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Supernova – feature review

July 11, 2013

SUPERNOVA

In space no one can hear you scream – WTF?!

4.2.7

Directed by Walter Hill (credited as Thomas Lee). Screenplay by David Campbell Wilson, based on a story by William Malone and Daniel Chuba. Starring: James Spader, Angela Bassett, Lou Diamond Phillips, Peter Facinelli, Robin Tunney,     Wilson Cruz and Robert Forster.  Year of release: 2000. Running time: 86 mins.

In 1988 the Australian thriller Dead Calm opened to universal acclaim – launching     the international careers of its director Phillip Noyce, director of photography Dean Semler, editor Richard Francis-Bruce, composer Graeme Revell and its female lead Nicole Kidman. Also starring Sam Neill and featuring a young Billy Zane (in his first major role) – Dead Calm told the story of a married couple who are terrorized aboard their yacht after rescueing a young man from his sinking ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Three years later in 1991, genre director William Malone was approached by independent producer Ash R. Shah to come up with an idea for a sci-fi movie which could be produced on a budget of around $4 million. Shah was after something along the lines of Malone’s previous effort Titan Find (a 1985 Alien clone featuring Klaus Kinski) which had a small budget, a limited cast – all shot on studio sets. The concept Malone arrived at became the basis for a screenplay entitled Dead Star. Essentially Dead Calm in space – but with supernatural elements – Dead Star concerns a spaceship crew who uncover an alien artifact on a distant planet which opens a portal to Hell – unleashing Satan aboard their ship. From all accounts, Malone’s script was taut and terrifying. Adding to the nightmarish intensity of the potential film, celebrated Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger (best known for his design work on the original Alien) was commissioned to design the alien artifact – here called a Thanatron (a machine resembling a jumble of decaying organ pipes which also has the ability to raise the dead) – as well as Satan himself – a giant horned demon who wears a cloak lined with screaming souls.

Giger - Satan sketch

Satan from Dead Star – sketch by H.R. Giger.

HR Giger - Dead Star

Giger’s Satan from Dead Star – painting by H.R. Giger.

Interestingly, Dead Star (later retitled Supernova) – isn’t the only instance of an existing film from another genre being re-imagined as sci-fi. The Magnificant Seven (itself a reworking of The Seven Samurai) – was retooled by Roger Corman in 1980     as Battle Beyond The Stars. And Peter Hyams’ 1981 Sean Connery-starring Outland bears more than a passing resemblance to the classic western High Noon. There is also the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s high-seas survival tale Lifeboat being remade by the late actor, Ron Silver – as the TV movie Lifepod in 1993.

When it became apparent the budget for Dead Star would be higher than first anticipated (around $6 million), development was halted for several years – allowing Malone to move on with his life and pursue other projects (he subsequently directed an episode of TV’s Tales From The Crypt and remade The House On Haunted Hill).

The screenplay for Dead Star, meanwhile, finally found favor in 1997 when it was optioned by Hammerhead Films. Better known as a visual effects company, Hammerhead Films (Batman Returns, Spawn, Titanic) recognized in Dead Star       an opportunity to delve into producing features, as well as providing in-house VFX. With Shah’s continued involvement, Hammerhead partners Jamie Dixon and Dan Chuba set about honing the screenplay in order to attract studio funding. It was to be Dixon’s debut as director, while Shah and Chuba would produce. The project then caught the attention of United Artists and a deal was struck. Unfortunately for Dixon, the studio began to view the property – now retitled Supernova – as a summer tentpole and commissioned further rewrites from writer David Campbell Wilson to help secure A-list actors which increased the projected budget to $20 million. Considering Dixon’s inexperience and with the budget now at such a level, it was decided that Dixon would relinquish the director’s chair and move into a producing role alongside Shah and Chuba.

supernova alien artifact

Subsequent drafts by Chuba and Wilson would diverge considerably from Malone’s original gothic horror concept – becoming more sci-fi and replacing an encounter     with Satan with a potentially fascinating – if garbled premise. As it transpires in Supernova, the artifact found by the spaceship’s crew turns out to be the ultimate doomsday device – a bomb capable of destroying the entire universe. Planted by beings unknown, it is never made clear what the motivation for its existence might be. It is a concept which has the potential to make sense, but clearly something was lost in the wake of all the tinkering done prior to the film’s much-delayed release. Perhaps the artifact was originally conceived as a (more low-key) genocide device – planted by god-like caretakers of the universe as a sort of cosmic pest control. The idea being that if a technically dominant species became advanced enough to perfect interstellar travel and spread across the galaxy like a plague – then they would eventually stumble upon the artifact, become enamored with its pleasure-giving properties and return with it to their home world where it would activate and wipe out the entire species – a sort of ‘cosmic ant rid’ if you like. By no means water-tight, this scenario certainly makes a lot more sense than the (admitedly chilling) idea as it appears in the final cut – being that the artifact has the power to destroy the entire universe. But for what purpose?

Australian director Geoffrey Wright – best known for the Russell Crowe-starring     neo-Nazi skinhead drama Romper Stomper – was hired to helm the project.

Well ensconced in the throws of preproduction, Wright’s abrasive auteur approach to filmmaking began to ruffle feathers at UA. But the final straw came when he demaded that a considerable proportion of the film be shot in weightless conditions aboard the zero gravity aircraft which NASA uses to train astronauts (a technique Ron Howard has utilized to a lesser extent in Apollo 13). The studio balked at the projected costs involved in Wright’s daring Cameronesque pursuit of realism and so, with only five weeks until the start of principal photography – the aussie director departed the film.

Veteren helmer of tough guy movies, Walter Hill, was next approached by UA execs to step in as director – which he agreed to do (really as a favor for long-time friend and studio boss Frank Mancuso) – so long as he was permitted to supervise further rewrites of the script to suit his own specifications. “I think the previous version was probably more interested in what I find the least interesting about science fiction,” Hill told journalist Dale Kutzera in the February 2000 issue of Cinefantastique Magazine, “That is the predictive element. A lot of people are interested in science fiction, because they want to know how people will live in the future. I think science fiction is worthless in that capacity. It is important and interesting as literature. I don’t think it can be sound in a predictive sense.” The rewrites which followed were handled by David Wilson with Cathy Rabin (uncredited) providing additional fleshing out of the characters. Hill himself was no neophyte when it came to genre fare – as he had already co-produced the entire Alien franchise – as well as writing shooting drafts for both the original Alien and Alien 3. Hill again, “I guess the reason I really wanted to do it, at the core, was it reminded me very much of the kind of science fiction I used to read as a kid and the science fiction movies that I used to see. I think it’s kind of an update of the ‘50s style of science fiction movies. It certainly isn’t gadget driven or effects driven, though we have our fare share of that.”

In addition to overseeing script rewrites, Hill also abandoned much of the design-work which had already been carried out under the direction of Geoffrey Wright – pushing the budget even higher (the final budget has been estimated to have been as high     as $90 million).

The film’s solid cast of dependable actors include two Oscar nominees: Angela Bassett (as chief medical officer Kaela Evers) and Lou Diamond Phillips (as med tech Yerzy Penalosa) – along with the always reliable James Spader (as co-pilot Vanzant) – together with Peter Facinelli (as Karl/Troy Larson), Robin Tunney (as rescue paramedic Danika Lund), Wilson Cruz (as computer technician Benjamin Stomejor) and Robert Forster (as captain A.J. Marley). The performances for the most part are adequate, with the exception of Peter Facinelli, who tries his best to channel Billy Zane in Dead Calm – but lacks the menacing charm Zane displayed     in that particular role.

Set in the 22nd Century, Supernova tells of a time when humanity has spread out across the galaxy. Emergency medical vessel Nightingale 229, which services the outlying colonies, receives a distress call from a distant moon caught in the gravatational pull of a blue giant star. After making a hazardous dimension jump, during which the ship’s captain is killed – the remaining crew of five encounter a young man in a lifepod who claims to be Troy Larson – the son of a prospector Karl Larson (who, as it turns out, Kaela once had an abusive relationship with). When a glowing alien artifact is discovered aboard the lifepod, Larson explains that he and his father found the mysterious object on another planet and brought it to this rogue moon – only to be trapped by the gravatational pull of the blue star. Not wholly convinced by his story – co-pilot Vanzant takes the shuttle lander down to the surface of the moon to uncover evidence to either corroborate or dismiss Larson’s tale. Landing at the abandoned Titan 37 mining colony, Vanzant discovers the bodies of several dead miners who appeared to have been murdered and something else – an adult-sized foetus-like creature who claims to be the son of Karl Larson. The creature prompty expires, leaving Vanzant with the sudden realization that the young man aboard the Nightingale is actually Karl Larson himself and he appears to have regained his youth via prolonged contact with the alien artifact (hence the reason why Kaela failed to recognize him). Back aboard the Nightingale, Jerzy begins to develop an unhealthy fascination for the object – a fascination which quickly blossoms into an addiction, as he begins to experience a new-found vigor via the rejuvinating properties eminating from within. Larson meanwhile, has activated the shuttle’s auto-return – effectively stranding Vanzant on the moon – as he turns his attention to having his way with Danika, before killing her and flushing her body into space. It now becomes apparant that Larson is undergoing a transformation much like his son – as he begins to develop the characteristics of a foetus – albeit a foetus with incredible strength. Larson sabotages all but one of the dimensional stabilization units (protective pods necessary for the survival of each crew member during interdimensional jumps) – and embarks on a murderous game of cat and mouse with the remaining crew.

supernova - nightingale 229

As it turned out, Walter Hill would not be the last director involved with Supernova.     In a dispute with the studio over the dark tone of the film – Hill departed the production during editing. His major gripe being the fact that United Artists’ new parent company MGM had arranged a preview screening before he had completed     his cut and refused to allow him additional reshoots. The preview screening, by the way, was overwhelmingly negative. As a result, Hill demanded to have his name removed (which was granted) – in exchange for his public silence over the nature     of the dispute.

So I guess the question must be asked – what precipitated MGM’s sudden loss of confidence in Supernova? Why, all of a sudden, did they have issues with the dark tone of the movie? The answer to this lies with the box office failure of another ship-board deep space sci-fi movie released by a competing studio. A film which, intriguingly, mirrors the extensive creative metamorphosis undergone by Supernova – albeit in reverse. That film was Paramount’s Event Horizon. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and billed as ‘Hellraiser in Space’ – Event Horizon began as a straight-laced monsters-on-the-loose-aboard-a-spaceship tale written by Philip Eisner, but     was reconceived by Anderson as the story of a crew who encounter a portal to Hell     aboard an abandoned spaceship – sound familiar?

(As an aside, I find it interesting to note the similarities between Event Horizon, Supernova and Danny Boyle’s more recent Sunshine – in that all three films have     an intriguing sci-fi premise at their core – but find it necessary to resort to heavy-handed ‘psycho on the loose’ shenanigans – instead of fully exploring the premise they began with. Actually, perhaps Supernova can be excused for this – as it was indeed originally conceived as Dead Calm in space. But the other two films have     no such excuse.)

By the time Event Horizon was released in 1997, the ‘Satan in Space’ angle had been dropped entirely from Supernova – although it still remained a fright-fest full of scares – as opposed to just a straight sci-fi thriller. With Event Horizon being sucked into a fiscal black hole of its own making, MGM were more than happy to accomodate the changes to Supernova demanded by Walter Hill – in terms of wanting to tone down the R-rated horror aspects and making it more like a psychological thriller. Hill’s motivation for toning down the horror was less about pleasing the studio and more about circumventing inevitable comparisons with his earlier work on Alien.

However, by the time Supernova was well into the editing stage, it appears MGM     still held concerns over the movie’s dark tone – hence the dispute with Hill and his ultimate departure. With Hill off the picture, the studio now had complete control to do whatever they wanted with the cut and thus hired director Jack Sholder (The Hidden) to re-edit the entire film. Among Sholder’s most notable contributions were: reinstating the grotesque demise of Robert Forster’s character (which Hill had deleted), re-looping dialog to explain away the ship’s ridiculous mascot – a spastic robot helper named ‘Flyboy’ (which was meant to provide comic relief – but didn’t) and finally, shooting new footage of Facinelli’s character surviving decompression inside the observation dome at the end, only to die horribly when the ship jumps into hyperspace. Other ‘improvements’ included: the excising of a gory autopsy scene, along with a particularly nasty skull-crushing, the deletion of Vanzant’s encounter with the giant foetus on Titan 37, and the toning down of the chillingly bleak ending favored by Hill – in which a rapidly expanding wave of fiery destruction spreads out across the galaxy – consuming entire star systems (sadly, the absence of this apocalyptic image means the final fade out is now oddly abrupt and unsatisfying). Sholder’s cut of the film was screened to another preview audience – and just as before – it too received a universally negative response.

james spader in supernova

Finally accepting that the film was becoming worse – and not better, the studio re-approached Walter Hill (cap in hand) – with the idea of having him complete the cut the way he had intended. Unfortunately for MGM, the $5 million Hill again requested for additional re-shoots didn’t sit well with them – especially after all the money they had spent in the interim – and so, adding insult to injury – they knocked him back a second time.

In a last ditch attempt to salvage their imploding tentpole, MGM coaxed legendary director (and studio board member) Francis Ford Coppola out of semi-retirement to perform a $1 million edit on Supernova. The result of which was an ultimately fruitless attempt to sexy up the movie by digitally compositing the heads of James Spader and Angela Bassett onto the bodies of Peter Facinelli and Robin Tunney, while the two were engaged in a zero gravity sex romp. A bizarre experiment to say the least – especially considering Tunney’s naturally pale complexion was digitally altered in order to match Bassett’s much darker skin tone. The idea that a studio would resort to such desperate measures in order to save a picture is far more freaky than anything found in the movie itself. The decompressive demise of the Karl Larson character (where he is ejected from the ship with the artifact – rather than perishing during the final dimension jump) – was also reinstated.

The studio’s attempt to sexy up proceedings as a way to lighten the mood should really come as no surprise – as there is already a whole bunch of nudity in the film     to begin with – with pretty much the entire cast getting their kit off at some point in the proceedings. And the rubbing of uglies in zero G appears to be a popular way to pass the time aboard this particular spaceship. Even the alien artifact seems to be enjoying itself – softly moaning whenever anyone touches it. This strange sexual underscore which pervades the entire movie lends the film a coyly sensuous tone which does little to heighten the suspense one would normally expect to find in such material as this. As creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos related to Fangoria Magazine, “The studio tried to make it a hip, sexy movie in space, while Walter wanted to do something more grotesque, strange and ultimately disturbing.”

If you wanna see something really disturbing, then check out the official trailer below – as clearly, MGM had pretty much given up by this point, marketing the film as something akin to ‘Police Academy In Space’ – so far removed in tone from the movie itself – it’s verging on ludicrous. It is without a doubt one of the most intentionally misleading trailers ever, with the editors clearly having a laugh taking what were originally innocent lines of dialog completely out of context and cutting them together in such a way as to create the impression the movie is filled with wall-to-wall sexual innuendo. Is it any wonder teenagers suckered into expecting cheap thrills and locker room hilarity, came away from this movie just a tad disappointed?

One can only hope that the executive responsible for putting this thing together had his entire stash of coke confiscated.

Supernova hit movie screens in the US on January 14th 2000 and earned a paltry $5,778,639 in its opening weekend. Universally panned, its worldwide gross was       a dismal $14,828,081- on an estimated budget of $90 million.

Aside from being one of the biggest financial bombs of its day, Supernova was also the film which introduced the world to ‘Thomas Lee’ – the fancy new nom de plume the Directors Guild used to replace the notorious Alan Smithee – after the movie-going public became too hip to the fact that the name Alan Smithee usually signified a movie which was awful.

The endless studio interference this film endured during its production is most evident in the pacing. The plotting travels at break-neck speed – never slowing enough to allow us to process the sillyness of it all. In an odd way, Supernova does indeed pre-empt the popular trend in blockbusters today – if nothing makes sense – just make it go faster.

Despite its obvious flaws, however – the film does at least have some merit.

supernova - nightingale 229 interior

It is a handsome-looking production, with fluidly-mobile cinematography by Lloyd Ahern (Hill’s resident cinematographer since Tresspass), superb visual effects by Digital Domain and a distinctive 60’s retro design sensibility – not unlike Mario Bava’s Planet Of Vampires (an aesthetic which was later utilized to a lesser extent by Ridley Scott in Prometheus).

The Nightingale’s interdimensional hyperspace jumps – which bookend the film – are impressively staged and make the movie worth seeing just for these sequences alone. This is despite the fact that someone in their infinite wisdom decided to intercut flash-frames from the backstory (showing the demise of Titan 37’s mining population) – as well as flash-frames of action scenes to come – into the initial jump sequence. For what purpose? It was a technique used to equally baffling effect in Roger Corman’s 1982 Alien knock-off – Forbidden World. But why anyone would think it was a good idea for Supernova is beyond comprehension. It’s not like a roller-coaster plunge through a hyperspace wormhole isn’t dramatic enough!

Considering the systemic ineptitude inherent in many of today’s blockbuster tentpoles (even those without troubled production histories) – perhaps a modern audience would be more accepting of the movie’s flaws – and Supernova will eventually find the love and understanding it so desperately craves.

Or maybe not.

2 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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11 Comments
  1. Good job! That was a really interesting read. You know, I recorded this a while back but deleted it when I saw the really low IMDB rating. No wonder, after all the shit this went through! Hmm… I really want the original vision with that awesome H.R. Giger artwork. 🙂 Oh, and I didn’t know about the Thomas Lee name replacing the Alan Smithee thing…

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks! – Yeah, it’s a real shame Bill Malone wasn’t able to see his vision through with Giger. And I really love Giger’s rendering of the Devil. I guess the closest thing we have to Dead Star is Event Horizon – a major guilty pleasure for me and perhaps the most terrifying outer space movie since Alien? 🙂

      • I should really give Event Horizon another try. I wasn’t that thrilled with it but haven’t seen it since going to it in the cinema…

      • gregory moss permalink

        I’ll never forget the first time I saw Event Horizon in the cinema. An elderly couple sat right behind us (probably in their 60’s or 70’s) and I thought to myself – gee, they’re gonna be in for a rude shock. I figured they had no idea what the movie was about and wandered in to see it coz – it starred ‘that nice young man from My Brilliant Career’. Anyway I knew they knew nothing about it as soon as the wife’s running commentary began during the opening titles – ‘Oh it’s set in the future!’. The commentary continued as she inanely pointed out the bleeding obvious ‘Oh look – there’s a watch, floating through the air! Oh look – a bottle of water!’ She quickly went silent, however, when the first bit of nastiness tore itself a new one onscreen – the ship’s log replay sequence – which I have to say was pretty rough going even for me. It was from this moment on that she stayed quiet for the remainder of the film (pummelled into a shocked stupor no doubt), with her husband laughing nervously with each new grotesquery revealed. They did end up staying untill the end though – which was pretty impressive going I thought. But they left without saying a word. I often wonder if they thought twice about seeing another Sam Neill movie after that. There’s something to be said for research I guess. 🙂

  2. dolordorlor permalink

    “Supernova does indeed pre-empt the popular trend in blockbusters today – if nothing makes sense – just make it go faster.” ???? You are a lier! if you think one think doesn’t make sense, it’s because your brain doesn’t work well!

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks so much for your esteemed diagnosis. It’s so great having a member of the medical fraternity comment on my blog! But seriously, my brain is fine – it’s just bad and lazy filmmaking I have a problem with. Or perhaps these things translate better into other languages. 🙂

  3. jwrong?78 permalink

    I think this website sucks. It’s like Youtube. Youtube sucks, is an “unwatchable” website now. Many “movie mistakes” are not mistakes at all. I think there’s an incredible level of hypocrisy now. Sorry, man. You are an intelligent person, your brain is fine, but your website sucks. “Bad and lazy filmaking”? I have a problem with “bad and lazy websites”. Perhaps these things translate better into other languages. Byebye, master!

    • gregory moss permalink

      Whoa – where did that come from? If you dislike my site so much – then at least tell me why. As Voltaire famously said “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” But c’mon jwrong – at least back up your opinions with legitimate reasons – at least afford me that respect! 🙂

  4. I loved Supernova. I had no problem with the pacing or cohesion of the plot elements. Also, you seem to think that the ending proposes that the artifact will destroy the universe but it’s equally suggested (by Sweetie) that it might instead seed the universe with a new type of matter bringing about a sort of re-genesis. Informing article though; I had no idea the history of this film’s production was so volatile. Based on your rating system I would give it three stars, not two.

  5. john permalink

    This is actually one of my favorite films! Yes i know shocker. and I have very good taste. It does what I want a scifi film to do, show me things I havent seen before with ideas that are new. Also it looks awesome and sexy and I have to say I have a major joneses for Angela Bassett in this film she is top notch and looks like she’s been working out! dayum….

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks for commenting, John. Actually, sexy is a good way to describe it. 🙂

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