Awfully Good: The Black Hole
With TOMORROWLAND an apparent disappointment, we look back at another costly Disney sci-fi failure…
The Black Hole (1979)
Director: Gary Nelson
Stars: Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster
A group of astronauts encounter a massive spaceship impossibly close to a black hole and find it inhabited by a brilliant madman and his army of goofy as hell robots.
THE BLACK HOLE straddles the line between being endlessly watchable and absolutely terrible. As Disney's first PG-rated movie, the film was clearly meant to be a psychologically complex companion to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. However, after the gargantuan success of STAR WARS in 1977, it was even more obviously rushed in to production in an attempt to try to capitalize on the public's desire for epic space adventure. The end result is a weird, moody film that feels like a dark sci-fi reflection on humanity with elements of painfully cheesy adventure shoehorned in. Watching it as a kid I was equal parts amazed, bored and terrified by it. Watching it as an adult, all three emotions still ring fairly true.
Everyone immediately regretted wanting practical effects in EPISODE VII.
Admittedly, the movie does have a lot going for it. For essentially taking place in one location, it's big in scope—feeling both expansive and expensive. In fact, with a $20 million budget, THE BLACK HOLE was the most costly Disney movie ever made up to that point and the money is definitely on the screen. Part of that is the big name cast, which included Oscar-winner Maximilian Schell, PSYCHO's Anthony Perkins, JACKIE BROWN's Robert Forster, and BASEKETBALL's Ernest Borgnine. The rest of it is the special effects, which include a lot of practical fabrication, gorgeous matte paintings and some early computer animation. The vector graphics that are used for the opening credits may seem laughably archaic now, but they were a big deal back in 1979. On top of it all is John Barry's incredible score for the movie, which is so great it actually tricks you in to thinking THE BLACK HOLE is a lot better than it actually is. It especially makes the goofy action sequences thankfully seem more exciting.
It was at that moment that Norman Bates realized Dr. Reinhardt looked an awful lot like his father.
So if THE BLACK HOLE is so great what's it doing in this column? Everything previously mentioned also has a dark side. The effects create a believable world, but the bland, unpolished script nearly undoes it all. The picture boasts some great actors but they all turn in hammy performances (especially Schell, who achieves near-Shatner levels of line delivery). And for all the money spent on new camera techniques and fancy graphics, the filmmakers completely cheaped out on two of the main characters. Of course I'm talking about VINCENT and BOB, the two robot pal sidekicks. With barely functioning parts, painted-on eyes, and annoying personalities (voiced by Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens), the two robots painfully stick out so much from the rest of the production that they nearly bring down the entire film. Their wacky banter and sitcom side plots (i.e. entering a laser marksmanship contest with other robots) feels like a different movie and added in just to appeal to kids and sell toys. There are also other humanoid robots, including a skinny Darth Vader, that are so clearly guys in cheap costumes that it again takes you out of the movie. Even Maximilian, the big bad bot whose presence has been built up the entire movie, ends up being a lame disappointment with essentially spinning blender attachments for arms. It's truly sad that all the robots are so wildly unimpressive in a movie desperately trying to impress you.
It wasn't hard to tell which one of WALL-E's kids had a drug problem.
The plot of the movie is essentially just 20,000 LEAGUES IN SPACE and it follows that story fairly faithfully. You can tell the script really wants to explore heady topics like science vs. religion, genius/madness, and humanity and artificial intelligence (one of the characters is a psychic who can inexplicably read robot minds), but is never given the chance to fully do so. Instead, it has to make room for unexciting and unnecessary action sequences, including multiple laser blaster shootouts where the heroes gun down robots standing perfectly still in a row, and an asteroid sequence that looks like it was filmed inside a lava lamp. The movie's single major surprise—a main character's gruesome death—is definitely memorable. But only because it was in no way PG and scarred me as a young child.
Mysterio could handle Spider-Man, but he had no idea what to do with Ernest Borgnine Man.
However, the one thing THE BLACK HOLE is remembered for is for having one of the weirdest, most self-destructive endings of all time as the crew finally ventures in to the titular object and the movie takes a break from being a fairly straightforward Disney space adventure and instead turns in to an LSD-fueled nightmare. Let me see if I can sum this up. As the crew get sucked in to the black hole, reality becomes distorted and we see/hear everyone yelling out in pain. Suddenly the previously-dead villain appears floating in space and begins to merge with his evil robot servant (in what almost looks like a sexual embrace). As their bodies become one, the camera pulls out and we see that they're actually in the fiery pits of Hell, populated by hooded skeletal figures. Without warning we enter a long hallway inside a glass cathedral following a flying translucent woman with flowing robes in to a bright light. The spaceship emerges from the black hole and the movie ends. It's a headscratcher for adults and a hellacious nightmare for young viewers. (But damn if the music isn't great.)
What a day to only bring SPF 15.
Part of me loves that something so weird and opaque came out of the Mouse House and I appreciate THE BLACK HOLE on that level. But I also have to admit that pretty much everything else about it sort of blows.
The best of Vincent the robot and Dr. Reinhardt the over-actor.
1) The film's best robot fights, laser shootouts and a truly disturbing PG-rated death scene.
2) The ending of the movie. Good luck.
All naked robots, all the time.
Take a shot or drink every time:
- You spot a wire or string
- Alex and Reinhardt should get a room
- Kate communicates telepathically with a robot
- Ernest Borgnine is a pansy
- The visual effects are especially bad
- A robot is cold
|Extra Tidbit:||Scientific sex symbol Neil deGrasse Tyson recently referred to THE BLACK HOLE as "the least scientifically accurate movie of all time." (Clearly he has never seen THE CORE.)|