Retro Rocket

Cliché-fueled Supernova never gets off launching pad

The first space opera of the year 2000, Supernova, turns out to be more nostalgic than futuristic. There isn't an idea in this brief, handsomely produced actioner that isn't a sci-fi chestnut. Event Horizon, Aliens, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, even The Fly all provided this movie with more of its content than did its credited screenwriter -- David Campbell Wilson, working from a story by William Malone and Daniel Chuba -- or director "Thomas Lee" (reportedly a pseudonym for Walter Hill).

Still, I must confess that these deep-space chillers are able to work on my nerves a little. Event Horizon, for instance, was the last movie that really gave me the willies. Even though it was a generally inept and silly piece of moviemaking, the awful combination of claustrophobia, vertigo and existential solitude inherent in the idea of far-flung space travel somehow got to me. It may be that shadowy vessels out in the desolation of space have permanently replaced creaky mansions out on the desolate moors as the archetypal settings for our gothics.

Supernova is even sillier than Event Horizon, and it's far less scary -- it doesn't have Event Horizon's perverse streak of religious horror. But it's fast-paced and painless, the dialogue isn't a disgrace, and it has some sleek special effects and set designs.

Space cadets: The cast of Supernova.
Stephen Vaughan/SMPSP
Space cadets: The cast of Supernova.

Details

Rated PG-13.

The people in it are pretty sleek, too. The setting is a rescue ship commanded by Robert Forster, with a crew made up of actors -- among them Lou Diamond Phillips, Robin Tunney and Wilson Cruz -- characterized principally by gorgeousness; this may be the most uniformly physically attractive movie cast ever. Despite some hazy semi-nude glimpses of their stunning physiques, not to mention some fairly grisly violence, the film somehow managed to land a PG-13. Our hero and heroine, James Spader as the second-in-command and that great glowering amazon Angela Bassett as the medical officer, murmur their lines at each other so tersely that even Jack Webb would be impressed -- they make Mulder and Scully seem like Ricky and Lucy.

The crew answers an SOS from an abandoned mining colony on a "rogue moon" in deep space. There they find a creepy, handsome guy (Peter Facinelli, sort of a poor man's Tom Cruise) who's the custodian of some shimmering space macguffin. The secret identity of this guy isn't, to put it charitably, hard to figure out; the clues have been dropped for us with the subtlety of bowling balls. When it turns out that the macguffin he's so attached to, which contains dreaded "ninth dimensional matter," is some sort of threat to humanity or the universe or something, he turns to murder and mayhem to keep the crew from leaving it behind.

Nothing new here, of course. Supernova comes closest to originality when it tries a little tenderness. This crew seems principally interested in sex -- understandable, given their high level of both pulchritude and free time. Phillips and Tunney are vigorous lovers, and the ship's computer, "Sweetie" (well-voiced by Vanessa Marshall), is infatuated with her programmer. Even the dour Bassett manages a smile when Spader brings her a bottle of pear brandy, and when the two of them have to share a pod during a dimensional warp, the results do have a tinge of romantic lyricism.

There's also a nice joke at the beginning, when we see Forster -- who's criminally wasted here -- watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. It turns out he's working on his Ph.D., about the dire social effects it had when violent cartoons were outlawed in the 21st century. Now that's a scary prophecy.

 
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