editors (Freeman A. Davies, an editor on several of Hill's features including The Warriors and 48 Hrs., reportedly contributed in this department) who keep the action moving swiftly without permitting a single dull moment to drop in unwarranted. But since much character development and plot clarification was sacrificed to achieve that speedy pacing it also qualifies as a serious detriment to the overall film.
Supernova reminds me of many cheap Alien knock-offs produced in the wake of the first film's success, typically with the involvement of Roger Corman or one of thousands of Italian schlockmeisters. The tone veers drunkenly between thoughtful sci-fi epic and cheapjack exploitation flick. A zero gravity love scene with Spader and Bassett's characters was awkwardly inserted barely a half-hour into the film at Coppola's insistence using digitally manipulated outtakes from a similar scene involving Robin Tunney's sex-crazed crew member and Facinelli's villain-in-charming stud's clothing. This was done obviously to position Spader and Bassett as our romantic leads, but the problem with this is that their floating fuck fest occurs mere minutes after it's established that Bassett's haunted medico harbors severe distrust for Spader's deadpan co-pilot due to his past history with drug abuse. Stick to wine making and nepotism, Francis.
The interiors of the Nightingale are barely distinguishable from countless other sci-fi features, but cinematographer Lloyd Ahern II, who first collaborated with Hill on 1992's Trespass, achieves a queasy intensity through his claustrophobic framing and noirish lighting. Bob Ringwood, a famed costume designer on big-budget studio tentpoles (the first time he went into space was on David Lynch's Dune, another production fabled for its unnecessary complications), lends the uniforms and spacesuits worn a sleek verisimilitude by keeping the designs simple and effective for their purpose. The visual effects were accomplished through a combination of digital trickery and old school model and miniature work supervised by Oscar-winning FX great Mark Stetson. Looking at the texture and detail of the Nightingale exteriors and the lovingly-designed lunar mining colony to which Vanzant makes a perilous second act jaunt made long for the days when CGI didn't overrule the craft and imagination of practical effects.
Spader and Bassett are the true stars of an otherwise forgettable cast that tries so hard with material that starts to fail them before they become fully aware of it happening. Spader in previous untested form as an action hero holds on to a shred of the moral decay that has fueled a few of his best performances in the past and struts through every scene with a confidence that indicates he's usually a few steps ahead of the plot. It falls to Bassett to provide the emotional core of the story since her leading man is usually so ramrod tough that a teardrop could not escape his ducts without becoming vapor, and she does very well while bringing some welcome gutsy attitude and steely intelligence. Forster is nice and commanding as the first captain but he gets little to do before checking out midway into the second reel. Lou Diamond Phillips gets little to do but be sidelined in the testosterone department by Spader and Facinelli's villain but he does what he possibly can with the little he's given, and he gets a nude love scene with Tunney as a nice consolation price. Speaking of Facinelli, the actor who is not without his strengths (check out The Big Kahuna co-starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito for proof of this claim) portrays the film's antagonist Troy as less of a credibly menacing threat and more of a dickish high school jock who wakes up in the morning looking forward to that first shove of a nerd into their locker. As Benj, the brainy tech geek every outer space adventure requires, Wilson Cruz is at his best during his scenes interacting with the ship's motherly central computer Sweetie, thus creating the most plausible and heartfelt relationship in the entire film. Damn it all, their final scene actually brought a lump to my throat. It didn't last though.
Scream Factory's high-definition upgrade of Supernova is really lacking in the improved visuals department, and that's being polite. If it was in my nature to be more blunt honest about these things I would say that this transfer is terrible, but then again I'm a pretty nice guy so I won't go there. First of all, the packaging incorrectly states that the picture was framed in the 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio when in fact it is closer to the film's original 2.35:1 ratio. Though the framing wasn't fiddled with in any way that I can notice it appears as if the people responsible for overseeing the 1080p conversion simply went with a DVD quality transfer instead of going back to the original film negative. The result is the picture looks good for most of the time but is still riddled with instances of dirt and the occasional scratch. The grain content is minimal but the resolution looks about the same as if you were watching this on video fourteen years ago. Such a half-hearted job for a film that deserved a little better. Scream did Supernova somewhat better in the audio department as they have included English DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks in both 5.1 and 2.0 options. The 2.0 does just fine for standard television set-ups as it features strong volume levels for all components of the sound mix and a complete absence of distortion and damage, but the 5.1 track should make home theater viewers even happier with a more aggressive and immersive sound quality. English subtitles are also included.
To my knowledge the PG-13 theatrical cut has never received a home video release. The R-rated version created for the first VHS and DVD editions is the one Scream Factory has presented here and the only difference between the two cuts is the inclusion of some female frontal and male rear nudity. Purists (and Puritans) will just have to deal.
The DVD released by MGM in 2000 contained some deleted scenes and a darker (and much better) alternate ending that better reflected the original intentions of Walter Hill for the film he set out to make and was thwarted by MGM execs. Those cut scenes, twelve in all (15 minutes), and the original finale (5 minutes) are present and accounted for here, and they include some interesting dialogue scenes - the scrapped opening conversation between Spader and Forster being the standout - and even a bit of deleted gore in one character's alternate demise. The original theatrical trailer (2 minutes) is also included and man is it piss poor. No wonder this movie bombed; it's own damn studio didn't even know what to make of it, and they gave this fucking thing the green light in the first place! Watching this trailer you would think you were getting a light-hearted (or light-headed) and fun space opera with a bouncy yet dated pop soundtrack (Sugar Ray's instantly annoying hit "Fly" opens the preview, and Three Dog Night's way-too-for-this-shit classic "Mama Told Me Not To Come" closes it out). It sucks but I still get a perverse sense of enjoyment from watching the marketing department of a major Hollywood studio make such an epic fail.
The only new extra feature is a set of retrospective interviews labeled "Making of Supernova" on the menu, though apparently Scream Factory was too cheap to provide it with opening titles. It's a good feature regardless, running a slim 25 minutes and bringing in actors Forster and Phillips, producer Chuba, and post-production supervisor (and uncredited co-director) Sholder to discuss the sadly botched production as best and least litigious as possible. Thankfully none of the individuals interviewed for this documentary think Supernova is total crap, though Sholder appears to want to say it every time he's on screen, and the multiple problems that plagued the production from conception to editing are not glossed over. Phillips praises Walter Hill for being able to give the studio a releasable film in the first place, and the cinematography of Ahern and Stetson's marriage of practical and digital effects are also singled out for accolades. I would have enjoyed seeing other members of the cast and crew offer their recollections - Facinelli has to have a few openings in his schedule now that the Twilight movies are done - and a more detailed overview of the project's origins as a lower-budgeted fright fest, but all of that aside this a solid featurette.
Wrapping up the supplements are trailers for some related titles available, or soon to be available, from Scream: Lifeforce, The Incredible Melting Man, and Invaders from Mars.
Supernova was one of countless instances of a potentially memorable genre film getting almost completely lobotomized by unwanted studio interference. Since Walter Hill's original cut is either buried somewhere deep in the MGM vaults or destroyed forever (my suspicions lie with the former option) the mangled cut that represents artistic and commercial compromise in Hollywood at its most mercenary will have to suffice for now. What we are left with is a fun diversion as entertainment but a noble failure on every other level. A red-headed stepchild until the day the art of filmmaking is extinct, Scream Factory treats Supernova with a fraction of the respect it deserves via a lackluster video transfer and a decent new retrospective documentary, but at least those great deleted scenes and alternate ending made the cut as well. Recommended with reservations if you can find this one dirt cheap.