Back in the day there was a time when you’d walk into your local videoshop (VHS) looking for a specific movie. Whilst scanning the shelves for your desired evenings entertainment, chances are you’d come across a movie that you’d never seen or heard of before. Yet despite that, the cast, the cover and the genre would get you all excited to see it asap. This is how ‘Supernova’ came into my life. Just one of those ‘out of the blue’ movies that sat there begging to be rented. The lure was too great and for me the internet was not yet a regular source of entertainment and info (I don’t think the net became widely mainstream until around 1999; and even then it will have taken time for many to get fully on board). So I had no way of judging the product without paying for it. Of course you would pay for it, taking the risk, and more often than not the movie sucked. But at times there were exceptions.
The plot is quite simple and unoriginal really. It sees the crew of the Nightingale 229 responding to an emergency call some 3000 light years from their position on the moon Titan 37. To get to this far off point they use the dimension jump drive on-board their ship. Unfortunately this results in the death of their Captain/pilot A.J. Marley (Robert Forster). When arrived they pick up one survivor from the moon (Karl Larson played by Peter Facinelli) and his cargo, an alien artifact. After much discussion it is decided by co-pilot Vanzant (James Spader) to jettison the artifact because it may be dangerous. This makes Larson unhappy and he decides to kill everyone on-board. It seems this alien artifact has made him younger, given him super strength and superhuman healing abilities (handy). Eventually only Vanzant and Dr. Evers (Angela Bassett) are left alive, can they stop Larson?
The first little issue with this plot is the fact that when the ship arrives close to Titan 37, they enter a debris cloud which damages their ship causing loss of fuel. At the same time Titan 37 orbits a blue giant that’s gravitational pull will suck in the stranded ship within about 17 hours. This means their only means of escape is using the dimension drive again, but that will take almost the same amount of time, so their exit window is tight. Now this all sounds pretty formulaic and admittedly reasonably cool. Thing is, the volatile alien artifact they find (now known as a bomb), does actually get ejected into space towards the finale. This causes a pending supernova as the artifact gets hotter the closer it gets to the blue giant. So in the end the risk of gravitational pull goes out the window; it all suddenly becomes escaping a supernova.
The other oddity if you will is the alien artifact. At first it seems to be some kind of energy releasing thing that empowers anything that it comes into contact with. This resulting in the rather bland superhero power angle. But later on we discover its actually a bomb made by aliens. Its purpose being to literally wipe out an entire galaxy (or even universe apparently) whilst at the same time release new seeds of life to start everything over, or something like that. Its a unique concept for sure but so many questions. The main one being, why would an intelligent alien race want to wipe out other intelligent life? Why make a bomb so powerful it can potentially destroy an entire galaxy? And how does this thing actually trigger? In the movie it only goes off because it flies into a blue giant. Had that not happened I guess everything would have been fine?
On the whole I did quite like the plot about finding this alien artifact, hardly original stuff I know but still. The side effect of Larson acquiring various super powers was a bit shitty though; I really didn’t like that as it just felt way too generic. That of course led to various generic superhuman fight and healing sequences which we’ve all seen before. Its a shame really because for the first half of the movie the story is intriguing. Come the midway point it just degenerates into a common psycho on a killing spree routine…albeit a short one.
Luckily the visuals in this film are surprisingly decent. No doubt this will have come down to the talent by behind the directors chair (long story but Walter Hill and Francis Ford Coppola of all people). Like many sci-fi flicks you can see the ‘Aliens’ influence throughout, unfortunate…predictable, but they are still effective. Many shots do look very sleek and familiar, and many sets do have a familiar style (mainly the dimensional stabilisation chambers/pods). But they do also have a very polished, shiny, silver finish too them which is a shame because the used appearance is more authentic I think. Oddly at times the whole feature does look a tad like a made for TV movie, the sets look a bit plastic, too clean and Star Trek-esque if you get me. But its amazing what a bit of moisture and steam can do huh.
Space effects are of course a mixed bag being an old movie with early CGI in use. The exterior shots of outer space, star fields, planets, moons, debris clouds, mining facilities etc…all look very nice in a documentary standard type of way. Nothing mind blowing but pretty to look at ya know. Alas the greenscreen effects are pretty horrendous and really give the game away. The zero-G sex scene was especially bad in more ways than one. Oh and speaking of sex, there are like…three sex scenes within the first twenty odd minutes! Obviously going for that gritty adult space thriller, sex being of central importance it seems. The rather goofy ships robot (man in a rubber suit) kinda lets down the gritty adult visage though.
The B-list cast is also amusing with their over the top performances. James Spader is really going for it with his butch space hero. His voice is so sternly soft and serious you can hardly make out what he’s saying. Where as Angela Bassett is really going for it with her bad tempered and overly serious medic. Really wanted her character to smile! Lou Diamond Phillips seems to be there because…actually I don’t know why. Where as Robin Tunney seems to be there mainly because she was relatively hot at the time after a few biggish movies. Although the cast is likeable in the movie, its some of the most offbeat casting decisions I’ve come across for awhile. These old slapdash straight to video movies did tend to simply cast anyone they could with a known name; it didn’t matter if they fit the bill or not (hence Robert Forster for like…less than ten minutes film time).
Anyway it turns out this movie does in fact have a long long turbulent backstory. Going as far back as 1990 when this idea was originally pitched as a thriller involving an alien artifact releasing evil forces on Earth, with artwork by H.R. Giger to help sell it. Long long story short, the story changed over time with many different writers, directors and actors attached. Originally Walter Hill was at the helm but left after major disagreements. Then came Jack Sholder who virtually reshot the movie cutting most of Hill’s work. This led to a successful test screening but it still wasn’t enough to please the new studio bosses. Said bosses then went back to Hill, who wanted more money and time for more reshoots. The bosses refused so Hill walked again. Then eventually Coppola (odd choice) was brought in to re-edit again, which got a negative test screening, so MGM gave up and sold the film.
Yet despite all that, this mish mash of concepts isn’t all that bad I think. It is disjointed for sure and you tell there was a clash of ideas going on with the way the plot changes directions. It isn’t really explained all that well and it doesn’t really make much sense but I still found it engaging. It is definitely saved by some classy effects and sets. As I said, not too original but still effective. They do compliment the plot well which is genuinely remarkable all things considered. The ending is also quite bold and left open, which kinda gets you thinking but not too much as its also a bit cheap. Personally I think its still more recognisable as a Walter Hill movie, but with a tonne of deleted scenes and alternate cuts its anyone’s game really.