Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:30 - Released 1/14/00

Although it's surely been in the can for months, it would have been fiscally irresponsible for MGM/UA to release the eminently average Supernova during the fall, when the "serious" Oscar films were hitting the screens. Instead, it joins the undistinguished ranks of the January filler movies, intended merely to create a diversion and pick up some quick cash during the pre-Oscar lull. Supernova is a second-rate sci-fi thriller along the lines of Wing Commander and Starship Troopers. Its direction by Walter Hill shows an affinity for eye-pleasing technofoolery and a serious lack of insight into human behavior; its screenplay by David C. Wilson, based on the story by William Malone and Daniel Chuba, is amateurishly patterned after more respectable films like 2001.

Supernova starts out with a tedious look at the crew of the emergency medical rescue ship Nightengale (a sort of ambulance in space). There's Commander A.J. Marley (Robert Forster); chief medical officer Dr. Kaela Evers (Angela Bassett); medics Yerzy Penalosa (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Danika Lund (Robin Tunney), who are lovers despite the fact that neither of them seem able to produce any kind of human emotion; and computer technician Benj Sotomejor (Wilson Cruz), apparently in love with the ship's computer, "Sweetie." Also along for the ride is Captain Nick Vanzant (James Spader), who, because he is a recovering drug addict, enjoys the animosity of the entire crew, especially Dr. Evers. So much for the Hippocratic oath.

When a distress call is received from a mining station in the far reaches of space, our crew snaps into action. The first special effects treat we experience is the inevitable "jump through space," which not only transports them across the universe, but bends their faces in many amusing ways. Things go wrong, however, and soon the Nightengale is stranded in stellar backwaters with a crewman dead and no fuel. Even more distressing is the lone stranger found at the station, Troy Larson (Peter Facinelli), and the curious object he brings aboard. It's a big, glowing, purple phallus.

This film makes the tragically common mistake, like those mentioned above, of attempting to blend the subject matter of science fiction with the plot structure and characters of action films. In good space films like Alien (not its sequels), Contact, and the 2001-2010 franchise, the crew members are portrayed as they should be, like scientists. People with intelligence, technical knowledge, and college degrees not obtained through mail order. But Supernova is presented from the standpoint of "let's pretend a bunch of well-built teenagers go into space." With the exception of Bassett, who lends a modicum of maturity to her role, these characters are simply not believable in this setting.

The one potentially interesting thing about the film, the mysterious object, is inexcusably squandered by Wilson's script. It's function is supposed to be equivalent to the monolith in 2001 (no one knows what it is, what it does, or where it came from, but everyone agrees that it's one heck of a thing). But instead of engaging us in the obvious political and metaphysical impact of finding such an object in deep space, as 2001 did, this story simply uses it as something to fight over, allowing the muscle-headed crew to engage in fisticuffs and machismo banter. On ships like the Nightengale, and in films like Supernova, the Prime Directive is "When in doubt, blow something up." **

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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