Supernova, 1999

Last night I watched Supernova, starring James Spader and Angela Bassett.  Not exactly a cult classic, but I’ve never seen it before and I wondered how it would look after almost 20 years.  (All the online listings for this movie say 2000, but my DVD case gives it a copyright of 1999, so take your pick I guess?)

If you haven’t seen it, spoilers, obviously.

The basic premise is that this is a medical rescue ship doing a deep-space tour with a motley crew: a captain writing a dissertation on either cartoon classics or late 1900s nostalgia (I couldn’t quite figure it out, also, enjoyed the notion that we banned violent cartoons in the early 2000s); a mysterious medical doctor; two medical interns who are, according to Spader’s character, Nick, more interested in each other’s anatomy than anything else; and an engineer/computer programmer who seems to be in love with the ship’s AI.  Nick comments on the ridiculous crew early on and gets rebuked by Caela (Bassett’s character, the flinty doctor).

They receive a mystery call, directly to their ship, with the name of Caela’s ex, Karl Larson, attached to the message.  They have to make a jump to hyperspace faster than lightspeed travel to get to the source of the distress call within their lifetimes, so as they prepare to do this the medical interns tell each other horror stories about all the ways this can go wrong, like the people who were fused together when they shared a protective pod.

While they travel through this dimensional vortex, they or perhaps only the viewer are assaulted with visions of the probable near future mishaps they will suffer.  They get to regular space to find they are colliding with asteroids due to the extra high gravity field they landed in, and also that the captain, who mysteriously switched pods with the doctor, is almost dead, having been flayed apart when his protective pod failed.  He asks Caela to kill him so she does, putting Nick in charge of the crew.

Nick, meanwhile, is busy saving the ship from being smashed to bits and does some fancy manual flying without the AI assist to save their bacon.  They now have 7 hours and 12 minutes of fuel left, enough to keep them in orbit around the blue giant sun while they recharge their dimensional engines, which will be ready for another jump in 7 hours and 1 minute.  Everyone is appalled by this narrow window but nobody offers other suggestions.

Of course they still have to deal with the distress call.  A shuttle comes ramming into them faster than necessary but this has no repercussions other than depositing the man who sent the distress call.  He tells them he’s Karl’s son, and used his father’s name to get Caela’s attention (after she already noticed that this wasn’t Karl).

Also can I just take a second to ask why a medical rescue ship doesn’t have any stretchers?

As they assess the situation, poor Robin Tunney has to make it work with a script that has her medical intern character, Danika, blushing and speechless at the sight of a nude male.  She apparently just can’t handle his strapping manliness.  That’s okay, though, because her fellow-intern-boyfriend, Yerzy, (Lou Diamond Phillips, also suffering without much writing to work with) becomes besotted by the “treasure” that Not-Karl has brought on board, a strange purple glowy object vaguely resembling a vagina or possibly some kind of space vibrator.  (Danika comments on this at one point and I was disappointed but not surprised that nobody else seemed to think that idea made sense.)

The item gets locked up in quarantine, but while Danika is being creepily harassed seduced by Not-Karl, Yerzy opens up the quarantine and makes passionate love to leans on the object for a while.

Meanwhile Caela is doing her best to discover what the object is, with the AI’s help.  Nick is off to Not-Karl’s wreckage to find extra fuel for them, and the ambiguous engineer/computer guy, Benj, played by Wilson Cruz grossly underutilized, is presumably also doing something.  (I don’t know, I watched this last night completely sober and I can’t remember).  Danika gets Yerzy out of the object-hypnosis-zone and Caela assesses him to discover that he’s aging backwards and growing new muscle mass and he expresses that HE FEELS GREAT; Caela talks to the computer which tells her that the object is filled with 9th dimensional matter which both re-energizes life matter and also overwhelms it, so Caela labels it a bomb; Not-Karl harasses Nick over the radio and strands him by putting his shuttle on “infinite loop,” at which point Danika discovers him and flails about with trying to beat him up.  Not-Karl, who we start to realize IS Karl, spaces the medical interns.

A note about Karl, here, played woodenly by Peter Facinelli; is it the script?  Can he just not elevate himself to the level of Spader and Bassett, or Tunney who he probably spent the most time actually emoting against?  Nobody had much to work with here, but his singularly unconvincing and uncharismatic characterization had me wonder why they didn’t just shoot the guy five minutes after they got him into the infirmary.  The only other thing I remember seeing him in was Twilight (as Dr. KARLisle, hahaha no but really), but that doesn’t really say anything about anybody’s acting ability….

At this point Benj and Caela realize they’re in trouble, and Benj tells Caela she’s way more badass than him, but still goes to fight IS-Karl.  After a not-believably-poignant with the AI who admits that she does love Benj, he gets killed by IS-Karl.  IS-Karl goes super-ex-creepy on Caela, who manages to get away from him.

Nick mysteriously rescues himself and then comes and rescues Caela.  They manage to blow IS-Karl and the alien object out of the ship without getting sucked out themselves, and they escape by sharing the last safety pod IN SPITE OF THE EARLIER SCARY STORIES ABOUT DOING THIS!  2% of their genetic material is swapped, which apparently resides entirely in their eyes, so now they both have one blue eye and one brown eye. Okay, that’s fine, that’s cute.  Oh, AND CAELA IS PREGNANT, CONGRATULATIONS.

They live happily ever after, at least until the 51 years until the explosive 9th dimension matter makes its way to earth.

***

I didn’t not like this.  Let me be clear about that, in spite of my sarcastic points above.  (It’s just really easy to sarcasm “old” sci-fi.)  I had really low expectations, due to the ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, and that may have actually helped.  It was an enjoyable time-capsule of sci-fi ideas, played out with some good and some bad acting.

It mainly suffered from too many ideas which weren’t developed well enough.  I would have loved to know why, if we’re exploring vast light-years of space, their is apparently such rigid population control that both parents have to be approved for reproduction, even when some people who want children (Bassett’s character) are apparently sterile.  I would have loved to talk more about dimensions.  How did we get to 9?  Is space/time somehow tied up with this?  Are we just full of crap right now?

There were two recurring problems that took away from the movie and they did it over and over again.  First, the action was boring.  I didn’t know any of the characters well enough to care about what happened in their fight scenes.  In spite of the early seeding of their quirkiness, none of them had time to develop into particularly interesting people, perhaps because they all continued to act stupidly in service of moving the plot along, rather than acting like real people, the second recurring problem of unending stupidity.  The captain gets taken out for no apparent reason, leaving the rest of the crew guessing as to his logic.  He already knew the safety pod was malfunctioning, so he switched with the doctor, and therefore almost-died and then had to be put out of his misery.  The characters even question the illogic of this (“Then why didn’t he cancel the jump?”) without reaching any conclusion, most likely because the writers couldn’t.  This is in service of putting James Spader in charge of the crew, I assume, but if that’s the case, why not just have the captain’s pod fail without warning, without the weirdly-telegraphed-obviousness?

Danika is utterly incomprehensible; everything about her character is contradictory.  She’s a medical intern who goes unprofessionally batty when she sees a naked man.  She apparently wants babies but isn’t sure she wants them with the guy that she loves.  No disrespect to Robin Tunney; she’s stuck have Not-Karl-IS-Karl narrating her motivation more than she ever gets to feel it out as an actor.

Yerzy and Benj and the captain never really develop as anything other than plot points, though there’s a bit of an attempt with Benj (can we not just say Benjamin like the AI does??) and his “relationship” with the AI, whom he dubs “Sweetie” and everyone else also calls it/her this.  He dies while attempting to get her to override her programming so that she can eject IS-Karl from the ship.  She realizes that she does love him and can have her own wants and decisions but it’s too late, he’s already been beamed over the head by IS-KARL and she realized she loved him just in time to lose him.  Another plot point that could have been really interesting if it had actually been developed at all.  The fight itself between Benj and Karl was utterly boring.

What really does hold up about this movie, what is utterly convincing and believable, is the “nightmare ex boyfriend returns unexpectedly” plotline.  Bassett sells it, portraying both shattered and determined in the face of Karl’s return.  (Though why she wouldn’t recognize him simply because he’s been de-aged is another miss by the writers.)  And I had a moment of real hope for the movie, when she was stranded alone on the ship with him, manages to break their stalemate and get away from him — and then co-pilot Nick sweeps in for the rescue.  Still, STILL, they didn’t quite blow it; Nick and Caela cooperate believably to defeat the physicality of Karl, and Spader and Bassett manage to cobble together some believable chemistry and affection out of the wreckage of their meet-not-cute.

And then the writers crap all over the ending with the joyous announcement that Caela is pregnant; although we must assume, without evidence, that she wants a baby, for the singular reason “she.”

I had as much fun tearing this apart as I had watching the parts that I liked, and for that, I thank the cast, producers, and production crew.  As for you, writers: you know what you did.