Monday, March 28, 2011

Movie Monday: The Black Hole

This week's Movie Monday subject is the cult classic(?) The Black Hole!

My informal rule for Movie Mondays was to only cover films I've never seen before. But when I was deciding what to recap this week, I remembered that while I have seen The Black Hole, its probably not been since I first saw it in the theaters as a wee lad.

I guess I was pretty into the movie, too--and that's not just my (quite possibly faulty, colored by nostalgia) memory talking. There's empirical evidence:
...that's me, age eight or nine, rocking a Black Hole t-shirt at our cabin in the Poconos. Our dog Patrick has other concerns.

So I thought it'd be fun to revisit a movie I haven't seen in at least thirty years, and see how--if--it holds up. So without further ado, The Black Hole!
In the year 2130, the spaceship Palamino is on its way back from a mission in deep space. The crew consists of Captain Holland (Robert Forster), Lt. Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), empath Dr. Kate MaCree (Yvette Mimieux), journalist Harry Booth (crusty homophobe Ernest Borgnine), and a robot assistant named V.I.N.C.E.N.T. (featuring the uncredited voice of Roddy McDowell).

The ship's sensors detect a nearby black hole; even more shocking is the existence of another spaceship which is somehow defying the black hole's enormous gravitational pull:
They determine the ship is the USS Cygnus, thought long-lost. Aboard the Cygnus was Dr. MaCree's father.

The Palomino is damaged by the black hole's gravity field, but it manages to reach the Cygnus, which suddenly comes roaring to life. Its at this point we get some, frankly, visually astonishing shots of this movie's ornate and sometimes downright beautiful architecture, involving some fantastic matte work:
The Cygnus' look is that of a futuristic Jules Verne; as if Captain Nemo was commanding a spaceship and not a sub. Indeed, the Cygnus' captain, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell) looks a bit like a Jules Verne character, and definitely has that patented Captain Nemo Crazy Look:
Reinhardt explains all his crew was killed when it encountered the black hole; and his entire crew is made up of robots he built himself, including the imposing Maximillian, who never seems too far from Reinhardt. Additionally on board is B.O.B., this ship's version of V.I.N.C.E.N.T., who seems unlike the rest, in that he hints that Reinhardt is not what he claims to be.

Reinhardt has been planning a trip into the black hole, convinced he and his ship can survive this ultimate feat of exploration. Everyone aboard the Palomino thinks this is completely crazy--except for Durant, who seems to quickly fall under Reinhardt's spell, becoming obsessed with the idea of traveling into a black hole.

B.O.B. tells the Palomino crew that Reinhardt's crew didn't die in a giant accident--rather, Reinhardt killed them all and used their bodies as hosts for his robots. V.I.N.C.E.N.T. relays this to Dr. MaCree, who in turn tells Durant, in a last gasp effort to get him back to the Palomino (scheduled to leave by Captain Holland, who is equally suspicious of Reinhardt).

Durant, snapped out of his spell, grabs a nearby robot servant, and beneath its face mask he sees:
...okay, maybe this is not the most shocking or gruesome make-up you've ever seen, but still pretty heady stuff for a Disney movie.

Durant and MaCree try to leave Reinhardt's bridge, but Maximillian steps in, whirling an arm made up of razor-sharp blades. It cuts through Durant's book of notes, right into Durant (Disney!), killing him instantly. Reinhardt orders MaCree to be taken down into the ship's hold and be brainwashed in anticipation of her transformation.

V.I.N.C.E.N.T informs Captain Holland of this, and he rescues MaCree while tussling with some of the robots, leaving one of them in the way of a laser:
Booth begins to panic, and takes off in the Palomino, leaving his shipmates behind. But Booth doesn't know how to control the ship, and it crashes into the Cygnus, killing him.

The crash also destroys the Cygnus' portside anti-gravity field, leaving the ship unbalanced. A meteor shower begins to hit the Cygnus, causing the entire bubble to collapse. With nothing to protect it, the black hole begins to pull the Cygnus apart.

Both Reinhardt and the Palomino survivors plan to use a small craft attached to the Cygnus, but a large piece of debris falls onto Reinhardt, trapping him. He calls out to Maximillian for help, while Holland, MaCree, and Pizer barely escape to the escape pod, dodging a massive fireball ripping its way through the ship:
These scenes look better, more real, than most of the last decade's worth of CGI-heavy SFX movies. How is that possible?

Anyway, the three crewmembers learn that the pod is programmed by Reinhardt to go into the black hole, and there's no way to stop it. They resign themselves to the fact they're about to die.

Meanwhile, Maxmillian and Reinhardt float into the black hole together, and when we see them again they have somehow merged like Reinhardt's lobotomized shipmates:
As the camera pans back, we see Maximillian standing atop some sort of rock formation, in what looks like a landscape from Hell itself: molten rock, fire, and smoke. It doesn't make a whole lot of logical sense, but its nonetheless a very creepy, weird final scene for the villain of the movie.

The film's final sequence is mostly sans dialogue, as Holland and his crew experience what seems like a trip through Hell then Heaven, only to emerge out the other side of the black hole, near what seems to be a habitable planet.

Its a very ambiguous ending, unusual for most sci-fi movies other than 2001 and very unusual when you consider this was a Disney film clearly meant to cash in on the post-Star Wars sci-fi craze.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with The Black Hole--its an ambitious film, both visually and thematically. It doesn't quite work as a rip-roaring sci-fi adventure: the action scenes are perfunctory and boringly staged, and the score is pretty lame, shocking that it came from music legend John Barry.

Many of the robot characters are too derivative of ones from Star Wars: V.I.N.C.E.N.T., the robot guards, and Maximillian are clearly meant to seem like R2-D2, the Stormtroopers, and Darth Vader, respectively. The laser gun battles are also very boringly staged: basically just long shots as the SFX team drops in little bolts of energy across the screen. And I never really bought Reinhardt was anything but a mad man: from his first scene, he's clearly cuckoo for cocoa-puffs, and Schell is basically playing every scene in the same, quietly crazy manner.

All that said, the film is still quite enjoyable: surprisingly intense and even a little nasty for a Disney movie, with visuals that are, as I said above, at times breathtaking. The model builders and matte artists did an amazing job on The Black Hole, and while the film does occasionally veer into Star Trek: The Motion Picture territory (i.e., too many shots of fancy SFX just for the sake of fancy SFX) for the most part the film keeps the story moving and doesn't let the sets overwhelm the movie.

I probably loved The Black Hole as a kid--the film is pretty damn good. No wonder I wanted a shirt!

1 comment:

studio gulag -- said...

Two things about this movie: I am convinced that Schell is deliberately doing a Peter Sellers impression. And I can watch Ernest Borgnine run around all day long.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...