MEGA-FRUSTRATING FILMOGRAPHIES #3

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john cribbs

CHAOS HAS THE BALL: thomas lee's SUPERNOVA

 

I said earlier that the movie is a debacle, but let me take a second to back up and clarify the definition. To me, a debacle in terms of film simply means that an enormous amount of time and energy has clearly been put into the production by the technical crew to create a world for its story to take place in - the only problem is, the story is simply not deserving of it.

The world of Supernova is established the same way as Alien, by showing a group of blue collar workers (in this case, EMTs) in a fantastic environment of which they appear completely jaded. They're on a giant spaceship amongst the heavens, but when we meet this particular crew the captain is watching cartoons, two guys are playing ping pong on an absurdly small table, the two medical techs are engaging in what looks like escapism sex, and the co-pilot is just levitating listlessly in zero gravity in the vessel's transparent isolation dome (where co-pilots no doubt spend a good amount of their time). Even the ship's bored computer wakes up the tech for a nice game of chess. The atmosphere reads, "We know this looks incredible to you folks, who've never traveled space in a space ship before, but to these guys it's fairly humdrum, just another day at the office. They'd actually prefer to be someplace else, really."

Unfortunately that last sentiment pretty much sums up the overall vibe of the performances as well. Robert Forster is often slumped in a seat languidly, appearing to be counting down the amount of time he has left in the movie, while Robin Tunney is so casually topless in almost every scene she appears in, it's like she's just chilling at home. Spader and Bassett are left to try and create some kind of dramatic tension, an unenviable task at which neither succeeds. It's also in this first set of images that the patchwork nature of the film betrays itself, in the form of a glaring continuity error. With Spader floating around the back of the ship, the techs making like two space monkeys in their quarters and the captain writing his dissertation on "Tom and Jerry" in the cockpit...who's the extra person playing ping pong with the computer nerd? It's clearly a man, so it has to be one of the other three male crew members...but they've all been established as being somewhere else on the ship. Scenes are already starting to bleed together, and it doesn't help that the order of sequences after that are as follows: 1) a scene where Bassett tells Spader she doesn't like him, 2) a brief moment between Spader and the nerd playing chess and 3) a scene where Bassett tells Spader she doesn't like him. She doesn't like him, we learn more than once, because he's a recovering junkie. He's also a loner - we know because he says so, and Angela Bassett says so. Every shred of exposition is planted through dialogue and nothing is subtle; the two lead characters are as bland and badly designed as their ugly generic space uniforms.

On the other hand, their characters seem positively deep compared to the rest of the crew. Forster, a stowaway from the Black Hole crew, plays Captain A.J. Marley in what would have been the follow-up movie to his career make-over role in Jackie Brown. Lou Diamond Phillips and Tunney, filling out the crew as medical tech Yerzy Penalosa and search & rescue paramedic Danika Lund, arrived on set expecting to work with Wright only to find their acting strings being pulled by Hill instead. Vincent D'Onofrio opted out of the project after learning that Murphy was no longer involved, so Wilson Cruz took over the role of computer tech Benji Sotomejor (the name probably changed when D'Onofrio left). The seventh crew member is Flyboy, a robot straight out of Woody Allen's Sleeper dressed in the leather bomber jacket, aviation goggles and scarf of an old flying ace. Flyboy is a depressingly unremarkable creation, just a guy in a suit, which is perplexing when you consider that Hill's most acknowledged contribution to the Alien script was the addition of Ash, a company android hiding among the crew. Played by Ian Holm, the Ash character is unmasked as a robot in one of the film's most memorably disorienting and scary scenes. The design of the Ash android is so unique, from his intestinal tubing (with some obvious blown-up condoms thrown in there) to his sickly-colored pale "blood." But it's the writing and Holm's acting that make it so interesting. The Flyboy robot never speaks and is mostly manipulated by Bassett via matching virtual gloves and goggles. Its purpose in the movie is unclear and, beyond its part in the lazy climax, completely useless. And it's not even a special effect, it's just a guy in a costume; the character is even more hollow than that, but again no more than any of its fellow crew members.

Things get under way when that pesky distress beacon comes in from a mining colony far far away (Titan 37). Everybody prepares for "plasma acceleration" by removing their clothes and entering glass pods. In Alien, they have those great hibernetic chambers to remain safely preserved while the ship makes several months or even years worth of travel. Here, the same kind of capsules are used to shield the crew from the effects of dimension-jumping, so it's kind of a combo of the Star Wars "light speed" gimmick and the Alien "cots." The ship lights up and they go through what looks like a giant space vagina, all the while experiencing quick-flash images of the horror that is to come (prepare to fast forward!) Said horror gets a pre-show when they come out of hyper-drive to find that a freak accident has caused Forster's skin to fuse with the fibreglass of his pod. This too is not terribly original: it reminded me of the crewmen who get turned into meat sauce during that transporter malfunction in the first Star Trek movie. I gotta confess, at this point in the movie I was pretty sure Supernova would be nothing but an amalgam of scenes from better-know science fiction films and was almost relieved when a head-scratchingly bizarre bit of dialogue jarred me out of my depression. Responding to the news that Forster may have actually sacrificed himself by entering a pod he knew to be dysfunctional so they could jump to the colony (a potentially interesting development that is only hinted at and never brought up again, leading me to believe it was really code for "Forster wanted out of this movie"), Spader snaps accusingly at Cruz: "And what if they never crucified Christ? Well they did." Huh??

If that weird line wasn't bad enough, in the very next scene Spader shows up at Bassett's quarters sporting a bottle of brandy with a pear inside of it. After offering a kindergartner's explanation of how they get the pear in there (they put the bottle on the branch - couldn't they think of something more science fiction-y?) he somehow manages to seduce her into a little bare-skinned space aardvarking in zero gravity in the back of the ship. That they would casually hook-up after such a tragedy isn't shocking, but it's not really tactful either and the whole thing stinks of re-shoot. Two scenes back these characters hated each other, then their captain was squashed into space putty, and suddenly they're not only getting it on but in such a kinky method in such a public forum? Even if Bassett bought the whole "bottle on the branch" nonsense, how did that lead to the big question, "Do you happen to feel like getting naked, shutting off the artificial gravity and doing the deed while spinning uncontrollably around a transparent dome through which any voyeuristic alien passerby could effortlessly ogle our hovering nude bodies?"

 

 

It's ridiculous and unconvincing, but the scene (I should say "shot" - it's just one shot that pans luridly down the length of the spaceship before slowing to pass the levitating lovers mid-air and mid-coitus) sets up the one aspect of Supernova that seems the least bit derivative: its obsession with space sex. Space slut Robin Tunney is the most flagrant champion of all that is naked and horny, making time with Lou Diamond Phillips - Lou Diamond Phillips! Can I just take a minute to mention that Lou Diamond Phillips is in this movie? A widely-released studio movie! From 2000! Lou Diamond Phillips! Didn't he go through a space vagina and morph into Benjamin Bratt circa-1993? - and cavorting sans clothes whenever possible. Getting ready for the big jump, she strips unselfconsciously with the rest of the gang in a moment that reminded me of Starship Troopers' communal showers (it's possible she doesn't mind being naked in front of Phillips, who she's sleeping with, and Cruz, who is clearly not into the ladies, but I'd still say she's pretty out there and open with it). It's established that having a baby is illegal without consent from whatever government these characters answer to, so it's safe to assume that her proclivities are completely recreational. When Phillips suggests they apply to get pregnant, Tunney responds "What if they only approve one of us?," sort of space code for "If we're done here, there really are other people I should be having sex with." 

Cosmic energies and sexual interplay aren't limited to humans on the ship. Don't worry Flyboy stays pure, but the ship's computer - a hussy-voiced tease named "Sweetie" - taunts Benji, the computer tech, with a number of suggestive remarks made in a sultry tone, the most aggressive being, "Congratulations Benjamin...your strategy was both subtle and forceful. You can play with me whenever you want" (the line comes right after the Spader-Bassett floating sex shot). The casting of Wilson Cruz, most famous as closeted Rickie on "My So-Called-Life" but also as Hoover's rent boy in Nixon and the target of Macaulay Culkin's drug-addled wrath in Party Monster, makes the relationship between Benji and Sweetie even weirder than it is: the throaty, disembodied voice seems almost like it's mocking him into some sort of heterosexual arrangement that he's obviously uncomfortable with. I'm not bringing up the topic of Cruz's sexuality and penchant for playing gay characters just for the sake of gossip, but to point out what an odd casting decision it was, especially when the concept behind the character's intimate connection with a computer is already pretty out there in and of itself. Needless to say, the subplot would have been vastly different with burly Vincent D'Onofrio in the role. 

I bring this up because sex in Walter Hill movies, at least in terms of female characters, has always been handled a little strangely. Jill Ireland seems hastily written-in to Hard Times (then again it is a Charles Bronson movie). The anonymous "The Girl," played by Isabelle Adjani in The Driver, is blown off by getaway driver Ryan O'Neal in favor of the thrill of the chase and ends up betraying him. The Warriors further establishes that kind of unfulfilled/predatory relationship between male and female by having the girl gang seduce, trap and try to kill the male members of the eponymous gang ("The chicks are packed!") Pamela Reed's Belle Starr uses her influence over David Carradine's Cole Younger to get him involved in a strangely sexual knife fight with James Remar in The Long Riders (not to mention the fact that the character is played by Pamela Reed, not the kind of lady you'd usually see two guys fighting over but that's besides the point). There are no women to be found at all in the deceptively gently-titled Southern Comfort, the buddy chemistry between Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy almost knocks lovely Annette O'Toole off the screen in 48 Hrs., and Diane Lane, the cause for Michael Pare's "rock 'n roll" pilgrimmage in Streets of Fire, is largely absent and more of an abstract object of desire - all examples of Hill's preference of male bonding over classic boy-girl companionship. I could go on forever discussing the mirror personalities of Nolte and Powers Boothe in terms of their shared lust for Maria Conchita Alonso in Extreme Prejudice, but for the sake of staying on some kind of a track I'll just point out that Supernova is by far the most sex-obsessed, sex-filled movie Hill has produced, yet it's handled just as awkwardly as any of his previous efforts.

 

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