Among the very first conversations - maybe even the first conversation - in Supernova finds an old couple, Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) lightly sniping at each other over Sam's driving, and his refusal to ever shift out of a low gear to actually start moving the RV they're in at something resembling cruising speed. In a film that gobbles up symbolically freighted dialogue with the unthinking ferocity of a little child tearing her way through a bag of cookies, there's absolutely no doubt that this is meant to point us towards something other than Sam's driving habits, but presumably it's not meant to be a symbol for Supernova itself. But it's a damn good one. Like the RV, the film spends a whole fucking lot of its running time refusing to shift gears, and if that means that it approaches the end point of its narrative at a rather snoozy walking pace, well, tough shit. Herein, we are subjected to no fewer than three different montages of the landscape floating by the windows of the RV while music plays off a classic rock station in the middle of the sound mix, all before the story has even thought about showing up; the closest thing there is to development between these three montages is that one of the songs ("Heroes" by David Bowie) isn't from the 1960s, and one of them ("Little Bit of Rain" by Karen Dalton) isn't a staple.

Quite a start it is to a movie that will drag its 95-minute running time out as long as it possibly can without actually doing anything, if it can be avoided. The charitable explanation is that the the point is to watch two aging men in love quietly enjoy the smallness and stillness of life together while they still have a chance to do so, and that writer-director Harry Macqueen has no desire to force them through this roadtrip with any more hurry than they're anxious to approach it. For, as we eventually piece out through grabbing chunks of dialogue (one of the few things about Supernova that I admire is that it brings all of its exposition in through the side door, never sitting us down to have the characters explain the plot at us), Tusker is suffering from the early stages of dementia, where he still almost always knows where he is and who he's with, but has the odd "blank" moment where a very simple word or concept just isn't there. And while neither of them ever says "this is definitely our last vacation together", they're certainly treating it like it might be, and that includes lingering on the small moments.

A less-charitable explanation, and obviously the one I lean towards, is that Supernova is a deeply undercooked domestic drama/character study that hasn't gotten any farther than laying out those symbolically heavy moments (the one that gets us to the title is a a real doozy of the film just stopping to walk us through a rather empty monologue, though at least it's not the most pandering version of itself). Sam and Tusker are both profoundly empty characters, defined by precisely one trait each (Sam is a retired concert pianist reluctantly restarting his celebrated career at Tusker's insistence; Tusker is a novelist whose latest work has been much-delayed, in part from his illness. Also his given name is "Tusker", but not only does the film not consider this a personality trait, it doesn't even seem to realise that it's fucking odd), while Firth and Tucci are too damn good at the job of screen acting to do nothing to help the film along, there's not much that the best actor in history could do with scene after scene after scene of mordant conversations that keep declaring all the rich backstory and emotional resonance these two people have together, without ever once doing anything to portray it. It's slow-moving and totally airless, an attempt to stretch one scene's worth of material out for an entire feature-length running time, at which point it gives its leads one and only one conversation to actually discuss their feelings, about each other and about Tusker's dementia. And then it jams on the brakes impossibly hard, twice, with two separate final scenes united only in that neither of them is at all satisfying, and both of them bury the only interesting character material in the entire film under a fade-to-black that separates them.

Obviously, the goal here is to simply watch, reflectively, as two characters go through a difficult process, one that's universal in its emotions and specific in its details. That would have worked with better characters, or more elaborate specifics. Supernova is by no means the first awards-bait movie that subjects world-class actors to a story about coping with dementia; it is indeed turning into an evergreen genre of dull-eyed prestige cinema (and surely will continue to do so now that Boomers have reached the age where they're starting to suffer dementia in numbers), the kind of thing that gets people like Judi Dench and Kate Winslet notably unmemorable Oscar nominations for Iris in 2001 (and Jim Broadbent a win), gets Julianne Moore her actual Oscar for Still Alice in 2014, and very rarely does anything whatsoever other than allow actors we know can jump through these hoops an opportunity to jump through the hoops that other actors have done before them (the same awards season as Supernova actually has borne witness to one of the exceptions, in the form of the structurally audacious The Father).

Supernova's main, if not only innovation is to make the beleaguered old couple gay, and even that barely registers; while Firth and Tucci both have some of the most extensive experience playing gay characters of any straight actors (to a point that it's frankly a bit weird), Sam and Tusker feel like they barely even qualify as gay characters at all, except for their handful of chaste closed-mouthed kisses and prim moments of hand-holding. Nor do the actors have any significant chemistry; they have the pleasant annoyed fatigue of an old couple that likes to argue, but that's not the same thing as persuasively suggesting an unspoken reservoir of passion So homosexuality doesn't even rise to the level of novelty; it's basically just window dressing for a story that is in desperate need of a lot more than just window dressing to give it some pep. This is in all details, one of the most dreadfully stilted and lifeless pieces of stuck-up middlebrow awards bait I've seen in some while, and while the quiet intimacy of the acting gives it something to cling to, it sure as hell isn't enough. Supernova is listless and drab (it's an aggravating waste of the great Dick Pope on camera), and perversely free of emotions for a movie that is about literally nothing else other than the looming terror of death and the loss of a loved one. At least, thank God, it is not long.