Supernova; A Brighter Summer Day

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    Hill's misfortune?and his unbowed talent?would be the talk of the cultural moment if bad luck and betrayal did not routinely hound serious artists in commercial enterprises like filmmaking and book publishing; or if Hill's films were better understood by contemporary cineastes. Despite the hip cachet given to action genres there's been little appreciation for how Hill's past work like The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort and Johnny Handsome renewed the form. Critics favor less skilled practitioners Quentin Tarantino, John Dahl, Michael Mann and that totally mindless adept James Cameron. Those piddling careers are firmly established. So it was astonishing last year to see Hill's Streets of Fire referenced in Emir Kusturica's boisterous Black Cat White Cat; it contains a scene where one of the clownish gypsy characters compulsively watches Streets of Fire on tv. Although Streets of Fire (a fantasy about rock 'n' roll mythology intersecting movie mythology) was too compacted with sophisticated cultural allusions to be a hit on home turf, the fact that it got through to the Balkans is testimony to the fecundity of Hill's imagination and his irresistible cinematic panache. Critics who fall over themselves praising Kusturica's boondoggles (he may have imitated Streets' effervescence too slavishly) can't countenance Hill's pyrotechnics or his pop poetry.

    Their indifference has made obscure what in Hill's movies ought to have popular currency. His interest in how character develops in imaginary, socially fraught situations displays a more intelligent fascination with art history and cinematic archetypes than any of the genre-saturated experiments by Martin Scorsese or Coppola or Cameron. In The Driver (showing as part of Film Forum's "Neo-Noir" series on March 6), Hill first achieved his unique combination of myth and personal identity?a chimera of existential crisis as svelte as The Third Man. His visionary films are bound for rediscovery and this damaged Supernova should be one of the most interesting.

    It's almost frightening to think about the masterpiece Walter Hill had in mind (after he was removed from the project Hill gave directorial credit to the pseudonym Thomas Lee) but what remains in Supernova has virtues reminiscent of movies Hill claims. Set in the 22nd century, Supernova begins as A.J. Marley (Forster), captain of the Nightingale 229, works on his dissertation about violent 20th-century cartoons. The first sight of his face framed within the ship's window is an elegant effect that blends Forster's stern, rapt features with a tv monitor's reflected animated antics. It prefigures a weird, unsettling transformation, a key to the film's narrative pattern. Each character is defined by private responses to changed conditions. Chief medic Kaela Evers (Bassett) hides wounds from a past love affair with her officious demeanor; copilot Nick Vanzant (Spader) is on probation for illegal drug use; computer engineer Benj Sotomejor (Wilson Cruz) is a techie in sexual retreat while the medical assistants Danika Lund (Robin Tunney) and Yerzy Penalosa (Lou Diamond Phillips) wile-a-way their downtime coupling. The team's interplanetary stasis is disrupted by a sudden distress signal; the plot jumps as the Nightingale 229 responds, speeding toward a "rogue moon."

    Almost as if remaking the Alien series (which Hill produced), Supernova uses sci-fi cliche and B-movie plotting as poetic devices. In a great Hollywood tradition, Hill transforms genre; he keeps the juvenile sense of adventure but (despite some space jargon) jettisons juvenile fear of the unknown. As every good genre film is an exercise in moral dilemmas, the Nightingale crew confronts Christian predicament ("They crucified Christ so let's go"). Instincts alerted, their beliefs and their sexuality reveal the potency of desire. Hill, like Graham Greene, is less concerned with narrative convention than in discovering the characters' compulsions and equating them with other cultural fixations.

    Probing the unconscious, Hill comes up with secrets The Talented Mr. Ripley withholds about what drives contemporary ambition. Hill starts with disreputable pop (not tony jazz), disputatious racial commingling (not white exclusivity) and working-class tensions (not ritzy privilege), and accepts queerness. Nick Vanzant's struggle with his drug problem tests his personal honor and career rep. Spader, buff and dark-haired, perfectly conveys modern, self-conscious desuetude?a more credible characterization than Matt Damon's Boy Scout psychopath. Hill goes to outer space to show the intricacies of inner space. The Nightingale itself resembles warm emotional cavities, and the trek into the unknown is automatically significant, but Supernova adds other temptations. It depicts the modern urge toward danger that comes from boredom, social anxiety. The plot (alarmingly similar to Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn Gregory Solman noted) sets the stage for examining contemporary drug culture?when people opt out not for adventure, but as deliberate social alternatives. Rejecting conventional duty as a justifiable response to social ineffectualness?settling for private solutions by subjective means.

    Action hero Vanzant seems designed to refute solipsism. His attraction to Kaela, a socializing force, recalls the long line of invigorating cross-ethnic, cross-class Hill liaisons (the Nightingale crew is a multiculti love-in). But these are also issues that the supposedly more realistic Talented Mr. Ripley fails to address. This film maudit, with just the bare bones of a psychological epic, still resonates ideas about our social relations. Instead of a Star Trek menagerie Hill uses actors with a B-movie genius' gift for human types. Raspy-voiced Vanzant, the guarded stoic male, complements Kaela. None of Hill's previous tough-guy females were as gorgeous as Bassett; barking orders and controlling her own feelings, she does sharp and sexy with aplomb. Kaela and Vanzant enliven cliched cohabitation tension by signifying larger social meanings in line with the Nightingale 229's humanitarian mission. Their space rescue reveals what lengths people will go to to be needed.

    Perhaps you need to know the imprisoned drug dealer's speech from Red Heat, recall the warring factions of Trespass or just remember the purpose of art to recognize the political dynamics of Supernova's conflicts?greed, dependency, love. Although it seems Hill contrived to resolve the hackneyed plot (by William Malone and Daniel Chuba) into a valentine of personal utopia, his artistry added an unexpected dimension. The distress signal the Nightingale 229 answers came from Karl Larson, Kaela's former lover?an intergalactic thief and romantic cad whose appearance on board prompts the horny, naive Danika to ask, "That's your worst nightmare?" First calling himself Karl's son Troy, Larson (Peter Facinelli) hides his menaces behind a revitalized face and body. He has pirated an orb that turns out to be a bomb, dangerous to the Earth's existence (or to anyone who touches it). Obsessed with the orb's value and power, Larson infects various crew members, appealing to their weaknesses, luring them to his own venality, their own deaths.

    Larson is a great figment?the damnedest romantic fantasy of a past lover (now dreaded) coming back into your life as young and ripe as when you were first seduced. The New York Times never saw fit to even mention the character in its dismissive review, but Facinelli's star turn can't be ignored. His kindly eyes and budding mouth are framed by a bearded scruff; he moves athletically with alarming, powerful arms. Trickster Larson has extra-cinematic wiliness because of Facinelli's slight resemblance to Tom Cruise (but a Cruise who can act); he might have exploded the sexual pretenses of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Watching him expand upon several of Supernova's other androgynous ideas (the disembodied voice of Sweetie, a HAL-like computer and an antique, C-3PO-type robot refurbished to resemble a World War I hero) to demonstrate how misbegotten mankind's future romantic expectations might be. Like those almost human machines, Larson's a cruel, tantalizing jest.

    With Facinelli Hill transcends comic book wariness; they put Supernova on that same high level of erotic allegory as Brian De Palma's echt cinematic The Fury. (You could think of Spader and Bassett as Adam and Eve of the future, and Facinelli the snake in the intergalactic garden.) Even Lou Diamond Phillips' Penalosa succumbs to Larson's temptation in a halting scene of drug-like stupor. And a classic moment of romantic abuse has Larson rebuff Danika then eject her from the spacecraft. Tunney's face shows the lovelorn's shocked bewilderment. Looking guilt-ridden and betrayed, she's just coming to grips with one of life's harshest lessons. Whooshed out of the Nightingale's hull, her unprotected body drifts rapidly into the void?helpless, unmoored, soaring into oblivion. In a single image, it's what heartache feels like.

    While critics enthuse (once again) over another reissue of Rear Window, they've missed the real movie news: which is Supernova's fresh vision of the secrets in human hearts. Supernova doesn't arrive with the fanfare that usually declares a studio's pride (and some reviewers, ignoring what's onscreen, take glee in evidence of impending noncommerciality). But if you care about moviemaking or the particular nuanced thrill of emotional expression that Hill achieves through genre efficiency (i.e., poetry) then Supernova is the movie to see right now.

    Clipped Look Sharp. Nothing against Rear Window, but who hasn't seen it already? It's exasperating when every rereleased old movie gets touted as "new and improved." Supernova builds on ideas about love and loneliness that Hitchcock glosses in Rear Window yet reviewers are simply selling Hitchcock's product, not his meanings. In Cambridge University Press' new Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, edited by John Belton, my contribution "Eternal Vigilance" offers a different interpretation of the "important political meaning that lies beneath the surface...and that becomes more clearly visible in the subsequent generation of filmmakers Hitchcock inspired." The essay traces Rear Window's influence on Antonioni's Blow Up, De Palma's Sisters and Coppola's The Conversation and other recent landmarks of social detection. Read the book then see the movie.