After much delay, the big-budget science fiction pic opens Friday.
By Steve Biodrowski January 13, 2000
What was one of the most heavily anticipated genre films of 1999 is finally opening in the Year 2000. SUPERNOVA, the first science fiction film directed by Walter Hill (one of the driving forces behind the ALIEN franchise), was supposed to open last March 12, but problems arose during postproduction that delayed the release until this Friday, January 14. Hill, a noted helmer of action films (including 48 HOURS), had served as an executive producer on ALIEN (and, later, its sequels), but bowed out of the director's chair after rewriting the script and supervising much of the development. He also exec produced TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and helmed an episode of the pilot, but the only previous genre film directed by him was CITY OF FIRE, a vaguely futuristic action-thriller. With SUPERNOVA, it seemed he was finally helming the kind of high-tech horror that he had helped invent with ALIEN.
Unfortunately, after assembling his first cut of SUPERNOVA, Hill had a disagreement with MGM Studios, which wanted changes made before releasing the film. The director wanted to test screen the film before doing any reshooting, but the studio wouldn't agree. Hill left the project, which missed its scheduled release in the first quarter of last year. Reportedly, director Jack Sholder (THE HIDDEN) was brought in to shoot additional footage, and even Francis Ford Coppola took a look at the film to determine what could be done to fix it.
Although no one is discussing the changes that were made, they were extensive enough that Hill was able to have his name removed from the credits. This is not a step lightly taken. Producers hire a director not only for his work but also for his name value, and the Directors Guild of America doesn't want its members to avoid credit simply because they are not proud of the result. There is an established arbitration process, in which the director must show that the film no longer represents his work. If the arbitration is successful, the DGA's pseudonym 'Alan Smithee' traditionally replaces the director's name, but there is no requirement to use it. The presence of the name 'Thomas Lee' in the director's credit indicates that SUPERNOVA was substantially altered after Hill's departure.
The multiple hands working on the film in postproduction is only an extension of how the project was treated from its genesis. SUPERNOVA originated as a screenplay entitled DEAD STAR by William Malone (HOUSE ON HAUNTED HIL), which was supposed to be a showcase for the fantastic imagery of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger.
'I wrote the original screenplay for that,' says Malone, who also directed episodes of TALES FROM THE CRYPTalthough that had nothing to do with Hill's involvement on SUPERNOVA. 'It was totally coincidental,' Malone adds. 'Actually, DEAD STAR was a script I wrote ten years ago, and thought it was dead. Suddenly, I got a call from the production company saying they had sold it to MGM, who were going to make it as a big-budget filma big surprise to me.'
The retitled script that was eventually filmed was several draft's removed from Malone's conception, which was built around the art of Giger, who (again coincidentally) had changed the look of science fiction horror with his creature designs for ALIEN. 'I spent ten days with H.R. Giger in Zurich developing that project, and we had some pretty amazing things in store for it,' recalls Malone. 'I was always disappointed that we weren't able to get the picture off the ground. It really became an issue that what we developed was much more ambitious than what the little production company we were dealing with was able to do. Their only thing was to sell the script to someone who could do it.'
Most of Malone's script was jettisoned before the cameras even started rolling; subsequent rewrites took place during production. The final screenplay credit goes to David Campbell Wilson, based on a story by Malone and Daniel Chuba; the later served as one of the film's producers. Of what will emerge this Friday, Malone is not privy to many details. 'I know Giger was not involved with it. I know the script went through a lot of permutationswhat those are I really don't know, but I wound up just getting a shared 'story by' credit. Of course, I wrote the original screenplay. The last time I saw it [the script], there were like ten writers on the front page. I don't know how it turned out. I know they had a lot of production problems. Whether or not the picture's goodI hope it is. I think Walter Hill's a helluva a good filmmaker. He had a lot to do with some really cool movies, like ALIEN.'
MGM is not holding press screenings for the filmseldom a good sign. Those who have seen earlier cuts of the film indicate that it is a slick and handsomely mounted production that is somewhat lackluster in the dramatic department, lacking a dynamic plot and involving characters. The special effects by Digital Domain are impressive, but the action set pieces are not strong enough to create a thrill ride that overwhelms the plot problems. Apparently, the story is not bad but stretched a bit thin, like a good TWILIGHT ZONE premise over-expanded to feature length. A flaw like this seems fairly fundamental--not a minor point that can easily be remedied in postproduction--so it seems unlikely that MGM's tinkering was able to 'fix' the film. Still with a cast that includes not only James Spader (STARGATE) and Angela Bassett (A VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN) but also Robert Forster (ALLIGATOR) and Lou Diamond Phillips (BATS), there have to be at least a few good moments that will make the film worth seeing.