Tuesday, May 30, 2017
THE BLACK HOLE
Spending most of this month writing posts about STAR WARS has made me think about films and TV shows that were inspired by George Lucas' blockbuster. Many of these productions are almost forgotten today, and none of them achieved anywhere near the success that STAR WARS did. As a young geeky kid in the late 1970s, I tried seeking them out. I was so obsessed with STAR WARS, I was willing to sit through almost anything that had spaceships and robots in it.
This means I watched TV shows like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY. I lost interest in both of them after their first seasons--the only thing I really remember about BUCK ROGERS is Erin Gray's skintight outfits. I even watched a show called QUARK, which was something of a science-fiction spoof and starred Richard Benjamin. I certainly didn't understand it, but it did have spaceships and robots.
It took me a few years to get around to most of the big-screen STAR WARS rip-offs, due to the fact that my parents almost never took me to see movies in a theater. (Their stance on cinema attendance was, "Why pay to go see it when it'll be shown on TV eventually??") When I did finally see these sci-fi spectacular wannabes, I would invariably be disappointed. Many have commented on how simple George Lucas' tale supposedly is--but that apparent simplicity seemed to have been beyond the reach of the many producers, directors, and writers who tried to vainly cash in on it.
Due to the complex nature of their productions, it took a while for most of the STAR WARS wannabes to make it to the theaters. 1979 was the big year for the revitalized big-budget Hollywood science-fiction film, what with titles such as ALIEN, STAR TREK--THE MOTION PICTURE, and the Disney company's entry into the sweepstakes, THE BLACK HOLE. I tried watching THE BLACK HOLE on TV years ago, and I don't even think I finished it. I decided to view it again, and find out how it compares to STAR WARS today.
THE BLACK HOLE features a exploratory space vessel called the Palomino, which is heading back to Earth. The five-person crew comes across a (surprise) black hole, and a supposedly-lost spaceship called the Cyngus. The giant craft seems to have only one human survivor aboard--its commander, the brooding Dr. Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell). The Doctor explains to the crew of the Palomino that he is determined to explore the black hole, and that he has also created several robots to run his ship. The crew of the Palomino, and their own "cute" robot, called Vincent, have their suspicions. The explorers find out that most of Reinhardt's robots are actually remnants of the original crew of the Cyngus. The explorers try to escape, but Reinhardt manages to send the Cyngus into the black hole.
THE BLACK HOLE is a very schizophrenic film. On one hand it tries to be a "serious" science-fiction story, what with Reinhardt's obsession with the black hole, and an ending that tries to emulate 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But this is a Disney film, after all, and the character that gets the biggest showcase in the story is good-guy robot Vincent. Vincent is short, squat, and cylindrical, like R2-D2, but he has a prissy English voice like C-3PO (courtesy of Roddy McDowall). Vincent also has a design that makes it look like it sports cartoonish eyes--which means that every time you see it, you think of a kids toy instead of a functioning mechanism. Later in the film we are introduced to an older version of Vincent's type called Bob, voiced by Slim Pickens. Bob is beat-up, dented, and his "eyes" look as if he's getting ready to cry--he appears even more ridiculous than Vincent does. Whatever serious intent THE BLACK HOLE tries to have goes out the window when these two are front & center--and they are in the film a majority of the time.
As for the human characters, they are even less interesting than the robots. The crew of the Palomino--the Captain (Robert Forster), first officer (Joseph Bottoms), two scientists (Anthony Perkins & Yvette Mimieux) and a journalist (Ernest Borgnine)--are totally interchangeable. You couldn't imagine any other actors in the main roles of the STAR WARS cast, but the leads in THE BLACK HOLE could be played by any other performer, no matter what the gender. We barely get to know anything about the main characters, and they are all given some rather generic dialogue. Yvette Mimieux's character gets a few details--she has a psychic link to Vincent (which is never explained), and we learn that her father served on the Cyngus. Both of these elements, however, never develop into much of anything. What's really sad is how the movies wastes two fine character actors in Anthony Perkins and Ernest Borgnine. One would expect that two old pros like them would get a number of chances to ham it up in a movie like this, but Perkins plays his role so vacantly that I expected he would turn out to be a robot. As for Borgnine, I assumed that he would be the "ordinary Joe" guy, the one that the audience could relate to, the one that would be trading barbs with the robots--but he doesn't do any of those things, he's just kind of there.
Maximilian Schell easily has the showiest role as Dr. Reinhardt. From the very first time we meet him, you know he's the bad guy--he's got wild hair, a wild beard, and he's overtly "foreign" (at least in the typical movie sense). Like a lot of things in this movie, Schell's determination to enter the black hole is never really explained. Schell's Reinhardt is very reminiscent of Captain Nemo (which is fitting for a Disney film), and I have to say he also reminded me of Dr. Morbius from FORBIDDEN PLANET. In that movie Dr. Morbius had Robby the Robot, and in THE BLACK HOLE Dr. Reinhardt has a very Darth Vader-like robot called Maximilian (I assume the name was just a coincidence). Maximilian is made out to be a bad dude, but he winds up being a dud (he gets defeated by the "cute" Vincent!). Reinhardt also has a squad of robot soldiers who also bear a slight resemblance to Vader. Unfortunately they shoot like Imperial Stormtroopers (wouldn't a robot soldier have perfect aim?) and their movements are very clunky--they move like a five year old kid trying to imitate a robot. The idea that Reinhardt has turned his former crew into robot zombies is an intriguing one, but it isn't taken advantage of enough (was Disney afraid that this plot aspect might be too scary?).
The real star of THE BLACK HOLE is the Cyngus (see picture above), a magnificently designed ship that seems to have a limitless interior. The special effects in this film are first rate--Disney apparently wanted to hire Industrial Light & Magic to handle the FX work, but they wound up starting their own effects house instead. Visually, THE BLACK HOLE is stunning--but the same cannot be said for the characters or the story. The film does have an outstanding music score from the legendary composer John Barry. While doing research on THE BLACK HOLE I came across the opinion that the movie should be watched with just sound effects and music only--and I would have to agree with that.
THE BLACK HOLE was Disney's most expensive movie up till that time, and it was also the first PG rated film from the company. When it came out I remember it had a huge publicity campaign behind it. The movie was not a smash at the box office and from today's perspective it's easy to see why. Instead of a fun thrill ride like STAR WARS, the movie has a coldness to it, with stiff characters and a very ambiguous ending (I won't give it away for those who have not seen it,,,but when you do, you'll probably say "Huh??"). The mixture of esoteric science-fiction and goofy robots was a strange one. Take away the superb FX and John Barry's impressive music and one is left with the equivalent of a mediocre Star Trek episode. The movie does have a very small cult following, and there has even been talk of a remake. A film like THE BLACK HOLE just reminds me of how special the original STAR WARS was, and how the ingredients that made it special are not so easy to put together again.