JANUARY 16, 2015
I'm glad Scream Factory got two of the filmmakers to appear on camera and discuss the budget issues on Supernova, because otherwise I'd forever be left with zero comprehension of why MGM would spend 90 million (not counting marketing) on a space movie with no big stars or even all that much action, given the compact cast and single villain. Unless the title is Star and followed by Wars or Trek, space films don't tend to make all that much money at the box office; most others fall in the 30-70m range (often with more appeal; i.e. Lost in Space being based on an old TV show). And when they're half horror movies, you're into even more risky territory - by my (and Boxofficemojo's) count only the Alien movies tend to draw horror crowds into galaxies far far away.
But as it turns out, Supernova was meant to be a very low budget, kinda pulpy space horror-adventure, with one of the producers planning to use his own VFX company to get more bang for their buck. However once Walter Hill became interested, things snowballed - he rewrote the script, presumably adding more of what little action there is, and then began having almost daily arguments with the execs over the footage, the direction the movie was taking, etc. Eventually he quit entirely, forcing them to hire Jack Sholder to shape his footage and oversee reshoots. Then HE was replaced by Francis Ford Coppola, of all people, to seemingly do the same thing. The costs kept going up, ultimately costing about 3x what the original, seemingly superior version of the movie would have. And that's how the movie ended up on a list of the costliest duds of all time (as it only grossed 14m back) instead of just being some little movie that went nowhere.
Unfortunately, the behind the scenes shenanigans are seemingly more interesting and exciting than what's left on-screen. Given all the different cooks stirring the pot (a metaphor used twice on the retrospective) it's no surprise that the movie is kind of aimless and disjointed, but I WAS rather surprised at how minimal the action was. Peter Facinelli's villain doesn't even appear until almost the halfway point, and doesn't do much after that - he spends a lot of time just trying to use them into making sure he gets back to Earth with his cargo, so naturally other than being mysterious he's hardly twirling his mustache and blowing shit up. By the time he finally starts eliminating the crew (which is only 5 people, since the 6th dies on the way to get him) the movie's almost over, and whoever directed/edited the final reel clearly didn't have his heart in it by that point - they even cut the obligatory "the villain isn't really dead!" sequence (seen on the extras), as if to say "Look, let's just cut our losses and beat traffic."
And it's a shame, because the first 20 minutes or so promise something that will at least check off every box and reward you with a fairly entertaining movie, if not a particularly original one. I liked that our hero crew wasn't a bunch of intergalactic truckers or a salvage crew, like usual - it's actually a medical ship, sort of a freelance outer space ambulance, cruising the galaxy to answer distress calls and administer first aid/surgery/etc wherever needed (the best the script offers is the ship's name: Nightingale). James Spader is the newest addition, a co-pilot replacing a character who died for reasons that already escape me, and he's not particularly well liked by the head nurse (?), played by Angela Bassett (yep, the movie simultaneously recalls Stargate and Critters 4). But that doesn't stop them from randomly having sex after the captain (Robert Forster, in his first post-Jackie Brown role, the poor sod) is killed during a lightspeed jump.
The extras also reveal that this sex scene was created using footage of two other characters having sex (with the female in that case being white - imagine getting THAT FX job? "Make that white girl black so we can do this love scene without any reshoots!"), which is probably why it comes out of nowhere and is never mentioned again. As for poor Forster, when he dies so does the movie's most interesting character - a captain who is passing his time by doing a dissertation on the 20th century, who we meet doing an analysis on the (apparently now banned) Tom & Jerry cartoon. He also gets the best death by far; in one of the movie's few cool ideas, a lightspeed jump basically scrambles you up, and any malfunction could result in you not being put back together right - it's basically blending the usual idea of lightspeed with The Fly. Lou Diamond Phillips is terrified of the process for this reason, but it's Forster who gets scrambled - when they land everyone else is OK but he looks like something Rob Bottin might have come up with for The Thing.
This is where the movie really starts to show its seams; we are told that the ship (which has its own voice, named "Sweetie", that talks more than any other character, I think) will need a certain amount of time to repair itself, and that they will all be incinerated if they don't leave by a certain time, due to the gravity pulling them into the sun or something. The window in between these two events is 11 minutes - it sounds cool for a second but it doesn't really add any tension to the movie - until that 11 minute countdown actually starts, who cares? If the human characters had to repair the ship themselves before that deadline, then we could have something, but it's all done off-screen by the computers, making it a forgotten plot point until the final few minutes, when any movie of this type would rip off Alien and have a self-destruct countdown or whatever anyway. No one makes any efforts to help the computers fix the ship faster or anything either, so it's just as much a throwaway line of dialogue as it is, ostensibly, the thing driving the plot.
Facinelli's villain also sounds scarier on paper than he is shown to be by his actual actions; as it turns out Bassett's character fears him more than anything else in the world (as he is her ex), but you get the idea that he'd never even harm the crew if they had just agreed to take him home when he asked. Facinelli promises them a cut of his fee for finding the weird alien artifact, but Spader refuses, ordering it quarantined immediately and to be dealt with later. Even then, it's not like he snaps - he bangs Robin Tunney, goads Lou Diamond Phillips into absorbing some of the alien rock's power, etc. I thought maybe he was gonna start turning them all against each other and then sitting back to watch the sparks fly, but no - Tunney pisses him off and he sucks her out of an airlock. Then Lou Diamond realizes what he's done and tries to fight him, only for Facinelli to, uh, suck him out of the airlock. Yep, the movie's villain kills exactly 3 people and does two in the exact same manner, only moments apart. And the movie was more interesting before he showed up anyway, so you can see why this movie fails to be exciting either as sci-fi or horror.
Hilariously, the deleted scenes reveal a 3rd or 4th intriguing idea - a little gnome looking guy (dried up human?) that Facinelli left for dead on the mining colony. The deleted stuff has a lot more of this subplot of Spader returning to Facinelli's base to seek answers, something that's whittled down to nothing in the feature, and sadly this is the only real appearance of the little guy - I'm curious if he had a bigger part in any of the almost assuredly superior script drafts that were tossed out before (and during) production. There's also an alternate ending, but it's basically just what I mentioned - adding in a bit where Facinelli comes back for more (well, sort of - it's obvious why it was cut). The real draw is the 25 minute retrospective, which focuses almost entirely on the film's production issues. Lou Diamond and Forster are the only cast members, sadly (Forster exits the movie too quickly for him to have been privy to too much of the shenanigans, though he does say the movie was intended to be a lot longer than 90 minutes), but Sholder and producer Daniel Chuba are more than willing to explain what went wrong, so it doesn't lack for details. It's funny how they waste zero time on things like Phillips talking about working with the other actors or Chuba discussing where they shot it or whatever - it's literally wall to wall "dirt", though they skip over the film's horrible box office and the curious decision to put Sugar Ray (!) on the film's trailer. Which, by the way, is the most fascinating thing about the movie yet, as it seems to be trying to sell it as a sexy comedy about Spader and Facinelli's intergalactic pissing contest.
I don't know if this movie has any fans, but if they're out there they should be happy with Scream's blu. In addition to the new retrospective (the other stuff was on the DVD), it's got a decent transfer that should, if nothing else, make male fans of Ms. Tunney very happy. Only the R rated version is present (the theatrical version lacked the nudity and had a PG-13), which will upset Supernova purists, but if those people actually exist we shouldn't be enabling them. Someday there will be a book about how MGM went from powerhouse to being so broke that they couldn't afford to release their movies, and if it's exhaustive enough it should have a pretty good chapter on this movie - until then, this is the definitive account of how so much money accounted for so little.
What say you?