Supernova is a science fiction thriller that chronicles the high-stakes adventures of a deep space hospital ship and its six member crew. When their vessel, the Nightingale 229, answers an emergency distress signal from a distant galaxy, the crew soon finds itself in danger from the mysterious young man they rescue, the alien artifact he smuggled aboard and the gravitational pull of a giant star about to go supernova -- the most massive explosion in the universe.
After a notoriously troubled production and numerous delays to rework the material, MGM finally dumped the sci-fi thriller 'Supernova' into theaters in January of 2000 with the advertising tagline, "In the farthest reaches of space, something has gone terribly wrong." I have to imagine that someone in the studio's marketing department must have had a good laugh when writing that. Just about everything with this movie went terribly wrong.
Let's just be up-front about this: 'Supernova' is not a good movie, though it's not quite as awful as its trailer made it look. The film was a disaster at nearly every stage of development, and seemed doomed to failure long before it actually hit theater screens – at which point it fulfilled that prophecy and was a tremendous box office bomb, making back less than a fifth of its $90 million budget. Unlike some famous flops that went on to achieve cult status among devoted fans over time, this one has few redeeming qualities and fewer defenders. However, it remains interesting primarily for the behind-the-scenes story of where exactly it went wrong.
The plot: A team of space paramedics aboard the emergency rescue vehicle Nightingale respond to a distress signal from a mining colony on the far side of the galaxy. Their ship is damaged upon arrival and left stuck in the gravitational pull of a blue giant star. With 17 hours until their engine can recharge, which leaves them only a small window of time to escape a fiery death, the crew locates a sole survivor from the colony. Although the man is in good health, he acts pretty suspiciously from the outset and is hiding a dangerous cargo. Cue a 'Ten Little Indians' scenario where the villain picks off the main cast of characters one-by-one until a final confrontation where his secrets are revealed.
That sketch of plot is pretty thin stuff. With the right people and the right set of circumstances, it could be molded into an effective genre piece. (Honestly, is the plot of 'Alien' much more complex or original?) In this particular case, most of the people were right, but the circumstances never came together.
According to producer Daniel Chuba, the project was originally conceived as a low-budget, "scrappy" sci-fi flick with a couple of interesting ideas and mostly modest ambitions. Once the studio got hold of it, unfortunately, the budget ballooned, and so did the expectations that the movie would now be a blockbuster tentpole picture. Walter Hill ('48 Hrs.') came on board to direct, and recruited a cast of mostly respectable actors, toplined by James Spader (with a lot of hair and a shockingly buff physique) and Angela Bassett, both of whom seemed overqualified for a movie like this.
Incessant studio meddling resulted in the film going before cameras with an incomplete script that was rewritten day-by-day, until any traces of the original concepts that interested most of the participants were watered down to nonexistence. After principal photography was completed, Hill walked away from the project and had his name removed. The studio brought in director Jack Sholder ('The Hidden') to re-edit Hill's footage into something shorter, faster and more action-oriented. When that failed to satisfy the suits, no less than Francis Ford Coppola (yes, the man who made 'The Godfather' and 'Apocalypse Now') stepped in to give it another pass and try to salvage something usable out of it. Based on the results, he didn't have any success with that either. Ultimately, the movie was released with the pseudonym "Thomas Lee" as the only credited director.
The finished product is an ungainly mess that has been cut to the bone to retain only the bare minimum of scenes necessary to string together a somewhat coherent storyline, not all of them in the original order where they were intended to go. It's mostly dumb and cheesy, and plays like a pointless retread of 'Event Horizon' (which wasn't so great to start). Peter Facinelli makes a lame, generic villain, and the plot twist regarding his character's true identity is easily guessed from his first scene. Future 'The Mentalist' star Robin Tunney is left with nothing at all to do except look doe-eyed and take her clothes off, which she does repeatedly and for the flimsiest of motivations.
If it has any saving graces, the film's visual effects are pretty well done for the era, and feature some nice model and miniature work without too much crappy CGI (though some of that sneaks in as well). Very surprisingly given his predilection for being a ham, Spader underplays his role and actually makes an appealing tough guy action hero – something you won't see out of the actor in any other project. A zero-gravity love scene between Spader and Basset (originally Facinelli and Tunney, until the latter's skin color was darkened in post-production and both actors' faces were obscured) is gratuitous but amusing. That about does it for the good points.
'Supernova' can't be taken seriously as a movie in its own right. It's only worth watching as a case study in missed opportunities, one that will leave you wondering what could have been if this cast and crew had been allowed to make the movie they originally signed up for.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Presumably working under the assumption that the movie must have some sort of small cult following, Shout! Factory has licensed 'Supernova' from original studio MGM for release on Blu-ray under the Scream Factory label. Despite a lack of any clear indication of the fact, the disc contains the 91-minute R-rated extended cut for the film, which premiered on DVD in 2000 and has about 30 seconds of additional snippets of sex and violence compared to the PG-13 theatrical release.
The Blu-ray packaging is riddled with errors. It incorrectly lists the movie's release year as 1995. (The actual theatrical premiere was January 14th, 2000.) The disc specs also get the aspect ratio and audio format wrong.
Given its history and reputation, 'Supernova' was never likely to be granted a painstaking restoration. Since the film isn't terribly old, Scream Factory probably assumed that MGM's existing video master struck either for DVD or cable syndication would probably hold up OK anyway. Unfortunately, it doesn't.
The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is quite dated. Although the 2.35:1 image (not 1.85:1, as claimed on the case art) is certainly more detailed than standard definition or DVD, it's a little mushy and suffers mild artificial sharpening plus more severe contrast boosting. The latter causes whites to bloom and clip detail, and very harshly exaggerates the film grain. The picture is heavily grainy throughout, more so than seems appropriate for the movie, and the grain has an ugly noisy texture.
Dirt and specks also routinely litter the film elements. Other aspects of picture quality such as colors and shadow detail are acceptable but not particularly noteworthy.
Had this movie been popular enough to justify a little more care and attention, a fresh film scan and some moderate digital cleanup could no doubt do wonders for it. Sadly, what we get instead looks quite poor on large screen projection.
The Blu-ray offers the film's soundtrack in either 5.1 or 2.0 mixes, both losslessly encoded with DTS-HD Master Audio compression. I would assume that a $90 million movie released in 2000 must have had a native 5.1 mix at that time. Whatever the case, both tracks on the disc sound pretty lousy.
The 5.1 option has a lot of boomy bass and active surround usage. The voice of the ship's annoying computer "Sweetie" often comes from the back of the room, and the soundtrack is filled with lots of subtle creaking and groaning noises from various speakers. However, audio quality in general sounds really dull and muddy. Never is it particularly distinguished over what you might hear in a DVD Dolby Digital track.
The 2.0 alternative sounds slightly less rolled-off and may be preferable in that regard, but has very little bass and its surround channel activity is much more diffuse and less pronounced.
Along with the movie itself, Scream Factory has licensed all of the bonus features from MGM's old DVD release.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
To the label's credit, Scream Factory has commissioned a new featurette that's much more interesting than the movie itself and may even justify owning the Blu-ray.
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
The old DVD release included a booklet with some production notes. That hasn't been replicated here.
A cheesy sci-fi flop that might have and probably should have been much better than it actually turned out, 'Supernova' doesn't have a lot to recommend, other than curiosity value. Neither does the Blu-ray, which suffers both middling picture and sound quality. The new 25-minute featurette is a lot more interesting than the movie itself and almost makes the disc worthwhile, but is that enough to justify the whole purchase price? That's a decision you'll have to make on your own.