Supernova (2000)

by Mike Ward


Getting Something More Out of Something Less


ongratulations, Benjamin,” sighs Supernova‘s shipboard computer. “Your strategy was both subtle and forceful. You can play with me whenever you want.”

cover art


Director: Thomas Lee
Cast: James Spader, Angela Bassett, Lou Diamond Phillips, Robin Tunney, Wilson Cruz, Robert Forster, Peter Facinelli


This sure is saucy language for talking about a game of chess. But computers have been playing chess so expertly, for so long, that it was probably only a matter of time before the game started making them a little, well, horny.

Still, you can be certain Big Blue never cooed at Kasparov this way. Those two have long been at each others’ throats, but Benjamin Sotomejor (Wilson Cruz) and “Sweetie” (given breathy voice by one Vanessa Marshall), the all-purpose computer on board Benjamin’s starship, play a kinder, more loving chess. They get plenty of chances to do so, since their vessel — the Nightingale 229, a floating hospital and rescue ship of the fairly-near future — operates in deep space. Crews in starships spend most of their time hanging around, waiting to get where they’re going, as we all know from watching the billions and billions of deep space movies made in the past quarter-century.

The idle weeks the Nightingale passes in transit aren’t time enough for chess playing as far as the insatiable Sweetie is concerned, though, so she opens Supernova by waking up Benjamin for an impromptu late-night session of the game. She does so under the nonsensical pretense of “running a test to perform an unscheduled test,” and so initially seems to be a little out of her mind. But it turns out Sweetie is fairly warm and fuzzy as computers go, and when a holographic chessboard appears in front of a bleary-eyed and befuddled Benjamin and Sweetie asks, abruptly, whether he wants to play a game, it’s simply because she wants to be with him. All this yammering about tests was just an excuse. It’s not totally clear what’s going on here until a bit later, when we learn that Benjamin and Sweetie have fallen into whatever passes for love between a man and a disembodied voice.

The rest of Supernova‘s introductory minutes are spent watching the Nightingale’s crew goof off. While Sweetie and Benjamin play chess, Danika (Robin Tunney) and Yerzy (Lou Diamond Phillips), both blandly corporeal, settle for having old-fashioned sex. Captain Marley (Robert Forster) works away at a doctoral dissertation called “Cathexis and Catharsis,” an exegesis of the ultraviolent 20th-century cartoon “Tom and Jerry,” and Nick (James Spader), initially distrustful of the rest of the crew, spends most of his time floating around in a zero-gravity isolation tank. But duty beckons when the crew receives a distress call from Titan 37, a mining colony, and bends time and space in the usual undertheorized and impossible way to cross the 3,000-some-odd light years between themselves and the source of the trouble.

This is a “rogue moon,” home of Titan 37, which has drifted into the vicinity of a blue giant star about to go supernova. Naturally, the distress call is a ruse, and when the Nightingale rescues the mining colony’s sole survivor, Troy (Peter “dollface” Facinelli), of course he has in fact been possessed by an alien species bent on universal conquest. The crew, however, doesn’t know this at first and we get to watch them goof off a little more while their “dimension drive” reheats for the trip back. Nick starts courting Kaela (Angela Bassett), the ship’s doctor, and although she’s previously told him that she hates him (because he’s a recovering drug addict), after some of his Barry White talk about getting pears out of sherry bottles, suddenly she doesn’t hate him anymore and jumps in his tank with him for zero-gravity love. Her change of heart seems to happen awful quick, and viewers could be forgiven for wondering how getting things out of bottles is supposed to evoke coitus. But I suppose it’s all to be attributed to James Spader’s hypnotic sex appeal, and I’m basically okay with that.

Besides, the movie’s already sacrificed coherence in the interest of being sultry, in that peculiar opening scene between Benjamin and a stammering Sweetie, and it isn’t that much of a leap for a movie to eroticize just about everything once it dares to eroticize chess. When the Nightingale’s crew learns that Troy is smuggling a mysterious artifact, for instance, Danika suggests it may in fact be an “alien sex object.” Everybody looks at her like she’s stupid, but actually she’s not so far off the mark.

The artifact turns out to be a sex object only better. In one sense it’s just a nugget of pseudoscience, cocooned “isotropic” ninth-dimensional matter that Sweetie explains by flashing a ream of differential equations and apologizing, “I’m afraid human language lacks any vocabulary to describe” the thing. It is also a salve for loneliness, absorbing the cravings of addiction and the potential agonies of sexual desire. The first person to fall under its power (besides the long gone Troy) is Yerzy, who after sticking his hands in it, quickly develops superhuman strength and a cozy sense of well being. Originally jealous over Troy’s obvious sexual interest in Danika, Yerzy stops caring much about it and instead spends all his time trying to get back into the quarantine chamber for more ninth-dimensional sugar.

Yerzy’s compulsion to return to the artifact is the first real indication of its evil. The species that made it is “Smart as God,” Kaela says, “and a lot less nice.” It’s a vexing antagonist, to be sure. But it’s is also so vague that it begs the question of how Supernova defines “evil.” In itself the artifact does nothing; it only causes trouble when people start fiddling around with it. So Supernova‘s evil would really seem to be inside the people doing the fiddling. This idea is introduced early in the film, when Captain Marley reads us a portion of “Cathexis and Catharsis,” about narcissistic love and its connection with a deep-rooted “human malevolence.” All questions of Tom and Jerry aside, what Marley’s really concerned about is an “idealized” and bowdlerized style of cartoon character that appeared (or, for us, will appear) after a hypothetical censorship of violent animation occurs in the 21st century. At first it seems odd that Marley associates malevolence not with representations of violence, but with their prohibition — until the artifact starts doing its dirty work, or more precisely, inspiring humans to do some. That is, Troy, and to a lesser extent Yerzy, lash out in frenzies of violence to protect their narcissistic interests in the artifact and, by extension, in their idealized selves.

But Supernova‘s unequivocal condemnation of narcissism only extends as far as the physical body. The movie’s alignment with respect to more “intellectual” versions of self-love is a bit less clear, as Benjamin’s kind-of codependent relationship with Sweetie demonstrates. Sweetie’s human and emotional characteristics are of Benjamin’s design, so he’s essentially fallen in love with his own algorithm. Perhaps aware of humankind’s propensity for such unembarrassed narcissism, Supernova‘s faceless Powers-That-Be wisely made this kind of hacking illegal, but the ill-wages of self-love, so readily meted out in Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and the myth of Narcissus, are completely absent here.

Aside from portraying him as a bit of a nerd, the movie makes Benjamin seem just fine, and you’d have to have ice-water in your veins not to get a little bit choked up when Troy catches up with the wispy fellow and makes short work of him. At this point, Benjamin begs Sweetie for help and she seems to want to save him by blowing Troy into space — but one of those directives that forbid computers from harming people for any reason prevents her. To free her from this, Benjamin needs to issue two verbal code-phrases. The first is, ack, “I love you,” which follows an O’Neal-and-McGraw-type exchange thrown only slightly off-rhythm by the fact that Troy is beating Benjamin senseless. We never learn what the second is because Benjamin expires while poor Sweetie looks helplessly on.

The dialogue during this scene has the character of a chess match without the board, with the exception that Sweetie and Benjamin are on the same side of the conflict, working together to find a loophole in Sweetie’s programming. Trapped in a room walled with a sort of plexiglass that Troy is slowly but surely bashing his way through, Benjamin tries to impress upon Sweetie the magnitude of his peril by asking her to imagine — that is, “run a simulation of” — a scenario in which Benjamin is not around to play chess. Since she has no conception of death, this is as close as Sweetie will come to understanding Benjamin’s predicament. And yet there’s something to be made from the facile collapse of “imagining” and “simulating” even though the movie doesn’t really question it. Simulation is an available technology, so does that mean, for instance, that computers “imagine” climates when they run global weather “simulations”? Or has Benjamin simply projected his own consciousness into Sweetie’s tantalizingly nuanced vocal inflections, which seem to indicate emotion but may simply be the result of Benjamin’s own programming? Has Benjamin, this whole time, been playing chess with himself?

Sweetie would seem to pass the movie’s Turing Test when she informs Kaela and Nick of Benjamin’s death. Her voice is laced with an unmistakable twinge of grief that more or less confirms her capacity for human emotions. So Benjamin’s love is genuine and the question becomes: why might the movie endorse his style of narcissism and not Troy’s? Sweetie’s attainment of consciousness subscribes to a cognitive physics that’s akin to perpetual motion, which is to say, it’s founded on getting something more out of something less. Sweetie wakes Benjamin up in the beginning of the film ostensibly because she “wants” to, but really because she alters her programming to add this conduct to her repertoire of available behaviors. The movie would have us believe that it is in this reflexive capacity to regenerate her own code that Sweetie’s consciousness resides.

So, although Sweetie rather conspicuously lacks a body, she procreates herself in a way that conflates logic and organic reproduction. Chess and sex are linked again. Still, her self-perpetuation is more like that of Nick and Kaela’s pear in the bottle than it is like that of Nick and Kaela, which is to say that it is asexual and reflexive. It resembles plant seeding, or cell division, more than intercourse.

All of which might help explain why Supernova, besides being preoccupied with sex, is also fond of regeneration more generally. Its alien artifact turns out to be not only a bomb of incredible force but also a regenerative seed, along the lines of Star Trek II‘s “Genesis Project.” Like the image of Tom-the-Cat that the movie gives us — where Tom has a row of bullets in his mouth and Jerry fires them off by smashing his skull with a mallet — the artifact is both a weapon and a target. At least if the abstract notion of universal order is understood as the thing, or process, being targeted: the artifact annihilates an existing star but the supernova that results is a vaguely defined, life-creating cloud, expanding through space and presumably rejuvenating the solar systems that are bathed within its light.

Whether such magically recuperative forces are supportable in our rundown 21st-century universe is actually a pretty complicated question, but Supernova just passes them off as fact. But it’s not like “Tom and Jerry” bothers to explain how Tom endures blunt force trauma with nothing more than a momentary disorientation, either. He springs back, magically reordered, a sort of conceptual model for Supernova‘s fanciful universe.

Any movie that chooses to inhabit Tom and Jerry’s world of weird physics, and foreground it, should at least get a point or two for sheer bravery. And Sweetie’s love for Benjamin, the spirit in her machine, is similarly magical. It is a spontaneous bursting of life from a banal, inanimate order which intimates that there’s life and love to be found in logic. This sounds pretty good. Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that, in the long run, relationships based on chess hardly ever work out.

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