The Black Hole

Director: Gary Nelson

USA - 1979

  Hoff! Hoff!  


Picture it… it's 1978, and you work for Disney. After the bajillion dollars that Star Wars has made at the box office, it's obvious that Sci-Fi/Adventure, when properly archetyped up and juveniled down, equals money. It's the same impetus as was for the upgrading of the Star Trek: Phase II series into the inaugural motion picture of that particular franchise. And so was born The Black Hole, a film that positively scandalized the House of the Mouse because it received a (shock) PG rating. Granted, it certainly deserved that rating, what with its countless laser battles, genocidal subtext, hallucinatory ending*, and that immortal scene where a big evil robot gets all teppan-yaki with Tony Perkins. But what's truly shocking about this 1979 effort from Gary "Freaky Friday (the good one with Jodie Foster, not the Shelley Long one)" Nelson is how unique it seems with its gleeful blend of whatever genre trappings it can grab as compared to today's CGI fests of sound and fury which signify merchandising. I mean, a character dies aping Nietzsche’s last words. Can today's cinematic action figure ciphers get literary? I think not.

We have the space explorers of the U.S.S. Palomino: Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster, who here is allowed not only a lead role but the chance to blow up robots, save buxom astrophysicists, and to retain more dignity than in Supernova), First Officer Charles Pizer (Joseph Bottoms, who gets to yell a lot and use the h-word), Science man Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony "Nobody call me Norman on the set" Perkins, who invests his performance with the kind of queeny subtext that must have delighted Vito Russo), Science woman Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux, from Where the Boys Are, Jackson County Jail, and Devil Dog: the Hound of Hell, who here gets to engage in ESP with a robot and have her brains laser-etched by an evil genius' rotating deathwheel), and ship's journalist Harry Booth (the incomparable Ernest Borgnine, a man who during the course of his career has both worked with Sam Peckinpah and taught the language of love to Ethel Merman). They've been in space for a while, with their trusty robot V.I.N.C.E.N.T., a rather literate anthropomorphized barrel who speaks with the voice of Roddy McDowell.

So, in the first couple of minutes of the film (not counting the overture and main credits, which is the first Computer-Generated title sequence ever), the crew of the Palomino finds a black hole (Stephen Hawking must doubtless be delighted that in this film's universe, black holes are readily accepted. On a side note, clips from The Black Hole are featured prominently in the filmed version of A Brief History of Time) and a long-lost starship.

The abandoned outpost motif, as readily utilized in Westerns and Horror films, here is the U.S.S. Cygnus. It's big, it's creepy, and darned if there aren't a renegade scientist named Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), a big evil red ginsu-robot (oddly enough named Maximilian), and two distinctive classes of robot on board; the sentries are burgundy and have really bad leg joints, the humanoids have mirrored faceplates and long flowing robes. The humanoids also sometimes limp and have funerals (hint). There's also another robot called B.O.B., who is like an older model of V.I.N.C.E.N.T., only he's badly damaged and when he talks, it's SLIM PICKENS! Someone at Disney at that point in time deserves a big hug for realizing that in a cast of Europeans and robots, the voice of character actors from westerns gather the trust of an audience.

Now Dr. Reinhardt, who even after twenty years with his robots still practically shivers with his desire to be famous, tips his hand in his second major scene, in which he tells the audience that he is about to prove that "the end does justify the means." He's a brilliant scientist, because he can make his ship stay absolutely motionless even amidst the intense gravity, omnipresent stellar debris, and meticulous matte shots that the black hole entails. In fact, he's such a brilliant scientist that he wants to take his ship through the black hole and into whatever lies beyond it. As you may have guessed, he's an insane megalomaniac (and not because he's German… He's Austrian) and a murderer and he has this really disturbing medical center where humans go in but humanoid robots come out. So, it's good people and robots versus bad guy and evil robots, with lots of "Vweep"y laser battles and a great deal of nonsense.

When I was a child, this movie, believe it or not, meant more to me than Star Wars. I think it was the overall creepiness that seemed to suffuse the whole Cygnus (and truthfully, it is a hell of a ship), as well as the ending*, or even the strange (but necessary) subplot involving Dr. McCrae's ESPlink with the robot V.I.N.C.E.N.T., which allows for analog synthesizer sound effects and zoom-ins on Mimieux's pupils. I can honestly say that I can now accept the stupidity that occupies a lot of the film. 2/3 of the humans in this film spend time in the vacuum of space with no protection, air supply, or sensible outfits AND ARE FINE. No Mission to Mars insta-freeze. No Event Horizon bleeding out thVweep!e eyes. Not even your classic body-kaboom. Just people on wires trying to avoid the cosmic forces and ultragravity of a collapsed star while running for cover.  As if that wasn't enough, did you know that if microfocused lasers are at the delicate task of julienning your brain, and someone blows up the machine while this procedure is in progress, you'll be fine enough to engage in disco-laser shootouts within a couple of minutes.

So it isn't cutting edge sci-fi. But there is an indefinable hokey charm in abundance here, and atmosphere goes a long way. John Barry, in grand minor-key bursts of sound, even gets an overture before the film even begins. The effects are impressive; all models, miniatures, matte shots, animations, and blue screens. Plus, there's a really neat meteor shower that messes up everybody's program, as well as a theoretical journey into a collapsar. Worth a look for the nostalgic or those who require something special from their guilty pleasures. 



-- Copyright © 2001 by Jason Shawhan




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