(1979) Directed by Gary Nelson; Written by Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day; Based on a story by: Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Barbash and Richard H. Landau; Starring: Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster and Joseph Bottoms; Available on DVD
“There is not, and never was, a definitive ending written. Even the credited screenwriters did not write the actual ending we have on the film. They took the story up to the last seven minutes and stopped.” – Gary Nelson (excerpt from 1979 interview with Jim Steranko, Mediascene)
“The risk is incidental, compared to the possibility to possess the great truth of the unknown. There, long-cherished laws of nature simply do not apply, they vanish.” – Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell)
Note: Democracy has spoken. By the narrowest of margins, The Black Hole triumphed over Logan’s Run in my informal Twitter poll. Thanks to all who voted.
1979 was a banner year for space-bound epics with three (count ‘em, three) movies: Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole and Alien (by far, the best of the bunch). Two were aiming for big-budget spectacle, while the last employed impressive effects, but to tell a more claustrophobic story. The Black Hole was the only one of the three that I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing in the theater, due to the fact I had two older brothers who regarded Disney as purveyors of kid stuff. I’ve since watched it on home video several times, so it’s become as entrenched in my synapses as its other two contemporaries.
The eponymous, enigmatic space phenomenon (http://www.universetoday.com/46687/black-hole-facts/; http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/space/universe/black-holes-article/) has been the mainstay of numerous science fiction stories, and remains ripe for exploitation as a plot device. There’s something poetic and terrifying about a celestial body that generates gravitational forces so powerful, even light can’t escape. Of course, no one really knows what would happen if a spacecraft could survive the crushing effects of a black hole, but some have speculated it could be a possible conduit through time and space.
In the opening scene, the crew members of the deep-space exploration craft Palomino discover an enormous vessel, the U.S.S. Cygnus. The ship, believed lost two decades ago, is perched at the edge of a massive black hole. Although the rest of the Cygnus’s crew vanished, famed researcher Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), resembling a disco Captain Nemo, is alive and well. He’s created an anti-gravity field that can counteract the gravitational effects, and intends to survive a journey through the center.
While there are undeniable elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Forbidden Planet in the film, Walt Disney Studios undoubtedly called upon its own 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as the primary template. I’m not aware if the filmmakers ever conceded these parallels, but there are too many to dismiss. The Nautilus becomes the Cygnus, the aforementioned Nemo becomes Dr. Reinhardt, Professor Aronnax is Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), Ned Land is Lieutenant Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), and Nemo’s loyal first mate becomes the diabolical robot Maximilian.* In one scene, we witness a burial at space that recalls an underwater burial in the earlier film. In another sequence, Reinhardt provides a tour of the Cygnus’ power supply that recalls similar scenes in Forbidden Planet (the vast Krell underground complex) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (the Nautilus’ atomic reactor).
* Fun fact: In case you’re wondering, the robot was named Maximilian before Maximilian Schell was cast as Dr. Reinhardt.
Schell does a laudable job as the egomaniacal genius Reinhardt, but he’s no James Mason.* Dr. Reinhardt and Captain Nemo are both driven men, not interested in the human cost of their endeavors, but that’s where the similarities begin and end. Nemo is much more sympathetic, as a man who’s lost his wife and children to the profiteers of war. Insanity begets insanity, as he vows revenge against those who destroyed his family. By comparison, Reinhardt’s motives are more two-dimensional, as the stereotypical mad scientist who won’t let pesky meddlers get in the way of scientific advancement.
* In a 1979 interview, Nelson conceded: “Perhaps, he didn’t tap his full potential in the film, but only because the subject and the script did not have the real depth of some of his past work.” (ibid) Nelson’s comment seems to reveal more about the director’s contempt for the material, rather than Schell’s
Reinhardt’s robot guard Maximilian never utters a word, reminding us that less is sometimes more. With his vaguely human shape, a glowing port where eyes should be, dark red finish and appendages pointed upward like devil’s horns, he’s a truly frightening creation. Maximilian teaches us an important lesson: nothing good can come out of endowing a robot with spinning blade hands. Occupying more screen time, but to lesser effect are two cute R2D2-esque robots, VINCENT (voiced by Roddy McDowell), who spews aphorisms like nobody’s business, and BOB (voiced by Slim Pickens), who speaks with a stereotypical “Texas” accent (He was programmed in Houston, get it?). In an early scene, VINCENT and Maximilian square off in the equivalent of a robot pissing contest, foreshadowing their inevitable confrontation. The Cygnus also boasts a goose-stepping robot army with faces that suspiciously resemble Darth Vader. Why a research vessel would need an automaton army is beyond me, but I suppose the Disney higher-ups felt you could never have enough robots. In one of the film’s low points, VINCENT squares off against one of the army’s top soldiers in a shooting contest.
Despite some tonal miscalculations, The Black Hole features some of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring effects in any science fiction film, all of which were done in-house. Peter Ellenshaw, along with his son Harrison, supervised the effects shots and detailed matte paintings. The Cygnus resembles a gothic cathedral, with its illuminated framework, vaulted corridors and grandiose proportions. In one visually spectacular, but highly improbable shot, a giant meteor rolls through the middle of the ship. In all likelihood, it would have obliterated the Cygnus and its occupants, but it sure looks great. The black hole itself was created using a swirling mixture of liquids in a backlit plexiglass tank, and is suitably mesmerizing. It’s unfortunate that some other effects work isn’t nearly as effective, with shots of the cast members and robots floating through a weightless environment on very visible wires.
If The Black Hole’s reach exceeds its grasp, it’s likely on account of the growing pains Disney experienced with its first PG-rated movie, aiming for something more “adult,” but without alienating the kiddos. The finished result is a film that contains dark and brooding themes, while catering to some more juvenile sensibilities (in a perfunctory Star Wars-type laser battle, one character actually exclaims “Yee-haw!”). The filmmakers were clearly gunning for a 2001-style ending, with a final sequence that aims for something ethereal and spiritual, but winds up heavy handed and moralistic. Even if the conclusion is more Roland Emmerich than Stanley Kubrick, you have to give Nelson and crew credit for attempting something profound. After repeated viewings, The Black Hole still leaves me feeling dissonant about the film I wanted it to be, versus the mixed bag that exists. At the end of the day, however, I would much rather see a film such as this, which aims for the stars and misses, rather than one that ploughs through the dirt and succeeds.