by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Supernova, a Hallmark Entertainment production from 2005, produced by Larry Levinson and Robert Halmi, Jr. that turned out to be pretty much what I was looking for last night — a nice, undemanding, entertaining piece of eye candy that had some bizarre mistakes and a few too many plot lines (there’s something to be said for the idea that this was a good two-hour movie that got stretched to three) as well as an annoying cop-out of a resolution, but for the most part it was fun even though it only scratched the surface of what might have been a compelling story. The plot deals with Dr. Austin Shepard (Peter Fonda, third-billed and looking oddly like another son of a Hollywood legend who went into the family business, Michael Douglas), the world’s leading expert on the sun, who works at a solar research facility in Australia (the film was largely set in Australia but was actually shot in South Africa) and makes a top-secret prediction based on the researches of two other scientists in the institute, Dr. Chris Richardson (Luke Perry, top-billed) and Ginny McKillip (Clemency Burton-Hill — when Charles saw her name in the credits he screamed, Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style, “No, it’s Amnesty Burton-Hill!”), and the mathematical calculations they’ve made for him based on the actions of an asteroid.
From this information Dr. Shepard has deduced that the sun is about to go supernova and humankind has about one week to live. He disappears in order to keep this information a secret and to live the final week of his (and all other humans’) life in a resort on the Maldive Islands (the film depicted the Maldives as a tropical rain-forest paradise ringed with hills even though the islands are actually flat, featureless coral atolls and they’re far more in danger from global warming, which is raising the ocean level and thereby threatening to flood them completely, than from the sun going supernova), and in his absence the directors of the institute draft Dr. Richardson to go to a world conference on the sun and present Dr. Shepard’s results. There’s a certain amount of kerfuffle over this because it means that Dr. Richardson is going to have to skip out on his wife Brooke (Jessica Brooks) and their daughter Haley (Eliza Bennett) on the eve of Haley’s school piano recital (which we hear her practicing for by playing the Beethoven bon-bon “Für Elise” — but in the end Dr. Richardson goes to the conference, only he and the world’s other leading solar experts are captured by Australian national intelligence agent Lisa Delgado (Tia Carrere) and taken to a series of secret locations so they won’t reveal the imminent end of the world to anybody.
It seems that there’s a mad colonel named Harlan Williams (Lance Henriksen), who seems to combine the worst features of the characters Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott played in Dr. Strangelove and Stephen Lang played in Avatar and whose solution to the impending end of the world is something called the “Phoenix Project,” which seems so similar to the ending of Dr. Strangelove I couldn’t help but ask, “Where’s the funny-looking one-armed German guy in a wheelchair?” It’s something that had actually been planned decades before in the Pentagon (several times during the movie Charles noted the location credit “Washington, D.C.” over a shot of the Pentagon — which, as he pointed out, is actually outside the city limits in Virginia), though in response to an all-out nuclear war rather than an astronomical emergency, and it consisted of underground bunkers, complete with DNA libraries of plant and animal species that couldn’t be sustained there, in which about 10,000 carefully selected humans representing virtually all professional job classifications (“everyone except lawyers,” the colonel joked) would ride out the emergency and use the DNA banks to repopulate the earth and reproduce, as much as possible, its original biosphere once the emergency was over and the earth’s surface was habitable again.
As if all that weren’t enough plot, director John Harrison and writer Steven H. Berman (imdb.com credits one Don Keith Opper as a co-writer but he isn’t listed on the actual credits) include Laurie Stephenson (Emma Samms), an investigative reporter who, as the world’s communications infrastructure crumbles due to interference from the solar flares that herald the sun’s imminent supernova-dom and as pressure from the authorities keeps her from being able to get her reports on the TV station she works for, uses the Internet (or what’s left of it) to do essentially video blogs on the coming solar emergency, with McKillip as her principal source. There’s also yet another plot strand; it seems that years before Brooke Richardson was held hostage by a serial killer, Grant Cole (Philip Lenkowski, wearing an oddly snaggled-looking set of caps on his front teeth — unless that’s what his real teeth look like — that make him look like a vampire who not only killed women but sucked their blood as well), and she was the only one of his targets who actually survived his assault. Her testimony helped get him convicted and sentenced to death (a glitch in Berman’s script since Australia doesn’t have the death penalty), but before he was led out of the courtroom and taken to Death Row he swore to escape and wreak his vengeance not only on Brooke but on Haley — and when the solar flares screw up the electrical system of the car taking him to his execution, he makes good his threat to escape and heads for the home of the Richardsons, missing them but killing their Aboriginal maid (the only Aborigines we see are servants — the Richardsons’ maids, one at their home and one at the redoubt Brooke and Haley flee to once they realize Cole is on the loose again; and Laurie’s cameraperson) and following the good doctor to the house where his wife and daughter are hiding out. There’s yet another subplot; McKillip’s boyfriend is an emergency-room doctor whom she miraculously locates in the middle of a wrecked city even though he’s being kept frantically busy by the sheer scope of the casualty rates.
Supernova is a lot of fun in a dorky way — after an opening sequence showing stars consuming planets and the credit “several million years ago,” Steven Berman’s writing credit came on and I joked, “Do they mean ‘written’ by Steven Berman, or merely ‘compiled’ by him from movie clichés themselves several million years old?” — the effects work, though not up to modern-day major-studio standards, is certainly credible (especially seen on the normal-sized TV screen for which it was designed), with the spectacular light shows the sun puts on in the vastness of space and the fireballs it launches towards earth (one of which takes out the city of St. Louis, where agent Delgado tells Richardson and us her mom and sister lived, while another takes out Austin Shepard — ya remember Austin Shepard? — and his Maldive-resort bartender girlfriend just as they’re relaxing post-coitally on the porch of her bar; oddly, Berman left us with the distinct impression that before this quirky end-of-world relationship Dr. Shepard was a virgin), and the action, particularly the virtual breakdown of law and order as the general population (especially in the urban centers of advanced countries) becomes aware that the world is at an end and therefore it doesn’t make sense to cling to traditional morality anymore, is vivid even though quite a lot more could have been done about how people would feel about the imminent end of the world. (I found myself suspecting that most of Supernova was set in Australia as a back-handed in-joke tribute to On the Beach, which dealt with little else but how its characters reacted psychologically to the nuclear suicide of the human race.)
The ending did seem like a cop-out, though — working on clues left behind in the journal of a scientist who fell to his death trying to escape from the intelligence agents enforcing the Phoenix Project, Richardson realizes he made a basic math mistake in his calculations, and on the basis of his error Dr. Shepard made a mistaken prediction that the unusually heavy solar action was an impending sign of the sun going supernova instead of just unusually heavy solar action, and therefore within a few days the sun would return to normal and so would the earth. What’s more, this revelation happens with half an hour or so of the movie left to go, and the remainder is Dr. Richardson trying to make it to his wife and child before serial-killer Cole (remember serial-killer Cole?) figures out where they are and exacts his terrible revenge on them, and at that point, despite the effectiveness of Harrison’s suspense direction, the whole serial-killer schtick seems both beside the point and rather arbitrarily spliced on from the end of a Lifetime movie.
Nonetheless, despite the glitches (when the scientist characters wrote out equations for each other, I joked that the people in the audience who didn’t know advanced math would be clueless and the people who did would probably be laughing their heads off at how wrong the equations were), Supernova was quite good entertainment, well staged and transcending the obvious budget limitations instead of being run by them — and managing, despite a few wrenching cuts from one story line to another, to hold audience interest and remain exciting throughout.