Thursday, 16 April 2020

The Black Hole


In Cygnus And In Health

The Black Hole
USA 1979 Directed by Gary Nelson
Walt Disney Club 30th Anniversary Edition 
Blu Ray Zone A/B/C


Warning: Some slight spoilers in this.

I loved The Black Hole as a kid and, dated as it might seem in certain aspects today... I still love it.

I remember thinking nothing of the details of the story and the way it plays out at the time (I would have been 11 years old when I first saw this at my local cinema) but, looking back on it now, it seems to be a little grim and ambiguous for what was perceived at the time as a ‘kid friendly’ family film. I just read that, despite the ‘cute’ robots in this, it wasn’t necessarily made for kids at all and it was being made with adults in mind as much as the youngsters. Although, if memory serves, it wasn’t exactly marketed like that.

Okay so, first things first, the film has a tremendous cast. You have the main heroic leads played by Robert Forster as Captain Dan Holland, Yvette Mimieux as Dr. Kate McCrae (she was the main female lead in the original version of The Time Machine, you might remember), Joseph Bottoms as Charles Pizer and Anthony Perkins as Dr. Alex Durant. Also joining our heroes is the mighty Ernest Borgnine as reporter Harry Booth (who is a little more ambiguous in his actions towards the end of the movie) and the uncredited voice of Roddy McDowall as the cute robot V.I.N.CENT. They comprise the crew of the Palomino spaceship and later on in their adventure, they are joined by another cute robot, Old B.O.B, voiced, again uncredited, by Slim Pickens.

And the plot is a simple one... they find a black hole in space and when they go in for a closer look they discover the great, lost starship the Cygnus ‘parked’ just outside of the full pull of the hole. It seems deserted but, when they explore it, they find themselves guests of the mad tyrant scientist Dr. Hans Reinhardt, played by Maximilian Schell, along with his giant robot Maximilian. Plus a crew of sentry robots and also... well, there’s a crew of some kind but I don’t want to spoil the movie if you haven’t already seen it.

And, yes, if you are wondering if this sounds a little like the plot of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea relocated to deep space with Maximilian Schell as the Captain Nemo figure, you’re absolutely right and there are a few parallels with Disney’s earlier adaptation of that novel thrown into the mix too. Ultimately though, the plot involves Reinhardt wanting to move into the black hole ‘and beyond’ while the crew of the Palomino are racing to fix their crippled ship and get off the Cygnus before this happens... and, due to some trouble they have later in the story, getting into all kinds of laser gun shoot outs with the various sentry robots as they try to get somewhere safe as Reinhardt steers everyone into the black hole.

It’s a nice looking film, full of colour and action. I well remember the Topps Bubble Gum cards (these days called ‘trading cards’) from the film which hit the newsagents at the same time... still got my set from back then, all in a presentation album now. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of acting and effects though.

The effects work wasn’t farmed out to dedicated houses (as was just about becoming the normal procedure since the invention of Industrial Light and Magic a few years earlier) and so they were done totally in-house by Disney. So some of it, where the various crew members are floating around in various states of anti-gravity, looks quite extraordinary to this day and I would give myself a headache if I could figure out how they did it and make it look so natural with everyone on a different ‘flight path’. There must be some wire work in there but it really is quite special. Unfortunately, the matte lines around the various characters later and the pedestrian, cartoony looking laser gun bursts don’t do the film any favours. They didn’t look great then and, now the film has been restored for this limited Disney Club USA Blu Ray, they look even worse... the film looks especially grainy still where several shots are overlaid so, this didn’t really feel like a great restoration job, if I’m being honest.

And then there’s the acting/tone of the movie too. They really need V.I.N.CENT the robot as comic relief here because absolutely everyone else in the movie is deadly serious. There are very few smiling faces through most of the film and there may not be a lot of gravity in some scenes but there’s an overabundance of gravitas, that’s for sure. Also, for a film which was perceived as a kid friendly movie and was basically one of many space operas which came out riding the Star Wars bandwagon, it’s got some really questionable content.

For instance, you don’t expect the first of the death of three of the main protagonists, Anthony Perkins’ character, who is the only one who thinks what Reinhardt is doing is a good idea, to have his chest and stomach drilled open by the whirling blades of the Maximilian robot and falling to an electrical death (if he isn’t already dead after having his intestines churned in his tummy)... you don’t see stuff like this in a Disney movie for kids that often. Ditto for the unbelievably WTF ending where the heroes totally fail their mission and everyone goes through the black hole, which is when the movie really starts to get like the end of 2001 - A Space Odyssey, with bizarre, religious imagery as everyone, including Maximillian Schell who clambers inside the continuity challenged shell of the Maximilian robot (Schell within a shell!), are transported to a land of skull faced followers around volcanic pits and an angel floating through an endless corridor. And absolutely no comments from anyone in the cast by this point... the heroes lost their roll of the dice and are in some strange, abstract vision of heaven and hell and that’s the end, deal with it! It’s not exactly a fun looking vision (if you’re stuck in the middle of it)... it’s pretty dark and grim, to be honest.

So yeah, I just loved that ambiguous ending as a kid but I remember some of the other kids at school having a problem with it, now that I think of it.

Another great thing is the musical score by the late, great John Barry. I believe it was the first film to have its score recorded on digital equipment and also one of the last two movies to feature an overture of the music in cinemas before the film started (the other being Star Trek The Motion Picture). Now I believe Barry didn’t actually like the absolutely brilliant and upbeat ‘overture/heroic things happening’ theme he was asked to write for this because it was in the romantic adventure mode just being re-popularised by John Williams at the time (and possibly felt inappropriate to him?) but, honestly, it’s a fantastic piece of music. As is his totally hypnotic and repetitive, swirling opening title music, which really makes you feel the presence of the antagonistic title element. And, yeah, the whole score does just sound like Bond in space, more so than even Moonraker (which is a far lesser score in comparison to this one)... and what’s wrong with that? Easily one of Barry’s greatest scores from this period and another CD I could listen to on repeat when required.

So yeah, there you have it. Well performed but sombre characters, a mixture of staggeringly good and unbelievably ropey effects, some impressively colourful scenes, a thunderously cool score and some comedy robots... what more could you want from a movie. I know it has its detractors but I still, after all these years, love The Black Hole and would recommend it to those movie watchers who are interested in seeking out films which are... I dunno... just a little bit wrong or off-kilter for their marketed target audience. I don’t think you could really get away with delivering this movie in the current political and cultural climate but I would absolutely welcome a remake/reboot of this if anyone had anything interesting to add in the way of ideas to infuse into this template. I’ll definitely be watching this one again at some point over the next few years.

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