Does `Supernova' have that Francis Ford Coppola touch?

------------------------- Movie review

X 1/2 "Supernova," with James Spader, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Lou Diamond Phillips, Peter Facinelli. Directed by Thomas Lee (aka Walter Hill), from a script by David Campbell Wilson. 85 minutes. Several theaters. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised because of sci-fi action violence and sensuality/nudity. -------------------------

The most heavily promoted release of this holiday weekend is "Supernova," a would-be science-fiction blockbuster that its studio, MGM, chose not to screen in advance.

The official press kit claims that it's R-rated and runs 125 minutes, but the movie that appeared at matinees yesterday is PG-13 and it runs about 85 minutes. The original director, Walter Hill, bailed out about a year ago, choosing not to take an official credit (Thomas Lee is his pseudonym), and Francis Ford Coppola started recutting it last summer.

The title "Supernova" no longer makes much sense, since the impending implosion in deep space is almost forgotten in favor of routine jealousies and power plays onboard an emergency medical rescue spaceship called the Nightingale. The warmest, most interesting character is the ship's computer, who is addressed as "sweetie."

The captain (Robert Forster) dies early in a freak accident, leaving a co-pilot (James Spader) and a medical officer (Angela Bassett) to battle for authority. It almost doesn't matter that they've lost most of their fuel in an attempt to answer a distress signal from a mining planet - or that they've got just a few hours to pull themselves out of a cosmic whirlpool. Priorities, priorities.

As for the new, family friendlier rating: There appears to be less zero-gravity sex than originally intended, even though the plot still turns on the foolish judgment of women who are easily seduced by hunky losers. Bassett refers to the bad guy (Peter Facinelli) as "my worst nightmare," and she and a dopey paramedic (Robin Tunney) are supposed to be driven by passion. Apparently, that little item has also been left on the cutting-room floor.

Like the boys and girls who shower together in "Starship Troopers," crew members do sometimes appear casually in the nude (it's the 22nd century, folks).

However, only discreet camera angles are chosen; shadows and legs are placed as strategically as they are in an "Austin Powers" comedy.

What's left of Hill's "Supernova" now plays like a $65 million B movie with lots of impressive special effects. The Nightingale itself, made up of glass domes, antennae and nonstreamlined surfaces, is something to see. So is the digital gimmickry that assists Facinelli's character, even if there's nothing here that the "Terminator" movies didn't try years ago.

The attempts at characterization, promising at first, go nowhere, and suspense is minimal. Whether Coppola is to blame for trimming too much, or Hill and screenwriter David Campbell Wilson are at fault for not finding a focus for the story, "Supernova" just doesn't live up to its title.