Before Game of Thrones catapulted author George R.R. Martin into fame and fortune, he was better known as a prolific science fiction writer. In 1980, he published a novella entitled Nightflyers about a group of scientists on a quest through deep space to find a mysterious alien life form when things go wrong on the spaceship. I remember Starlog putting the movie adaptation on the cover of one of its issues and it getting my attention as it starred Catherine Mary Stewart whom I developed a cinematic crush on thanks to her memorable roles in Night of the Comet (1984) and The Last Starfighter (1984). Nightflyers (1987) never did reach my town and I never did get to see it and forgot about it over the years until recently when it was announced that the SyFy Channel was developing a television series based on the movie.
Michael D’Brannin (John Standing) heads up a deep space expedition in search of an alien life form. He has already assembled a team of scientists when Miranda Dorlac (Stewart) joins as the project coordinator. They don’t have much of a budget or much support but D’Brannin believes in what he’s doing. They board the ship – an old freighter called The Nightflyer – and get a vibe that something isn’t right. It has all the comforts of home but with an “emptiness to it,” as Miranda observes, “like an ancient temple or tomb.” These words will prove to be prophetic. They are soon joined by Jon Winderman (Michael Des Barres), a telepath, and his empath Eliza (Annabel Brooks) – backups in case technology fails to establish contact with the aliens.
The ship’s captain – Royd Eris (Michael Praed) – is an enigmatic fellow that first appears to the rest of the crew as a hologram. Apparently, he’s their first human crew and his own origins are something of a mystery, even to telepath Jon. Miranda finds herself drawn to Royd, sketching him in her spare time, and they talk as he feels comfortable enough with her to reveal his secrets.
The ship’s computer, however, isn’t too crazy that they are bonding and pulls a HAL 9000 (it even has a single red eye), actively trying to kill the crew who are already on edge due to the nature of their mission. They have to find a way to shut it down, but of course it won’t be that easy.
Michael Des Barres has a memorable scene where Jon is driven mad by the ship’s computer and he slips seamlessly from his New Age-y telepath to gone-bonkers puppet of big bad mama computer. He rounds out a cast of memorable characters – Lisa Blount (Prince of Darkness), Glenn Withrow (Rumble Fish), and James Avery (Fletch) – who are given very little memorable to do. Even the movie’s supposed star, Catherine Mary Stewart, is given surprisingly little to do. Like the others, there is no depth to her character and this gives us little to become emotionally invested in and so we care little about what happens to her and the rest of the crew.
The visual effects of Nightflyers are certainly well done – a mix of model work and matte paintings – with a look that evokes Blade Runner (1982) – complete with a Vangelis-esque score – and Max Headroom with its smoke and shadows coupled with 1980s futuristic fashion (Stewart even rocks some awesome mirrorshades). The sets are detailed and expansive, conveying a vast ship for a decidedly small crew.
Jon’s telepathic scenes reek of ‘80s music video stank – Des Barres’ presence probably doesn’t help – but they do introduce a horror movie element into Nightflyers with a kinky twist as the ship’s artificial intelligence has a warped maternal complex, lashing out at the crew as it thinks they will take Royd away. It will do anything to prevent that from happening. In this respect, Nightflyers anticipates Event Horizon (1997) by several years and one wonders if it was influenced by this movie.
According to George R.R. Martin, Nightflyers came out of an experiment: “I was fooling around with the idea of hybrid stories that were both science fiction and horror, simultaneously.” In 1984, producer/writer Robert Jaffe saw a story by Martin in an issue of Omni magazine that he wanted the film rights to but had been optioned by someone else. Martin told Jaffe he had another story, which was Nightflyers.
Jaffe adapted the story that originally appeared in Analog magazine. It was not as long as the novella, which gave the secondary characters names and so he made up his own. Jaffe also changed the name (because it sounded liked “cough medicine” to something that people could pronounce) and race of the protagonist, casting Catherine Mary Stewart who was white and smaller than the character as written. He wrote eight drafts over three years, changing what he felt was a depressing ending.
Stewart took the role of Miranda as she had become frustrated at being typecast as a teenager and this part was “totally different than anything I’ve done and shows me in a completely different light – of authority, and intelligence.” She claimed that the filmmakers approached her because they could afford her salary and could benefit from her genre fanbase that would hopefully be drawn to the movie.
Prior to Nightflyers, Stewart had shot a movie on location mostly at night and was looking forward to shooting in a studio until filming began on a set filled with smoke while wearing thick spacesuits with helmets that had no ventilation. Actor Michael Praed was not thrilled working with all kinds of special effects or with Stewart who left to do another movie by the time it came to shoot his scenes with her character: “I was acting – literally – to a cross on the wall and some appalling continuity girl reading Stewart’s lines!”
Nightflyers received negative reviews from critics. In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “But the whole film looks murky – the ship resembles a big blob of chocolate pudding – and the special effects are heavy on lasers; that is, they are ordinary.” The Washington Post’s Richard Harrington wrote, “Nightflyers moves with the speed and grace of a space buffalo. This is a movie that needs a jump start.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington wrote, “Nightflyers, 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.”
Three years after it was released, Martin was asked what he thought of the movie and he said, “I think it was about 75% faithful, but unfortunately the 25% that they changed had a kind of a ripple effect and made the 75% that wasn’t changed not make as much sense as it might have.”
With some movies their commercial failure is the result of lousy timing or studio meddling, or it was misunderstood and ahead of its time. Sometimes, like in the case of Nightflyers, it just isn’t very good. It’s not that the movie is particularly awful – it is very well shot, directed and acted – it just isn’t all that memorable. The main problem lies with the generic characters that we could care less whether they live or die and this robs the movie or any dramatic tension. Perhaps a T.V. series adaptation that will allow time to develop the characters and their relationships with each other will finally do justice to Martin’s original novella.
Alrey, Jean and Laurie Haldeman. “Michael Praed: Legends of the Hooded Man.” Starlog. January 1988.
Dedman, Stephen. “An Eidolon Interview with George R.R. Martin.” Eidolon. April 1990.
Dickholtz, David. “George R.R. Martin: Nightflyers High, Aces Wild.” Starlog. May 1987.
Lowry, Brian. “Catherine Mary Stewart: Spacebound Once Again.” Starlog. April 1987.
Shaprio, Marc. “Haunted Days, Starless Nights.” Starlog. November 1987.