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Sunday, 7 July 2013

'THE BLACK HOLE' (1979) ~ or ~ Disney Does Dante In Deep Space!

*This review contains plot spoilers almost as big as Disney's own hole. Please watch before reading!*

There are, perhaps, a number of reasons why Disney's 1979 production of THE BLACK HOLE shouldn't work, and at least some of those fears do get justified by the time the end credits burn. But the film remains one of the studio's most impressive - certainly visually - as well as perhaps their damn strangest production ever attempted. It's also easily the most deep thinking of Disney flicks despite the presence of silly robots with puppy dog eyes and an android army that looks like it's marching in underwear that's way too tight for comfort.

Set in 2130 AD, the exploratory ship USS Palomino discovers the previously thought missing sister ship - the USS Cygnus, lurking deep in the darkness of outer (way outer) space, seemingly abandoned, right next to a blood-chilling black hole. The crew of the Palomino soon find out that there is a survivor on board this 'ghostship' - a Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell - chilling and blinkered throughout), alone among a crew of apparently robotic minions (that the good doctor made himself) as his crew.

This zombie-like 'crew' go about the daily grind of an intergalactic exploration vessel's hard work alongside a less passive army of sharpshooting robotic guards led by the red slit-eyed Maximilian - or'Max' to his friends, of which he has none.

Quite why Reinhardt feels he needs to take an entire army of robots into the black hole with him is anyone's guess. Unless he assumes that before he does go on the ultimate trip some annoying space crew with a cutesy robot and that bloke from Psycho on board will try and stop him. Which, curiously enough, is exactly what happens. Meglomaniacs eh? They've always got their maniacal plans fully covered.


It soon becomes clear that the human-shaped shuffling crew members haunting the lonely corridors aren't all they seem to be and Reinhardt isn't as lost in space as he makes out. Soon, it looks as if everyone will be taking a one way ticket through the black hole. But not before a meteorite storm, a robot fight to the death and an act of treachery nearly ruins everything. It's time to strap on seatbelts and head through the black hole (for a few minutes) where everything all goes a bit 'Dante's Inferno' - Disney style!


As a teenager I remember watching The Black Hole on video and a friend commenting that it looked like a 'kid's film' and why was I watching it? I was devastated. It was so much more than 'a kid's film' even to the 'kid' that I actually was. The Black Hole was pure darkness to me; a doom-ridden nightmare in the depths of space that really flipped itself over into the weird and the bizarre at the end. It also came with the coolest soundtrack and special effects I'd ever seen or heard (a symphony of chaos and the most thuddingly vibrant laser beams ever seen in sci-fi since Star Wars).

I think the laser effects in The Black Hole actually outshine - literally - those in Star Wars. But - and even I have to admit this is the film's biggest flaw - Disney only went and did something a bit too silly and put a ridiculously-designed cartoon-eyed floating robot called V.I.N.CENT into the mix. It was a V.I.N.CENT (that's 'Vital Information Necessary Centralised, for long) scene that my friend saw first. I don't blame him for thinking the film was for the under-10s, but those of us who remain fans of the movie well into adulthood know that this was still subversive movie-making at its deepest heart, and we just had to allow for V.I.N.CENT's (ok, going to just call him Vincent from now on to save on typing!) cheap rate sliding eyes as a design fault (which they actually were!).

Vincent was great in other many ways as the smart-talking, droll robot in opposition to big bad robot (David and Goliath style) - Max. But the design of Vincent sucked harder than an approaching black hole. It's been reported that Disney ran out of budget to give the poor robot some decent eyes - and ended up with the silly buggle-eyed ones instead of hi-tech slits of digital impressiveness.

No, we still can't deny what's undeniable - Vincent is clearly the weakest link in the movie, while also being the most endearing. The film wouldn't be half as much fun without him. This saving grace is in no small part due to the actor cast as the voice of the robot - Roddy McDowall, who I was already a huge fan of from his stint in every Planet of the Apes movie at the time, as well as from supporting roles in such favourite sci-fi TV shows as the brilliant The Fantastic Journey.

McDowall brings a wistful empathy to the role of the fusspot robot with a heart of gold and few screen metal companions have ever seemed so poetic and full of sweet-toned character as Vincent. There is also, certainly, a naive charm to his design among all the flashier robots in the film on display - especially Max - that balances the movie out. You can bet that, in any remake (and Disney is developing one at the moment with Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski and Prometheus scripter Jon Spaihts) that Vincent will end up as some sleek sparkling CGI creation shooting lasers out of every orifice. I'd rather have 'our' Vincent, the slightly lopsided and goggle-eyed one, back. Maybe with better eyes.

It's worth mentioning at this point that the second flaw to many viewers of The Black Hole is that we only get to go through the thing the whole film is supposed to be about at the very end of the movie. There was no follow-up, no sequel. No further adventures of Vincent and friends on the other side. It's something of a travesty to a kid watching to be denied a proper climax. But to an adult, I sort of understand now that the film is more focused on the tension ratcheting up on the edge of the event horizon and the descent towards the unknown, rather than what comes after. I still, even today, want to find out what became of the crew of the Palomino though. Many of the original cast are now dead, so I guess the chances are slim.

And let's face it - whenever the 'what comes after' is focused on in similar movies, we never really get a decent payoff. Maybe a few rubber-foreheaded monsters or glowing streaks of out-of-body beings made of pure light or similar sub-Star Trek alien lifeforms that seem to populate the furthest reaches of the unknown like a galactic geek club in a restraurant at the end of the universe waiting to be found - but the promise of what's really out there waiting couldn't ever possibly be lived up to, whatever the budget, as the unknown is always a hard act to follow.


A companion movie to The Black Hole  is the even bleaker Event Horizon (1997)  starring Sam Neill as a member of a crew descending into a stark, cruel (Clive Barker-like cruel) vision (and also full-on reality) of Hell at the outer reaches of the universe in tortuous detail - complete with endless representations of human suffering as the black hole they encounter sends the crew to the edge of sanity and beyond. Mostly without eyes or limbs to which sights even Dante would have blushed. In much the same way the Disney version of Hell sends its crew to the edge of sanity and smack in the middle of fairly nightmarish, even quite violently-toned visions of human depravity in the pursuit of knowledge at any cost.

Like in Event Horizon, there is a real and awful sense of growing doom and a coming of nightmares as The Black Hole drifts towards the inevitable; the moment Dr Hans Reinhardt gives the order to "go through". It means almost certain death, or a fate worse than death - but what perhaps no child watching could have expected to being in the heart of a black hole was a burning, red filter-drenched vision of Hell itself and a fleeting glimpse of a mirrored 'Heaven' topped off with surrealistic visions of man melding into robot amid a Dante-esque finale set on top of a flame-lashed barren landscape where screaming is compulsory and sanity is crumpled like a spaceship's innards buckling under unstoppable power and to forces unknown. No wonder VINCENT's eyes remained cartoon-like - without that light relief, every child's mind would have been fucked for life.

When Disney really pulls out the stops in their movies and descends into the true stuff of nightmares (the cackling horned witch from 1959's Sleeping Beauty standing on a similar backdrop of flame-lashed Hellish landscapes screaming possible obscentities to all around under the belly of a fire-breathing black dragon quickly springs quickly to mind) - every kid in the country suffers.

'The Black Hole' is directed by Gary Nelson, a veteran of US TV movies and sitcoms, including Disneyland, Get Smart and Gilligan's Island. On the big screen he had directed less than a handful of movies though among these was the endearing Jodie Foster showcase Freaky Friday (1976). The Black Hole was Nelson's big gig and I don't think he disappoints. Some action shots are exceptional and there's a real pace to the movie and genuine excitement and sense of wonder when not wallowing in utter gloom and despondency of inevitable death and destruction - hey; cheer up Disney!

Nelson is helped by some outstanding cinematography from Disney regular Frank V. Phillips (The Island at the Top of the world, Escape to Witch Mountain, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and there's a breathtaking pioneering (in terms of the use of the newly created 'Automated Camera Effects System' that allowed the camera to film across a matte painting) special effects team (including Danny Lee who had created the stunning finale to Bonnie and Clyde and was head of special effects at Disney and Peter Ellenshaw who was brought out of retirement by the company just for this movie).

The Black Hole also comes with a perfect soundtrack from John Barry whose orchestral suite here is a highlight of the movie and, for me - his best work. It's a beautiful composition with real gravitas, excitement and a truly thrilling experience all round and also has its own overture (not included in all the subsequent home video releases or screenings). Long after the movie finishes, the soundtrack from The Black Hole has a knack of remaining in your head.

The film includes some of the best effects work ever seen in sci-fi cinema, and renders the idea that this is only 'a kid's movie' entirely redundant (though this may also explain why the film didn't gather as many box office receipts as Disney may have hoped). The shots of the Palomino passing over a dark-shrouded Cygnus are eerie and unnerving, but when the lights suddenly come on - it's as good a jaw-dropping moment as the shark first leaping from the water at Chief Brody in Jaws.

While we don't go in it very much, The Black Hole itself  is perfectly realised and magical - a constant reminder in the background through every window on the Cygnus, as to where this film is heading. It's as good as another starring cast member and there's an almost balletic sequence inside the space garden that reminds of the classic film Silent Running and sees crew members and robot guards pirouette their way into dusty oblivion.


While the climatic scenes are full of surreal beauty too (notably the running through a hallway of mirrors and the robot Max dragging his creator inside his outer casing in a nightmarish vision) it's the meteor storm and the running across a bridge to escape one especially gigantic meteorite rolling through the ship and fast approaching our band of fleeing shipmates that is still the most breathtaking and as good a special effect as you will ever see on a cinema screen, even surpassing the 'giant boulder running away from' seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark a couple of years later.

While the film haunts with visuals, the crew also rise to the challenge. Anthony Perkins is especially  beautifully flawed and stupidly sincere as the slightly cold and calculating - but ultimately heroic - Dr Alex Durant. It's a tour de force from Perkins who steals the limelight from the rest of the cast whenever he appears onscreen. Maximilian Schell as Dr Reinhardt is suitably menacing and deranged and supporting cast includes the heroic Robert Forster as Captain Holland, Yvette Mimieux as Dr Kate McCrae and Ernest Borgnine as the seemingly caring but ultimately treacherous Harry Booth - it's a cast list to  literally fling yourself through a black hole bacwards for.

Even Vincent gets a great sidekick, an uncredited (as Roddy McDowell was) Slip Pickens as B.O.B (aka 'BiO-sanitation Battalion', in other words: toilet cleaner) -  a battered old robot pensioner with little time left but a renewed burst of life when he gets called up to be something of an action hero (rather like a faded western movie star called by his agent out of retirement and rolled out into action for one last shootout). It's a brilliant last stand.

Of course, at the heart of the movie is a transcendental journey exploring the extremes that the pursuit of knowledge can take us and the state that exists between existence or reality as we know it and the unknown (or perhaps between Earth and Heaven or Hell)  but the film never navel gazes for long - action is the key word throughout.  There's a focus on individual battles (big spoilers follow!), whether between the good doctors Reinhardt and Durant, between the Cygnus and the Black Hole, between the idea of being a member of the ship's crew to being less than a person you once were and less deserving of any respect (but still very much alive - the idea of consciousness being a recurring theme) and especially the mother of all battles between VINCENT and MAX that reminds of Captain Ahab's pursuit of Moby Dick or David versus Goliath.

Such a glorious battle to the rusty death  ends as it should - in a fairly nasty demise for Bad Max; metallic innards ripped out while a traumatic electronic scream pierces the air, a lifeless shell floating away to a slow funeral pyre through the black hole itself. Can androids dream of electric sheep? I don't know, but they sure can  scream - in a awful kind of way (like the cries from a slaughterhouse) and not unlike the screech of Dr Alex Durant earlier in the movie when MAX ripped out the scientist's innards with a spinning saw in what is probably the film's most grisly moment and where the book Durant uses to protect himself with is shredded right up until metal reaches flesh.

The Black Hole does reach its destination with a certain noble grace and while the film contains some sillier moments, most notably for many the ESP connection between woman and robot that does little to further the plot but does perhaps save the day in the end by keeping the crew mentally strong and able to face the horrors of going through the black hole itself without losing your mind. There's a sense of regret though, just that the adventures are not continued; that we will never really know what becomes of V.I.N.CENT and his pals as they drift towards a new planet in a strange universe, but I wouldn't be surprised if MAX, the killer red robot with the burning red slit for eyes and the evil Ready Brek glow within (and penchant for spinning razor blades) isn't there somewhere waiting for them. A killer robot of few words and little loyalty, but a pure malignant killing machine - waiting for the battle to continue. I hope so too Max.  


There are comic books (including a strip for Disney's 'Treasury of Classic Tales' by Jack Kirby)  and a book adaptation of the film by Alan Dean Foster that help explore the universe of The Black Hole universe a little further and continuing home video releases of the movie and a soundtrack album (that's still an essential purchase) will ensure this film is as loved by some children today as it was loved by some of us who have now aged with the film but still remember it and watch it with the joy of a child's mind. Actually, sadly, I do think many kids watching today will be disappointed that most of the movie takes place in front of a black hole instead of at the other end of it. Personally, this lack of a real ending has only meant that I've spent the last 34 years wondering what happened to the crew of the Palomino on the other side and knowing I may never find out. Gee - thanks Disney!

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

1 comment:

  1. Right on Mark!
    As much as "Time after Time" blew me away and got me interested in time travel, it was THIS movie that got me into space travel/sci-fi. Star Wars helped, Star Trek helped a bit more, but seeing The Black Hole in the theater had me on the edge of my seat, loving it all the way.
    And yes, years later, when I saw Raiders in the theater, the boulder scene reminded me of the meteor scene in Black Hole. In addition, I've always liked the shape and construction of the blasters in this movie, and to this day I am always interested in seeing if anyone has incorporated the design into their movie.
    I guess what I'm trying to say is that, regardless of what others may say, The Black Hole still rocks after all these years.
    All the best!
    Jonathan (