The Moral Questions in Supernova

Image retrieved from TMDb

Spoilers for Supernova to follow!

My family recently had to put our dog down. She was old, sick, and had lost a lot of weight. Basically, the dog we had known for the previous 13 years was gone. We didn’t want to do it, but it was that time which comes for every living being. 

As we were discussing our final decision to say goodbye to someone who had been a part of our family for so long, I couldn’t help but think about the ethics behind putting a dog down. She wasn’t part of the decision and never knew what exactly was happening. It wasn’t the first time I’d lost a pet, but for some reason, this time I had to remind myself that in this aspect of life, dogs are very different from humans. 

Enter, Supernova, a film where Tusker (Stanley Tucci) and Sam (Colin Firth) spend a long vacation together traveling through England in their RV. After decades of marriage, Tusker was diagnosed with dementia two years previously and the couple wants to take one more trip together while they can both remember it and understand what’s going on. Along the way, Tusker can get some writing done and their final destination will be a piano recital for Sam, who is a moderately successful pianist. 

Sam is noticing that Tusker’s condition is getting worse, but he is in such deep denial that he doesn’t want to mention it in case Tusker isn’t noticing the same things. But one day, Sam finds a tape that Tusker recorded stating his intentions to take his own life because of his rapidly decreasing quality of life. 

Understandably, this causes Sam to feel betrayed, angry, confused, and a plethora of other emotions mixed together at once, and it leads to a deep and thought-provoking conversation between the two life partners. Tusker has his mind completely made up and nothing is going to change it, but Sam feels like Tusker is abandoning him. When Tusker says it wouldn’t be fair of him to ask Sam to take care of him the rest of his life, Sam replies with, “It’s not about fair. It’s about love,” which is an idea the film fortunately does explore at more depth.

But for Tusker, it’s all about being in control of his life. He knows things are only going to get worse – much worse – for him, and he just wants to nip it in the bud, as he somewhat flippantly refers to it. And this is where it had me thinking about my dog. Tusker was able to make the decision for himself that no animal is ever able to make for themselves. He understood the situation that he was in and chose to do what he did.

At the same time, though, I can’t help but think that what Tusker did was wrong. Sam embodies the idea of loving someone through sickness and health. He knows what’s in store health wise, but he’s prepared to take the journey because this is what he signed up for by getting married. They discuss cherishing the memories of “what we meant to each other,” but Tusker seems to fail to realize what he still means to Sam.

With all this being said, in the final scene it’s clear that while Sam is heartbroken, he’s at peace with what’s transpired. It seems as if the movie is not condemning the ultimate choice, because in the end, Tusker is the one with the right to be in charge of his own life. So I don’t know how it ultimately relates to the ideas I was thinking about personally, but in the days since I’ve seen the movie, both Tusker’s choice and my family’s choice have been on my mind. It’s given me extra context to help process my own feelings about something emotionally heavy.

But this choice doesn’t happen until the final act of the film. It was just the most notable piece of the movie for me, which is why I’ve spent all this time writing about it. This isn’t at all to say that there’s nothing else good about the film. Tucci and Firth are incredible here. For two actors with careers as storied as theirs, it says a lot that these performances are among their best. They have great chemistry that feels lived-in; it didn’t surprise me at all to learn that the actors have been real life friends for over 20 years.

Supernova is a tender and deliberate film. Every filmmaking choice seems carefully considered and thought through, contributing to the film’s impact. Apart from the questions and conundrums that it raises, it’s a beautiful movie about life, death, and love and how the three intersect. It’s the perfect movie to provide a good cry while also stimulating contemplation and discussion.

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