Friday, 23 March 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Black Hole (dir. Gary Nelson, 1979)

Returning from a long-distance mission through outer space, the crew of the USS Palomino happen upon a mysterious ship floating near a black hole. Forced to dock when their ship is damaged, the crew recognise the vessel as the USS Cygnus, which went missing decades ago.

Onboard, they discover a crew of silent automatons, an aggressive robot named Maximilian, and the lone survivor, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), a brilliant scientist who is hellbent on taking the Cygnus through the black hole. He claims that he had the ship's crew evacuate after an accident in an asteroid field.

The longer the crew stay on the ship, the more suspicious they become of Reinhardt's story and his motives... 

Released in the fallow period following its founder's death (and the release of Star Wars), The Black Hole is one of Disney's more ambitious one-offs. The company's first PG release, The Black Hole feels like a deliberate attempt to break out of the sandbox.

The cast are mostly middle-aged character actors (including Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins and Ernst Borgnine), and the story - while fantastical - is played almost dead seriously. The special effects are pretty good, and John Barry's score is one of his most memorable, contributing to much of the movie's impact.

'Strange' is the key word for describing The Black Hole. 'Confused' is another. It's a bit hard trying to figure out what its aim is - does it want to be an adventure movie ala Star Wars? Or a more serious sci-fi drama? Or a horror movie?

On this latter point, I will give the movie credit - when it leans into the more macabre elements of the story, The Black Hole really works. Before I had even seen the movie, the part I had heard of was Maximilian brutally impaling Anthony Perkins' Durant through the chest. That sequence does stick out - the rest of the movie is relatively light on blood and grue - but there are plenty of other memorable moments: the bizarre funeral of one of Reinhardt's robotic crew; Durant tearing away one of the automaton's faceplates to reveal the undead face of one of the Cygnus' crewmen; and, of course, the ending, in which Reinhardt achieves his dream of entering the black hole, only to find himself in a fire-drenched hell-scape.

The most 'Disney' element of the whole show is V.I.N.C.E.N.T. (voiced by Roddy McDowall), the crew's comedic robot. He's a blatant takeoff on the Star Wars droids, and feels completely at odds with the rest of the movie - even his design does not feel right. He looks like a missing sidekick from MST3K.

While  the movie is a break from the usual template of seventies live-action Disney releases, it does feel like a spiritual sequel to Walt's 1954 production of 20 000 Leagues Under The Sea, with its focus on a mysterious captain of a massive vessel who is intent on accomplishing his goals whatever the cost.

Maximilian Schell's Reinhardt lacks the motives and menace of James Mason's Captain Nemo, but makes for a decent antagonist. It helps that he has some solid muscle in Maximilian. With its blood-red armour and eye slit, this enforcer feels like a villain out of a 70s techno-thrillers (Demon Seed, Westworld).

In light of Disney's pop culture dominance, The Black Hole feels more special. Made at the studio's nadir, as  a reaction to the new wave of blockbusters, it is a movie that perfectly encapsulates the identity crisis and lack of direction at the heart of the company that made it.
While it is no masterpiece, I feel like the sense of uncertainty running through The Black Hole is the cause of its strengths as well as its weaknesses. As much as the human story drags, and V.I.N.C.E.N.T.'s antics with fellow robot B.O.B (voiced by Slim Pickens) are minor offence against comedy, the movie is packed with arresting imagery and individual sequences and moments which linger far longer than the actual story.

No comments:

Post a Comment