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MOVIE REVIEWS : ‘NIGHTFLYERS’: SHALLOW VOYAGE IN DEEP SPACE

Watching “Nightflyers” (citywide)--a gauzily shot saga of malign motherships in outer space--is a pretty stupefying experience, even though it isn’t the usual dumb, gimmicked-up science-fiction programmer. The people who made it obviously tried to give it a little substance and style. Their source is an intense novella by a very good genre writer, George R. R. Martin, and though the photography is derivative, its models are classy: primarily Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and “Blade Runner” and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: a Space Odyssey.”

But these ambitions don’t crystallize into an offbeat gem; more often, they coagulate into barely coherent glop. We’re introduced to the characters in terms as portentous as Eric Sevareid in an echo chamber. They’re a band of scientist-troubleshooters on a dangerous mission to find intelligence in deep space. Somehow, we know they aren’t going to find any.

Then we’re dragged into the salon of the spaceship, where the decor resembles an Atlanta hotel lobby and the cinematography seems filtered through several layers of tulle and taffeta. For a while, the conversation is a mad mixture of stilted stage-speak and telepathic ventriloquism--like some Star Trek “Strange Interlude.” The cast is the usual sub-"Alien” cross section. Four of them--including the team coordinator (Catherine Mary Stewart) and the cryptologist (Lisa Blount), are knockout Hollywood model types; one is a sensitive young British hologram with long hair (Michael Praed) and there are a few elder statesmen and space veterans--and one nutcase telepath (Michael Des Barres), who seems ready to chew up the bulkheads.

Soon we discover we’re on another spaceship with a mad computer system. Furthermore, the “presence” behind the computer--and the ship--is a jealous mother who wants to keep her son, the sensitive hologram, from eloping with one of the knockout blond scientists. This villainess may remind you a bit of Hal-9000, but she has much worse diction. Her dialogue sounds like a robot gargling into a malfunctioning mike and, when we get glimpses of her, she resembles a shiny red, cross-hatched sofa cover, glowing in the dark.

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At the end, with the ship running amok, there’s a certain crazy appeal. At one point, trigger-happy biologist Owl Keelor (Glenn Withrow) races through the grimly vast walls--like some huge Parisian sewer--in what looks like a space Honda pod, screaming the movie’s most memorable line: “I’m here, man! I’m cool! I’m flying!” But “Nightflyers,” (MPAA rated R: for sex and violence), unfortunately, is too smart to be camp and too shallow to be good. It flounders along, drowned in its own cathedral lighting, its mission to discover intelligence in deep space exploding in its face.


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