"Nightflyers" aspires to be a mix of "Star Trek" and "Alien." But it's hard to get excited about a misanthropic computer with an acute emotional complex (shades of "2001") or a crew that looks like it just got back from Planet Med (shades of every space film made in last 20 years). It also doesn't help that "Nightflyers" moves with the speed and grace of a space buffalo. This is a movie that needs a jump start.
It begins with its crew of outcasts setting out in an ancient space freighter to search the universe for a mythic intelligence form called the Valcryn (probably a cousin of the Velcro, which holds the universe together). But it quickly degenerates into a stalker, as some malevolent force gets uptight and starts wiping out the crew.
If you want to be totally surprised, skip the next three sentences. The malevolent force turns out to be a woman who's become the ship's computer. She's uptight because her cross-sex clone, a hologram who's also the ship's captain, is looking for a little R&R with the space team captain. Naturally, the computer starts purging the team, which was not very big to begin with.
If "Nightflyers" doesn't make much sense, blame the budget and scriptwriter Robert Jaffe (adapting a novella by George R.R. Martin). But praise those who somehow managed to give it a very distinctive visual identity. True, the ship looks like Darth Vader's squished helmet or a new Tonka toy from the outside, while inside it's as airy as Giants Stadium during a replacement game. But director of photography Shelly Johnson gives the film a chillingly hazy ambiance and the special-effects team -- Roger George, Robert Short, Bob Harmon and Bob Weisenger -- crank up a worthy space technology reminiscent of "Outland." Though not spectacular, the effects are special indeed.
The cast is competent, but also not spectacular. Catherine Mary Stewart plays the space team captain, providing a droll voiceover that seems more suited to a private eye film. She's not entirely convincing, but if a job ever opens up with an intergalactic "Entertainment Tonight," she'll probably get Mary Hart's job. Michael Praed as her beau is even less convincing, but then what can you expect from a hologram who thinks he's David Bowie's Major Tom?
The rest of the cast -- rocker Michael Des Barres as a burned-out telepathist, Annabel Brooks as his lover, the perpetual Lisa Blount as a cryptologist and James Avery as the "visual sighter" who loves to cook -- provide some bodies. There is some fun with the mind reading, but maybe it was just cheaper than doing sound-sync.
For all its atmosphere, "Nightflyers" crashes at the end -- implodes, explodes or whatever. It's the Pompeii Effect, the all-too-easy way out for most sci-fi filmmakers. This film deserves better, but not much.
Nightflyers, currently playing at area theaters, is rated R and contains graphic violence and special effects.