Back to the end-of-the-world genre for today's review. Supernova is a Hallmark Channel production, with that company's usual mix of b-list actors, heavy reliance on dodgy special effects, and overwrought dialogue paired with lots of close-ups on sweaty, earnest faces. Tedious at times, yes, but at least you go into a movie like this knowing what to expect (for better or for worse, I presume). It was a three-hour, two-day mini-series, which seems a hell of a lot longer when you (like I) are watching it on a laptop in your car in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, so I might have to do some condensing to keep my sanity. I will admit I fast-forwarded through some of the talky chunks of it, as the creepy guy in the serial killer Chevy van next to me kept staring over at me, though even at double-speed with the volume off I don't think I missed much.
On to our show...
First off, this is not the movie of the same name from 2000 staring the superfine Angela Bassett, nor is it the trashy 1993 Spanish sci-fi stinker, also of the same name (which I simply MUST find), nor is it the short-lived Australian television series about...something (probably kangaroos). It's also not a lengthy examination of Oasis's long-ignored masterpiece Champaign Supernova off their seminal 1996 album "What's the Story, Morning Glory?". Nor is it about my cousin Joey's '68 Chevy Nova SS with the aftermarket glass packs and the 255/22 slicks on the back. For that matter, it's not even the retelling of the classic story of Booster Gold, who, with the assistance of Rip Hunter, faked his death and traveled back in time to become Supernova as part of a plan to stop Skeets, who was being controlled by Mister Mind (though that would have been sweet because we could see him use his Phantom Zone Projector to teleport matter from one place to another through the Phantom Zone itself, oh hell yeah).
Anyway, our movie opens at a remote observatory in the Australian Outback where we meet Doctor Shepard, Nobel laureate and ultra-mega-smartyhead astrophysicist. Shepard is here at what appears to be his personal, hands-off-everyone, solar observatory when he sees something potentially horrible in the big glowing ball in the sky, something that freaks him out enough that he right then and there decides that there's no point in even trying to go about his normal life anymore.
Shepard (hey, it's Peter Fonda, I hate him).
Shepard gets the heeby-jeebies and leaves in an old clanky Willys pickup, after packing up a surf board and several tens of thousands of dollars in cash. He's followed by some mysterious Men-in-Black types, who do a lot of looking through binoculars and talking into cellphones. Shepard, being an aged academician in a Hawaiian shirt and flipflops, is of course able to outwit and evade these two (presumably) highly-trained government agents with very little difficulty (seriously, if spies in the real world were as inept as the spies in Hollywood's world, the Rooskies would have won the Cold War by '54 and we'd all be eating borscht and driving Ladas by now). Shepard hops a floatplane to the Maldives and spends the rest of the movie being a beach bum in paradise.
For some reason the agents take like fifty photos of Shepard as he drives around, just how many pictures do you need of an old man buying a plane ticket?
Our sun has the swine flu today, and along with a raging fever (27 million degrees with a rectal thermometer) it has explosive projective vomiting (coronal ejections of a phlegmy mix of electrons and protons in last night's plasma soup) and is generally in a pissy mood. All of this we see in little visual nibblets spaced throughout the movie (usually right before the commercial breaks). I will admit that there are some truly bizmoney CGI insert shots in this movie, little five-second moments of high-processing power goodness rendered with greater care and attention to detail than you usually find in these types of movies. If only the dialogue and acting parts that sandwich these shots were as good.
Let's meet our hero, dashing young astrophysicist Doctor Chris Richardson, played by one-time heartthrob Luke Perry, now reduced to these sorts of made-for-bored-housewives disaster miniseries (such as Descent, Storm, and Silent Venom, just to name a few). Like all scientists, regardless of their discipline, Chris is also an expert in hand-to-hand combat, firearms, wilderness survival, emergency trauma medicine, and can drive any vehicle with wheels (it's not specifically noted in the dialogue, but I am certain he can also hang-glide into a volcano). Sadly, while nominally the voice of the film's audience, he will turn out to be incredibly self-centered and pretentious as soon as he opens his mouth, and I will want to punch him in the face by the third act.
Chris works for SPL, the "Solar Probe Lab", which is the one single institution where every curious reporter, every worried politician, and every overbearing military officer calls upon when they have a question about science. In the fanciful rainbow-filled world of Supernova, scientists with lab coats and degrees in celestial mechanics have almost rockstar status, known to everyone from the highest levels of government, to the entirety of the media, to every man, woman and child on every street in the world. When they want funding, they get it, when they want to talk to the president, they just dial his number, when they walk through an airport, people faint and beg for autographs. This, of course is, pure movie-magic. Ask a hundred (hell, ask a hundred thousand) random people on the street to name you just one single astrophysicist, just one. I dare you.
Fancy SPL conference room, complete with pop-up computer monitors, neat.
While Chris chats with his boss one day, up walks a mean woman in a business suit and platform shoes. Her name is Delgado and she's a special field agent with the NIO, the "National Intelligence Organization", which is just the movie-world version of the spooky NSA. She's played by Tia Carrere, holding it together quite well for her age, if I may say so. While she's primarily remembered for her role in Wayne's World, Carrere is also well known for...well, for...uh, you know, for...crap, has she done anything since Wayne's World?
Delgado (and her bosses in the guv'ment) are worried about the recently-disappeared Doctor Shepard, as they think he might be selling "solar probe protocols to parties outside the consortium". Shepard apparently sent off some encoded emails to some other astrophysicists before he ditched town, and the NIO needs to know what they are about. So Chris is sent to the "solar conference" to spy on his colleagues and find out what they know and what Shepard emailed them. He thinks he has no choice but to play the mole, but if he's so upset about it, couldn't he just refuse? Or rat them out? At the conference, which I think they filmed at a real life scientific conference somewhere, Chris and the other astrophysicists talk about what Shepard sent them. The bombshell is about Shepard's long-held, somewhat heretical views that the sun is much older than traditional wisdom (and a hundred years of scientific research) claim, and is in fact dying and approaching its world-eating supernova phase. Chris is shocked to say the least.
Chris talks with the other smartyhead scientists.
Walking in unannounced, Delgado and her goons round up all the scientists and hustle them off. It seems that the government already knows everything about Shepard's research and the coming solar apocalypse. So why the ruse, you ask? Apparently, they just wanted to know what everyone else knew and this was the best way they could figure out to do it (really?). You'd think a group as powerful as the NIO wouldn't have to resort to such subterfuge, they would just haul them in for questioning.
They are not happy.
Spouting some dated anti-communist jargon, one of the scientists (a former Soviet) kicks loose and runs off. He tries to jump off the roof to safety but ends up dangling precariously from a ledge. A stuntwoman who looks nothing like Delgado tries to save him, but he falls, splat, and she can only grimace and lie to the other scientists about his fate.
One of the (surprisingly) frequent action scenes, though undercut by lousy editing work.
The scientists are taken to some unnamed military base to await transport to an undisclosed location. They are handcuffed (much to Chris' smarmy ire) and kept in the dark about what's really going on (though they all suspect that it's due to Shepard's theory). Eventually, they are all loaded up in a Huey helo, Delgado and her goons along for the ride. Unfortunately for them all, a sunspot storm hits this general area as they are in the air, and the helicopter's electronics fail. I can honestly say that they did a bang-up job of giving us a tutorial on autorotation emergency landing. The only annoying bit is that as it rolls over you can really see that it's a crappy little plastic model, you'd think with the budget they could afford to spruce up some old hulked helo and drop if from a crane.
The helo rolls down a hillside and only Chris and Delgado survive (all that lead-up, all that character development for the other scientists, wasted). While they wait for rescue, they talk and while they have some serious disagreements about all sorts of things both big and small, they do manage to find some common ground. Most notably in family, both are very concerned about how their relatives will fare in the coming solar apocalypse. All movie long I kept expecting some sort of romantic buds to blossom between Delgado and Chris, but it never happens.
I know you just survived a helicopter crash and all, but, damn, could you maybe run a comb through that? It's distracting.
Meanwhile, our blue marble is suffering greatly from del sol's angry rage. Sunspots and massive solar electromagnetic storms are wreaking havoc with global communications satellites and cell towers, airliners are crashing, militaries are worried, and regular folks fret about losing their TV signal. All over the world, teenage girls are frantically pounding their cellphone send buttons, unable to text Tiffany about how they spotted Rachel and Ricky kissing in the parking lot of the Macaroni Grill when she was supposed to be dating Robbie, that bitch.
Cute anchorwoman gives us the scoop.
Off now to a huge underground bunker somewhere in Australia, nearish Sydney but out in the Outback. This bunker is part of the global "Phoenix Project", an international super-secret project designed to give the human race a fighting chance to survive in the event of a global catastrophe. There are a number of deep underground bunkers scattered across the world, each fully capable of sustaining 10,000 people for fifteen years, presumably long enough to allow the radiation from WWIII die down enough to return to the surface. The type of people that have been tagged to populate the bunkers is a mix of scientists and intellectuals, people ideally suited to repopulate the world. The project's heads are currently rounding up these "essential people" on their constantly-updated lists, trying to keep as quiet about it as possible (to keep the huddled masses from storming the gates).
Phoenix bunker, spiffy.
We now meet "the General", a US Army three-star who is in overall command of the Phoenix Project. The General is played by Lance Henriksen, who might have been cast solely for his gravely, scary voice, and his ability to sound both passionate and insane all at the same time. While clearly the film's designated villain, a stiff-suited buzz-cut walking embodiment of the Evil Military Industrial Complex, by the end of the second act it's really, really hard not to completely sympathize with his motivations and drive. The General's overriding focus it to preserve the human race, against all odds, and while his methods may be suspect, you can't argue with his motivations.
The General (who spends half the movie in civilian clothes for some reason).
Because he's the hero, however, Chris immediately gets all uppity and is aghast that the General (and the government by extension) would actually (gasp!) try and preserve the human race in the event of armageddon. He just can't seem to understand why anyone sane or logical would ever condone such a project, why what about the other 99.5% of the human race, what ever will happen to them? If we can't save every single person, why don't we just let everyone perish, let the species die out in a searing wall of flaming plasma?!? God forbid those best qualified and trained to restore our species to viability be called upon to do just that! And what about Chris' family? If they can't come along into Noah's Bunker, then why should anyone else on the planet be allowed to? Chris' brow furrows and his beady eyes scruntch up and we are supposed to just ache with his self-righteous pain. Bollocks, I say. Chris, being the most important man on the planet, wants no part of this and steals an ATV and burns out (internal combustion engines down in an underground bunker?). He manages to get past some guards, but is recaptured and tasered and hauled off into the bunker. In light of later events, and the fact that any knowledge that Chris has is also known by others vastly more qualified than he, they just should have shot him in the head (only so much bottled water and beef jerky to go around, you know).
Keep that elbow in, soldier!
We now get some nice graphic sequences of the sun kicking out "corona ejecta", which are described as "fireballs" of energy that seem to travel in blobs in straight lines across the solar system, usually headed directly at Earth (this movie's view of the solar system is sorta like balls placed on a flat table). One of these fireballs (CGI'd as asteroid-esque thingies) impacts directly on Saint Louis, Missouri. The iconic Arch is hit first, of course, because national landmarks are always targets in disaster movies. We also learn (via a freaked out Pentagon staffer) that other cities have been hit and millions of acres of forests are ablaze.
Saint Louis at sunrise (maybe the best effects shot of the entire movie).
And now we have the (inevitable) turning of Delgado from hard-bitten Company Woman to big emotional softy. When the General insinuates that her family is "not essential personnel" to be taken into a Phoenix bunker, Delgado almost instantly loses faith in the entire program. Well, duh, of course they are not essential, and neither is she, for that matter. In the entire movie, Delgado's skill set consists of hotwiring cars, kicking people in the head, and looking hot in a tailored suit, and while all these skills are impressive (especially the last one), she doesn't really have much to offer the Phoenix program in real practical terms. Worse yet, while she is a woman, she's past prime breeding age, and if you really think about it, Doctor Strangelove was right, you are going to need a lot of fertile 18-year old girls stocked up in your bunker if you are going to repopulate the earth. [Editor Pam: Based on what I've heard about U.S. Government plans in case of a nuclear war, I believe that provisions are made to allow the immediate family of anyone considered worthy of shelter to be protected also. I imagine it would be hard to make most of the key personnel enter the shelter if they know their families are probably going to die outside, although I suspect there's a minority, hopefully very small, that would kick their newborn baby out the door to make sure there's enough room for them inside.]
Delgado cries, because according to Hollywood, crying is the lightswitch that can be flipped on to turn any woman's opinions, attitudes, and ideals around 180 degrees.
Deciding to give up her position and career and become both a traitor to the cause and a wanted woman, Delgado moves quickly to escape the bunker with Chris (who would seem like deadweight to her plan for a quick getaway, but she's taken a shine to him). They essentially just walk out through the paper-thin security, just needing a piece of paper to wave at the one single guard at the front gate (if it's that easy to get out, how easy is it to get in?).
For some reason totally unrelated to the plot, Delgado flashes us her bra for two seconds, I guess the director need at least something to keep the boys interested (see last paragraph, however).
Once out on the open road (un-pursued, mind you), they decide what to do next. They are going to Sydney first, so that Chris can find his family, then Delgado will peel off and go on to Saint Louis to find her own relatives (she has no other details to her plan other than "go to Saint Louis"). They suspect that they will be followed soon (why?), so they ditch their stolen motorpool Jeep in a local town and "borrow" some poor sap's lovingly restored BMW 2002 (cool to see all these right-driver import cars, don't see those here in the States). Note all the "CA" coded license plates, which is a give-away that this movie was filmed in Cape Town Province, South Africa, though it's set entirely in Australia. I've heard that South Africa is the new Canada, the cheapest place to film movies, thanks to generous state-funded tax breaks.
Grand Theft Auto: Cape Town.
Eventually they run out of gas on a dark country road and have to hitch-hike along with a bunch of drunken frat boys on their way to the Party at the End of the World. Word has gotten out, via the internet (pre-youtube 2005!), that Solar Doomsday is near and the 18-24 demographic has decided that they'd rather meet their maker drunk, high, and underneath a cute sophomore co-ed. Chris, of course, is far too morally superior to partake in such things and while Delgado searches for a phone, he wanders around the party trying hard to show them/us how much better he is than any of these mere uneducated children.
Chris and some dude (who has obviously been self-medicating).
Since they are the sort to lament the depths to which civil society has fallen, while at the same time acting very much the same way, Chris and Delgado steal yet another car. As most/all the partygoers are sloshfaced drunk, they have their choice of cars in the parking lot (including a Lamborghini Diablo that gets enough center-frame screentime to make me think it belongs to Luke Perry), but they wisely take a Mitsubishi Colt 4x4 pickup (which Delgado correctly describes as "kickass").
Driving off in the truck (that's one of those fireball thingies over the horizon there).
Sydney has been hit hard by coronal fireballs (which only seem to target major cities) and is largely ablaze by the time they get there. We see that the survivors are rioting in an orgy of violence and property damage, and it's no surprise that, in a lack of understanding of the problem, people are still willing to break into stores and steal televisions. Delgado stupidly tries to drive into the city in the height of the chaos (the last of a series of really dumb things she has done so far) and quickly gets ambushed by rioters, who are really close to mangling them before Delgado can extract them. They get to safer grounds, but Delgado takes a bullet and is mortally wounded. She dies in Chris' arms as they share a moment. Alone now, Chris puts aside his quest to find his family to deal with some more pressing concerns. He figures that maybe Shepard's supernova prediction was right, but only because he was using bad data that Chris himself had given him beforehand. He needs to know for sure, so he drives to the Solar Probe Lab (which is there in Sydney) to use their computers.
Did I mention this movie was three motherfucking hours long? And it's pretty apparent by about the second act that the director had maybe an hour and a half worth of decent solar-death material to work with, and was staring at another 75 minutes of completely empty script pages. And so, predictably, we have a number of pointless and distracting subplots woven into the baseline plot, all sucking up running time to varying degrees of entertainment. Our first subplot is with the old Doctor Shepard in the Maldives, still burning out his skull with rotgut whiskey and trying hard to land this pretty little filly behind the bar. Since this is cinema, the fates smile down upon Shepard, and this girl, who is a third his age and has great skin, decides to share her hammock with him. Anything is possible in the movies, eh? In the end, a fireball slams into their beach shack and they get atomized.
Sure, I can see that.
We also have a plucky down-on-her-luck reporter, predictably desperate for a scoop to salvage what's left of her journalistic career (which has been reduced to fluff pieces on ducks and bunnies for a third-rate cable station in Sydney). She's said to be the "British Barbara Walters", but nothing really suggests this and if she was as popular and bankable as the real Walters at one time, it's really odd that she's fallen so far without explanation (it can't be that she got old and lost her looks, she's still pretty doable).
The reporter (Emma Samms, really?).
Defying her obstructive editors who care only for ad revenues and ratings (yawn), the reporter digs into the disappearance of Shepard (because a missing scientist is page-one news) and meets his assistant Ginny in the process. Ginny is a doctoral student in astrophysics, inordinately perky, and is prone to bouts of overacting. She does provide the reporter access to Shepard's observatory where they find the crucial clues that convinces the reporter that the world is in severe danger and that someone is keeping the truth secret. Of course, for that plot point to happen, we have to believe that the government and their legions of spooks totally forgot to search Shepard's lab while scrubbing any clue of his research from the public eye.
Ginny (I do love her accent).
And while I kept wishing that the prissy and annoying Ginny would just go away, the director felt her character deserved a sub-subplot (surely desperate to fill out his allotted network run-time). Ginny's boyfriend is a local doctor in Sydney and we have three clock-eating scenes with them together at various times in the movie. They both share the Emmy award for the Most Pointlessly Extraneous Character in a Miniseries, though on their own both actress and actor try their best to appear as a somewhat believable couple (though his single-minded devotion to his work isn't a good sign for their future).
The focus group said they needed more Grey's Anatomy.
At the Solar Probe Lab, Chris spars with the head scientist (and liaison to all governments and media outlets) Malcolm the Bearded Australian. Malcolm has been playing both sides, feeding Shepard's data back to the government and also working with the plucky reporter to get the news out to the general population (it's his/hers internet video chats on the subject that has the world up in arms). He also freely admits his duplicity, that's where all SPL's funding comes from (it seems that the General has his own "Black Budget").
Malcolm, now that's what a scientist should look like!
Chris runs and reruns all the figures as the music gets all dramaticy and the editor uses that old double-exposure trick to up the tension. Eventually it's Chris that discovers his own error, when he accidentally put a plus sign in when he should have put a minus sign in. This caused his calculations to be off by "several orders of magnitude", and caused me to wonder why he didn't double-check his math before publishing his research (isn't this why you have grad students?). And why didn't anyone else in the scientific community catch this error? Normally when you publish something like this, a hundred of your peers leap to triple-check every number so they can make you look stupid. Anyway, now that this error is changed, all the data that Shepard was using also changes and things don't look so bad now.
And that's it then, all better now. In an amazing coincidence, the sun just so happens to be going through a particularly rough (but normal) sunspot cycle, not supernovaing and eating the solar system for lunch. Their new new predictions show that in just a few days it will die down and everything will be hunky-dory again. The General reluctantly puts the Phoenix project back in standby by order of the President, putting the fate of the entire human race in the hands of Chris' new calculations by taking his word on it that the sun will calm down soon (you know, the same guy who screwed up before).
The reporter tells us it's all going to be alright as the smoldering ruins of Sydney collapse behind her. She later threatens to blow the lid off the Phoenix project (I sure hope someone shoots her!).
And to close us out, our last subplot concerns a serial killer named Cole and his vendetta against Chris' wife, who put him in jail with her eyewitness testimony. Most unfortunately, we get a flashback scene as Chris's wife sees Cole kill a young woman in a most brutal way, an overly violent and unsettling scene in what up to that moment has been little more than a fluffy Tuesday-Wednesday miniseries, so unsettling, in fact, that the memory of that one scene soured the entire watching experience for me.
Cole peeks through a window, he's up to no good.
Cole escapes his prison guards as the sunspots cause havoc across Australia (though the CGI graphic shows South Africa, and earlier dialogue puts Chris' wife in America at the time of the crimes, so why is he being held in Australia?). In a violent odyssey of stolen motorcycles and tire-iron murders, Cole makes his way to Sydney and discovers that the wife is at a secluded cabin out in the country, waiting for Chris to return home. The final big scene is Cole and Chris slugging it out in the cabin. It's actually the wife who ends it, doing what few women in movies ever do, actively participating in a life-or-death fight instead of just standing there screaming and crying, picking up the fallen gun and emptying the clip into the bad guy. Seriously, this entire subplot could have been/was supposed to be an entire movie unto itself. I'd love to know how this came about.
The wife has had enough.
Our stinger is Chris and his family on the beach enjoying the (nonthreatening) sun. The camera lingers on the bikini-clad body of a woman for about ten seconds longer than you might be comfortable with, especially since it's not Chris' sizzling hot wife that the camera mauls, but his nine-year old daughter. The same criminally-underage girl, by the way, that we earlier saw naked in the bathtub (albeit under bubbles) in a scene that also left me a bit confused about the moral state of Western Civilization. When the only naked girl you see in a movie is a pre-teen child, you have to wonder if being blitzed by deadly solar radiation isn't such a bad thing.
Written in September 2009 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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