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by: James Berardinelli

As a film critic, I have become reasonably astute at determining ahead of time when a movie's potential might be on the limited side. With Supernova, there were three clear warning signs: (1) the director's name is a pseudonym, (2) the film is being released in mid-January, which is never a good indication (January is one of three "dumping" months for films that distributors have given up on), and (3) there were no advance screenings for critics. Taking these things into account, I went into a theater showing Supernova with muted expectations. About the best thing I can say is that the final product didn't fall too far below those expectations.

Like Sphere two years ago and Virus last year, Supernova is a high profile movie that the studio has no confidence in. Once upon a time, it was probably envisioned as a Summer 1999 release - that is, until MGM realized how little box-office potential it has. This is not the kind of story that will pack audiences in, especially once word gets out about the final product's relentless mediocrity. Even most casual science fiction/action fans will be disappointed by how little Supernova has to offer.

The title is a misnomer. For the most part, the movie has nothing to do with a supernova (one is briefly mentioned towards the end, but it's more of a red herring than a legitimate plot element). Instead, it's about a psycho killer (Troy Larson) on the loose in a spaceship. With his mutant abilities, gained as the result of exposure to an alien artifact, he is virtually unstoppable. Of course, although he may have super strength and super stamina, he doesn't have super intelligence, and that's the only reason any member of the crew has a hope of surviving.

The Emergency Medical Rescue Vessel Nightingale is designed to bring aid to distant outposts and space ships. Equipped with the ability to dimension jump, it can effectively cover light years in moments, provided the crew is safely sealed in protective capsules. The Nightingale is manned by six people: Captain Marley (Robert Forster), a gruff man who enjoys watching cartoons; second-in-command Nick Vanzant (James Spader), an ex-military type who is a recovering drug addict; medical officer Kaela Evers (Angela Bassett), whose bedside manner leaves something to be desired; engineer Benj Sotomejor, who is in love with the ship's computer; and medical technicians Yerzy Penalosa (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Danika Lund (Robin Tunney), who have found a way to pass the long hours in each other's company. After receiving a distress signal from a distant mining colony, the Nightingale dimension jumps and comes to the rescue of a lone survivor. That's when the trouble starts.

By all accounts, Supernova did not have a happy production history. Director Walter Hill left at some point and a replacement (possibly someone with a prominent name) was brought in to finish the job. However, the main problem with the completed film has less to do with a mid-stream change in the top dog than with a script that is riddled with plot holes. Supernova isn't just badly written; it's like episodes of Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and Blake's 7 stirred together into an incoherent batch. Instead of giving new life to standard science fiction ideas, Supernova makes them seem more tired than they already are. In a vain attempt to obfuscate the screenplay's lack of consistency and intelligence, the filmmakers ratchet up the level of action by having characters pointlessly running all over the place. The result is distracting, but in an irritating, not pacifying, way.

Admittedly, Supernova boasts some nifty special effects - but the same can be said of almost any moderately budgeted science fiction endeavor. Impressive visuals are hardly worth mentioning, since it's bad effects, not good ones, that are exceptions


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