Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: January 13th, 2015
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Supernova is a textbook example of a movie whose production history is much more fascinating than the final product, so much so that you can tackle it from multiple angles. The first is obvious: you wonder how a film that passed through the hands of Geoffrey Wright, Jack Sholder, Walter Hill, and Francis Ford Coppola could end up with such a disastrous reputation (and this is to say nothing of the stellar cast). But perhaps even more beguiling is how it doesn’t even live up (or down?) to this reputation. Despite its tortured development—which occurred over a decade that saw multiple concept and script changes, a production budget that was slashed mid-filming, and, ultimately, a movie that was orphaned by its director and delayed by its studio—it’s almost remarkable that it isn’t some infamous bomb memorable for its utter badness.
Instead, Supernova just sort of exists as a late-90s relic that constantly leaves you wondering why it exists in the first place; for all the behind-the-scenes drama that can explain how it arrived in theaters, you’re never quite convinced that it should have limped its way there, at least in this form.
Of course, a guy like Walter Hill doesn’t have to answer to anyone. If he wants to come aboard and attempt to steer your long-gestating opus about a doomed space vessel, it’s probably best that you step aside and let it happen. MGM did not. We’ll get around to those particulars. For now, let’s flash back to happier times, when Hill first took the reins on Supernova, which found itself reconfigured from “Dead Calm in space” to another exercise in late-90s space horror. Given his capacity as producer on the Alien franchise, Hill obviously knew a thing or two about the genre, so things looked promising. He apparently had much bigger plans for a movie that wound up being summarized as “rickety spaceship rescues a shady hitchhiker harboring murderous intentions.” There’s also something about a 9th-dimensional goo. Supernovas are actually in short supply.
You sense that even that has some kind of deliriously weird potential, or even the possibility that Supernova could somehow be Hill’s Dune: a project of thwarted ambition that nonetheless bears the mark of its creator’s vision and remains indelible. There’s no subverting the various forces that conspired to submarine this one, though—Supernova is an impossibly dull misfire that Hill struggles to elevate with sheer craftsmanship. It’s proof that production design and a shrewd director can’t outpace studio tampering that reduced his script to undercooked sludge. When viewed in a vacuum (read: with the volume turned down), Supernova is a well-polished, moody affair set in the dark, creepy confines of a rusting spaceship on its last legs. It only allows for a few guffaws in the form of zero-gravity sex scenes and Robin Tunney’s gratuitous topless scenes, and even these should point in the direction of some camp virtue.
Unfortunately, sound is required to make heads or tails of what little sense there is to be derived from Supernova, a painful process involving tedious discussions among somnolent crew members and its robotic AI (voiced by Vanessa Marshall). Even the talented cast can’t bring much life to it: James Spader and Angela Bassett are the de facto leads who bond over dull chats and portentous conversations that obviously foreshadow later events in the film. Robert Forster stars as the ship’s captain but is only around long enough for his guts to be splattered against the side of space pod during a teleportation gone horribly, Cronenbergianly awry.
Tunney, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Wilson Cruz round out the doomed crew, and, while it might not seem like much now, let me assure you that this was quite an assembly in the late-90s. To Hill’s credit, it seems like he’s adhering to the Alien template by letting viewers get know this group of blue collar roughnecks—it’s just that it all goes to hell in a hurry once it’s clear that nothing (well, besides the sturdy production values) is going to live up to that film.
Few films do, of course, but Supernova falls woefully short. Instead of H.R Giger’s xenomorph wreaking havoc on a set of richly defined, lived-in characters, this one features Peter Facinelli (looking as he just wandered in from the local Space Trailer Park) as a psychopath prone to tossing victims out of airlocks. If Alien was a haunted house film set in space, then Supernova degenerates into a brain-dead slasher on the final frontier. You don’t even need an entire hand to count the number of times that formula’s worked out. It’s especially disappointing here because Forster’s gruesome demise isn’t a harbinger for further gore showcases; again, I suppose Hill (and those who later stepped in for him) is working from the Alien mold by valuing suspense over graphic violence, but there’s none of the former, either.
There is, however, the matter of the mysterious substance Facinelli’s character brings aboard. Described as an ancient alien artifact, it’s deemed a “9th-dimensional” substance with vague properties. At one point, the on-board AI even sort of shrugs its hypothetical shoulders at it: this stuff either has the potential to wipe out humanity or help it achieve a new level of existence. Whatever. What’s for sure is that it’s the source of Facinelli’s madness and superhuman abilities—for all its intriguing possibilities, this stuff is just ends up an empty MacGuffin that provides some further, vague menace as our two survivors (you can guess who) try to escape the ship that’s set to explode. Fitting that the film’s most promising aspect winds up being a bomb.
Also fittingly, Hill himself looked to flee a ship that was engulfed in flames. None too pleased by MGM’s constant interference and reluctance to pay for reshoots, he bailed on the project, which left the studio to bring Coppola to the editing bay to salvage the film. The efforts were futile—you have to wonder just how much Coppola had to work with in the first place, and his final cut seems ruthlessly insistent on distilling Supernova down to a barely-functional slasher movie that doesn’t even bear its scars. As it’s something of a Frankenstein’s Monster, it’d be appropriate if it were memorably malformed and hideous. It doesn’t even have the decency to be that. Come to think of it, it’s not really alive, either.
As such, Scream Factory’s Blu-ray is both a resurrection and a post-mortem. Supernova has been restored to whatever glory it can claim (in its more violent R-rated form), and the high-definition presentation at least highlights the film’s strong visuals and sound design (the disc offers both stereo and surround lossless options).
Meanwhile, the supplements dissect the film as best they can; given the film’s reputation, it’s not surprising that only a handful of participants are around for the 25-minute retrospective. Producer Daniel Chuba, Sholder, Phillips, and Forster do show up and offer a few anecdotes apiece, many of which confirm the film’s troubled history. One particularly amusing one describes how they managed to digitally create one of the sex scenes featuring Basset’s character—it’s the sort of story that will (again) trick you into thinking Supernova is more of a hoot than it actually is. Predictably, Hill didn’t make himself available after becoming the first director to yield to “Thomas Lee,” the pseudonym adopted by the DGA after “Alan Smithee” became too notorious.
About twenty minutes of deleted scenes (including the alternate ending) join the trailer to fill out the extras for a disc that does more justice than ever thought possible for Supernova. If every film is someone’s favorite movie, then you have to think that someone is pretty ecstatic about this release. Meanwhile, the rest of us can only chuckle that a film that was once touted as “Hellraiser in space” ended up a lot like…well, Hellraiser in space. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: