So this month I’d wanted to showcase something featuring Angela Bassett, who isn’t strictly a horror icon, but has some great roles in the genre, most recently starring in several seasons of American Horror Story, including Coven, which many consider to be the best of the series. But then something happened. I watched her 2000 film Supernova, and I realized about ten minutes in that I was watching a movie so miraculously inept that I just had to take you all on a journey about how a movie that cost anywhere between $60–90 million to make wound up looking like a rejected pilot for the Sci Fi channel. And I can tell you with certainty that it’s not even a little bit Bassett’s fault, but one that I’m more than willing to put squarely on the shoulders of director Thomas Lee (don’t worry if you don’t recognize the name, we’ll get back to that later).

The premise is actually pretty promising, at least to the degree that it could have been delightfully pulpy space trash. After all, we’ve got Bassett playing Kaela, a surly doctor on a deep-space paramedic ship with brooding pilot Nick (James Spader), engineer Benjamin (Wilson Cruz), medics Yerzy (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Danika (Robin Tunney), and captain A.J. (Robert Forster). When they get a distress signal from a moon near a collapsing star, they rescue Troy (Peter Facinelli), a mysterious young man who looks a lot like Kaela’s abusive ex, only much younger. Turns out he’s something of a treasure hunter, and he’s found himself what looks to be a powerful extraterrestrial bauble capable of both creating and destroying life on a massive scale. I mean, how could this movie go wrong?

The answer to that question is: in every way possible. I should have sensed something was up when I noticed the 10% Rotten Tomatoes score and the fact that the movie was playing free on YouTube, not as a bootleg upload, but as part of the official catalog. But I cheerfully blew past these warning signs, and when I was done I was left in absolute awe and asking myself how this final “product” made its way into the can.

As is often the case, things started off innocently enough, with William Malone pitching a story in 1990 that he envisioned as something like Dead Calm set in outer space (for what it’s worth, I’d watch the hell out of that). Over the course of the next ten years, the production would employ five screenwriters and plow through FOUR directors, including Geoffrey Wright (left before principal photography), Walter Hill (quit after MGM wouldn’t allow him the resources to do the reshoots he wanted), Jack Sholder (brought in to finally do reshoots when MGM realized the movie really did suck), and freaking Francis Ford Coppola (brought in for uncredited edits). By the time the film was released in 2000 (about two years after principal photography wrapped) primary director Hill didn’t want his name anywhere near it. MGM, not wanting to fully admit defeat with the dreaded Alan Smithee moniker, created a new fictional fall guy in Thomas Lee.

And “Lee’s” work is, simply put, a miracle. I’ve never seen a movie where every choice seems deliberately made to sabotage its success. Given how many hands were in this particular pie, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that it plays out less like a feature-length narrative and more like a 90-minute montage of independent scenes. Bits and pieces of half-formed concepts are sprinkled through the film like the body parts stitched together to make Frankenstein’s monster. Most of the scientific elements of the film are employed by putting the word “space” or “laser” in front of them. There’s a MacGuffin in the film that turns out to be a vessel for a substance called ninth dimensional matter (apparently anything below eighth dimensional matter is child’s play), and in the film’s climax we discover that because the matter has been released from said vessel, it will cover every inch of the universe. What does that mean? Well, per the ship’s computer, when it hits Earth in about 50 years, one of two things will happen (spoiler alert, I guess): it will destroy all life or make it evolve into something exponentially better. It’s like they had two endings to this movie, but couldn’t be bothered to actually pick one, so they just said “screw it” and threw them both in.

The only elements that seem to have survived the film’s various iterations are 1) an odd obsession with sex and 2) an impressive ability to stomp on every actor’s performance. The latter feat is especially impressive considering the talent on board, particularly Robert Forster, who gets all of five lines before his character is unceremoniously killed off in the first act. This leaves the ship to Bassett and Spader, who only have any chemistry together because they’re natural charm forces through every roadblock put in their way by the dialogue. Meanwhile, Lou Diamond Phillips has a scene where he has to do handstand pushups and Robin Tunney is given pretty much nothing to do. Facinelli alternates between sneering and screaming off-screen a bunch.

The fixation on sex is even weirder considering this is a PG-13 movie, so there’s only a few flashes of nudity, but a lot of odd, sexually charged symbolism that actually seems like it sprang from the mind of a 13-year-old boy. The ninth-dimension space vessel is a glowing, pink-purple oval that the male characters become obsessed with, so take of that what you will. And let’s not overlook the fact that the spaceship is an oblong tube that reaches this film’s version of light speed by spewing out a white beam of plasma before rocketing off into the cosmos.

Then there’s the floating sex room. That’s right, there’s a room in this ship devoted exclusively to allowing its crew to twirl around in anti-gravity conjugal ecstasy. The effect was originally shot with Peter Facinelli and Robin Tunney mounted on a rotating pole that was removed in post-production, making the actors look like they’re just twirling around naked on an invisible spit. Plus, when Coppola came in for his edits, he wanted to establish a relationship between James Spader and Angela Bassett earlier in the film, so he threw in a scene where they have a go in the floating bone zone. But since he didn’t have the opportunity to reshoot any scenes, he just took outtakes of Facinelli and Tunney and digitally darkened Tunney’s skin to pass her off as Bassett—because nothing says “sexy” like computer-generated blackface.

I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out where the film’s $60–90 million went, because almost none of it seems to have made its way on screen. The visual effects for the spaceship look like the kind of rough cuts you see in the first draft stages of a VFX reel. And yes, I know CGI effects could still be pretty spotty in genre films at the turn of the century, but again they had AT LEAST $60 MILLION to get it right. Also, beyond a bit of gnarly but only briefly shown makeup to show Robert Forster’s mishap with his light-speed pod, there’s little to no gore to be found in this movie, which is almost unforgivable considering how trashy this movie is.

Look, I’m normally not one to take an entire column to dunk on a movie, but more than anything I’m just fascinated by how absolutely none of the pieces fell into place for Supernova (even the trailer left me wondering who the hell in the marketing department thought Sugar Ray and Three Dog Night were the right bands to convey the tone of this movie). And given that the movie’s myriad of flaws have “studio interference” written all over them, I’m not so worried about hurting MGM’s feelings. It’s a pure, unadulterated, Plan Nine from Outer Space-level sci-fi stinker, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets a similar cult following one day.

  • Bryan Christopher
    About the Author - Bryan Christopher

    Horror movies have been a part of Bryan’s life as far back as he can remember. While families were watching E.T. and going to Disneyland, Bryan and his mom were watching Nightmare on Elm Street and he was dragging his dad to go to the local haunted hayride.

    He loves everything about the horror community, particularly his fellow fans. He’s just as happy listening to someone talk about their favorite horror flick as he is watching his own, which include Hellraiser, Phantasm, Stir of Echoes, and just about every Friday the 13th movie ever made, which the exception of part VIII because that movie is terrible.