Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Black Hole




As you may recall, I hate Disney.

There is that one exception, however.  That exception's name is a science fiction film called The Black Hole.
The reason I like this film so much, despite all of its obvious flaws, is how original and innovative it really is on so many levels.  Given that the film's release was in 1979, Disney obviously wanted a production that would exploit the success of Star Wars.  They could have gone with an entirely feelgood knock off of it.  Instead, they chose to do something utterly unique. 

The film opens with a spaceship called the Palomino coming across a black hole.  Inhabiting a null gravity field near the event horizon is another, far larger ship.  Upon further inspection, the crew of the Palomino discover that it is a derelict, a long lost vessel named the Cygnus.  The Palomino becomes damaged and is forced to land on the Cygnus.  Once on board, the crew discovers the single, solitary remaining member of the Cygnus, a German scientist named Dr. Hans Reinhardt.

Reinhardt informs his visitors that the Cygnus was damaged by meteors and he sent the rest of the crew back to Earth.  He alone pressed on by constructing a crew of androids to run the ship with a new mission: enter the black hole and find out what's on the other side.  Needless to say, the crew of Palomino thinks that this is crazy.

Little by little, it begins to appear that Reinhardt is concealing an ugly secret.  One of the android workers is seen walking with a limp.  A gathering of androids has a funeral for one of its fallen.  When Reinhardt's secret is found (one which I refuse to give away here as it is so deliciously creepy and wholly un-Disney-like), he kills one of the Palomino's crew members.  What follows is a shoot-out to escape him.  In the midst of the fighting, meteors damage the Cygnus, knocking out its null field.  The Cygnus begins to spiral into the black hole.  Do our heroes survive?

As I said, I find it entirely original.  One of its strongest areas of invention was the art design.  As a design concept, the Cygnus is amazing (see the pic above).  All of the scaffold-like surfaces and spiky cathedral rises and all of it on a ship that is miles long.  The Star Wars influence is probably most invisible in the presence of all the robot characters.  The Palomino has a robot named V.I.N.CENT voiced by Roddy McDowall.  He is something of a pragmatic space probe in design, using anti-gravity to hover alongside his human companions.  On the Cygnus, he meets a much older model of his robotic design named B.O.B. voiced by Slim Pickens.  This of course is only one of the many types of robot on that spaceship.  There is the android crew plus a contingent of military guards that are transparent stand-ins for stormtroopers.  Most memorable of all is Reinhardt's evil robotic henchman, Maximilian.   This 'bot was big, red, and ominously mute with only a Cylon-like horizontal light for a facial feature.  He could also hover like V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. but carried a pair of spinning blades for defense...or more frequently, offense.  Again, a startling but most welcome choice for a Disney film.

There is also the cast.  Robert Forster plays Captain Dan Holland, the square-jawed hero of the Palomino.  Maximilian Schell plays Dr. Reinhardt in an ominous and operatic manner similar to that of a Bond villain.  Anthony Perkins is foppish civilian scientist, Yvette Mimieux is the token female in the otherwise sausage fest, and best of all, Ernest Borgnine as a civilian reporter along for the ride on the Palomino.  In 1979 there was a line of Black Hole action figures.  So as Tarantino said in True Romance, I love the idea that somewhere out there, a kid was playing with an Ernest Borgnine doll.

So watch The Black Hole.  If you saw it as a kid and thought it sucked, it may surprise you today.  If you've never seen it before, try to look past the cheese and see the art.

There.  I have successfully given credit where credit is due to Disney.  Wasn't easy, but I did it.


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