Monday, 9 April 2018

Movie Review: The Black Hole (1979)

After Battle Beyond the Stars, I was ready for a lot of hokiness when I sat down to watch The Black Hole (1979). It was made a year earlier, after all. But, surprisingly, there was very little in the way of hokiness.

The Black Hole is a Disney movie so you can see the hefty budgets and massive production companies behind it. It's clean, the sound is good, and the special effects are actually decent. None of that guarantees a good movie, of course, but it does make it easier to watch.

Jay calls The Black Hole "a forgotten gem." He says that it was "Disney jumping on the Star Wars bandwagon, like everyone else" and it's a shame "you never hear The Black Hole mentioned anymore." Me? I think I could have gone without discovering this "gem." But we'll get to that.

My first thought, as the movie started, was that the effects were very Eighties, despite it being a year early. Jay agreed and reminded me that it was a few years too early for me, too, and that it was "the dawn of computer graphics." Sometimes, I'm really grateful that I can pause the movie and look to him for insights about the stuff BWE. (You know, Before Wondra's Era.)

I was defintely happy to hear a familiar voice as the movie started. Roddy McDowall (uncredited) gives voice to the friendly robot, VINCENT (It's actually "V.I.N.CENT." but, for the sake of my sanity, let's keep it simple.) -- something I took as a very good sign. And, then... I saw him. (Er, it.)

Seriously, though, I laughed every single time VINCENT was on screen. Comical doesn't even begin to cut it. The eyes. THE EYES. *snort* The ridiculousness of VINCENT's appearance really lets the movie down. It's almost as if someone went, "Hey, this is too serious for the kiddies. What can we do to keep their interest?" <Insert VINCENT.>

VINCENT is later joined by BOB, an outdated version of the same robot. Watching them, I was struck by how much they reminded me of Disney's Cars.

When the crew first encounters the black hole, Ernest Borgnine's Harry Booth says, "My God! Right out of Dante's Inferno!" I found that very interesting because he's not just saying that it creeps him out, he's saying it's HELL. It speaks to a theme that runs through the whole movie, that black holes are straight up evil. Just look at the way the crew talks about the massive black hole they encounter:
"The most destructive force in the universe, Harry. Nothing can escape it, not even light." (Durant) 
"...eventually black holes would devour the entire universe." (McCrae) 
"Every time I see one of those things, I expect to spot some guy in red, with horns and a pitchfork." (Pizer) 
"It's a monster alright." (Durant) 
"A rip in the very fabric of space and time." (VINCENT) 
"That long, dark tunnel to nowhere." (McCrae)
Our understanding of the universe has come a long way since 1979 but, with films like this, it's a miracle that we moved forward at all. Demonising black holes in a children's movie? Sheesh. You might as well just come out and say, "Remember, kids: science is bad, God is good." 😒 I can't even begin to count the number of ways that shit's wrong.

Right. Now, before I roll my eyes so hard I choke on them, let's move on.

This is about the time in The Black Hole that you get your first glimpse of Anthony Perkins as Dr. Alex Durant. I don't remember ever seeing him in anything besides the Psycho franchise so it was a bit weird to see Perkins in a family film. Honestly? I find him a bit too intense, too aloof to play the hero. It's the way he moves, I think. Not enough. His movements are minimal and his eyes dart everywhere. It's just creepy.

(Heads up, if you want a fun drinking game, take a shot everytime anyone says, "gravity." It might be enough to get you through the rest of the movie.)

Joseph Bottoms (Pizer) is guilty of overacting. Big time. As the ship fights the pull of the black hole, he overdoes it so much I'm surprised he didn't shake the whole set apart. It's even worse when you see him with the other actors who play it much cooler. His acting doesn't get much better, unfortunately. I assume he's suppose to be the cheeky chappy but it falls flat.

Sadly, the same could be said for the rest of the movie. It just falls flat. Again, The Black Hole is a slick flick to watch. I've seen sci fi from the Nineties that doesn't look as good as The Black Hole. It's just too bad the rest of the film isn't as well done.

Yvette's Mimieux's Dr. Katie McCrae has ESP that she uses to speak to VINCENT. Wait. I have to say it again: she's a scientist with ESP -- ESP that somehow is capable of connecting with a robot. A robot who doesn't have a brain and, therefore, doesn't have THOUGHTS. Are we all still okay with this?

You already dislike Maximilian Schell's Dr. Hans Reinhardt before you meet him, thanks to some smack-talk from Harry. But, just in case you didn't get how bad he is, The Black Hole uses its trademark colour-scheme to emphasis it, dressing the mad doctor in red. His evil robot, Maximilian, is also red. We're going back to that whole devil reference.

Keep an eye out for red as you watch. It's obvious enough through the rest of The Black Hole but, when you get to the end, you just want to scream, "Okay, we get it already!" Red, red, red. Red is bad. Black holes are bad. Ambition is bad. Knowledge is bad. Hell is bad -- and guess where you're going if your ambition and craving for knowledge drives you into a black hole?

Ding, ding, ding.

Okay, before I get to the whole Hell thing, let's talk about some of the stuff that happens when the crew of the Palomino boards the Cygnus.

Dr. Katie McCrae is the only woman in the film. Am I surprised? No. Am I annoyed? Yup. Am I even more annoyed that they put the only freaking woman in the film in a PINK jumpsuit? Oh, yeah. Am I seriously fucking pissed off that the only woman in the film, who wears a pink jumpsuit has flawless (and heavily applied) makeup the entire time? Too fucking right.

The fact that they make sure the only female crew member constantly has glossy lips and teary eyes negates her intelligence and position as a scientist. They mention her feelings many times (while simultaneously berating Harry for his), suggesting that she's more useful for those than she is for her mind. Of course, there's also a heaping helping of leering and suggestive body language toward McCrae from Reinhardt but, honestly, I was already so annoyed that it barely registered.

There's a small problem with continuity in the film that bugged me. The colour of Durant's uniform changes often, from blue to green and back again. It's not important, really, but I did find myself watching his uniform more than I listened to his words. (Though that might have been a blessing...)

Backstory (or lack of it) is also a problem for The Black Hole. We know just as much about the crew at the end of the movie as we did at the beginning. We're told that the ship they encounter is the same one McCrae's father disappeared on twenty years before but why should we care about that? If you don't create backstory, you leave the audience too detached to give a damn about what happens to your characters.

Character is also a big issue. Harry's character, for example, changes dramatically for no apparent reason. One minute, he wants to be a hero. The next, he deserts his crew. It doesn't make sense. It's almost as if that was the only way the writers could think of to trap the remaining crew members on board the Cygnus. Character change should never be just a plot tool. It's insulting to the audience.

The Black Hole takes itself far too seriously. It feels more like melodrama than sci fi. There are a lot of profound announcements and heavy looks. Even VINCENT can't lift the spirits of this movie. It's just damned dreary.

I've mentioned how good the graphics are in The Black Hole. This needs a slight amendment. For the most part, the graphics are fab. With a few very notable exceptions. First, there's our friendly robot, VINCENT. It looks like he's made of Styrofoam (and sounds like he's fuelled by cliches.) And, as the Palomino crew tries to escape, there's a moment when you can see that the walls are obviously made of paper. There's also McCrae's tinfoil hat. Seriously. There's no way that wasn't made out of tinfoil. So cringe-worthy.

Then, there's a volley of that meteors collide with the Cygnus. Those meteors are the worst special effects in the whole film. For starters, they glow red (hello, Hell reference) and are mostly transparent. I still haven't decided if it was done that way entirely for a Hell tie-in or if it's because they genuinely had no idea what a meteor ought to look like. I suspect the former. 

Since we're talking about the ending...

The Black Hole should have ended the moment the probe ship got away from the Cygnus. Everything after that is ridiculous tripe. Taking the Hell thing from metaphor to actual Hell was a step too far. The angel shit was a mile too far. The end completely ruined what would have otherwise been a flawed but tolerable science fiction movie.

Science is really an afterthought in this sci fi movie. They make casual reference to difficult scientific principals that they never explain. It shows a solid understanding of some principals while completely ignoring others. This is supposed to be a family, film, remember. If you're not going to educate the little ones, why bother including the science at all?

It's pretty obvious, all the way through, that The Black Hole is more concerned with religion that science. You've got Reinhardt comparing VINCENT and Max to David and Goliath. You've got Durant saying he wants to travel into the centre of the black hole to go "Straight into what might be the mind of God".



I thought the black hole was supposed to be Hell...

This movie just can't make up its fucking mind.

I've come down pretty hard on The Black Hole, I know. Was there anything I liked? Well... there is one moment in the film that I thought worked well. Harry bends to look into the mask of one of Reinhardt's robots and sees his own face reflected back. It's a very subtle, yet telling moment. Best storytelling in the movie.

I also like that you can see parallels with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The Cygnus is the Nautilus, Reinhardt is Nemo, and Durant is Aronnax. (Too bad Pizer ain't no Ned Land...) There are also nods to other sci fi, such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and Alien. I appreciate that. Everything else? Meh.

I'd love to hear what you think about The Black Hole. I hope you had a better experience with it than I did. (Better yet, I hope you had the luck not to sit through it!)

Next time, my friends, Jack Nicholson's best film.

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