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The Black Hole

"If there's any justice at all, the black hole will be your grave!"

The Black Hole, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month, was Disney’s blatant attempt to cash in on the sci-fi craze of the late 1970s.

Set sometime in the future, the film follows a group of astronauts on the USS Palomino, returning to Earth after a mission in deep space. On their way back they encounter a black hole and, more impossibly, a ship in stable orbit around it, the long missing USS Cygnus. Boarding the Cygnus, they find it completely deserted save for its commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell). He claims he told the crew to evacuate after the ship was damaged and has been alone all this time with no one for company except his robot boy toy, Maximillian, and his suspiciously human-like android army. Displaying the crazed eccentricity typical of movie mad scientists, Reinhardt explains to the Palomino crew that he has been studying the black hole all this time and intends to take his ship into it because of reasons.

The Black Hole is a film that wants to be many things all at once. Actually, scratch that. It wants to be three specific things all at once. It wants to be Star Wars, it wants to be 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it wants to be a Disney movie for all the family. Unsurprisingly, these things don't really mix that well with each other and the film ultimately fails at being any of them. It’s not rousing enough to be Star Wars, not nearly as cerebral as 2001 and often far too dark and brutal for the magical kingdom of Disney. At a glance the plot is uncomfortably similar to sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. Just replace Morbius with Reinhart, Robbie with Maximilian, a planet with a spaceship, a dead crew with a zombie crew and the Krell with the black hole. All that’s lacking is a bit of shameless eye candy, Frank Drebin and a few monsters from the Id.

The heroes (Robert Forster and the brilliantly named Joseph Bottoms) are nothing but a pair of chiselled-jawed blandroids, their sole purpose is to do all that action stuff while their co-stars (Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Perkins) do all the proper acting. Even the film's chief villain, Dr. Reinhardt, is boring. Not nearly hammy or mad enough to be even slightly entertaining. His robotic henchmen, who stomp around the ship like they’re in search of a Nazi rally, are too often played for laughs rather than menace. Luckily there’s Maximilian, Reinhart’s intimidating crimson Cylon and chief enforcer. Without a single word Maximilian steals the entire movie, easily blowing the human characters off the screen with just the simplest mechanical glare. But Maximilian seems to come from a completely different film, one where it’s okay to skewer Norman Bates with a propeller. The other robotic characters, the insufferably smug V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and country B.O.B., are meant to be cute, lovable and easily merchandised to small children. It’s that uneven tone that cripples the film.

Then along comes the ending and this is where the film really delves into 2001 territory. Visually the sequence isn’t that spectacular and, most important of all, isn’t really ambiguous enough. Kubrick took his audience on a trip beyond the infinite that, even without the advent of LSD, is still pretty damn mind-blowing today. The Stargate sequence made no attempt to explain itself to the members of the audience who weren’t high on drugs. It was up to them to interpret its meaning and decide whether it was profound or psychedelic gibberish. The Black Hole takes its audience on a far too literal journey, past the fire and brimstone of hell to drop off Reinhart and Maximilian and on through the angelic corridors of heaven to salvation for our heroes.

Notes and Quotes

--Besides Maximilian, the film’s only other saving grace is the phenomenal score by the genius that is John Barry. It's one of the great man’s most underappreciated works.

--This was Disney's first PG-rated movie.

--There must've been some massive budget cuts in the space programme since the Cygnus went missing because it's a bloody palace compared to the Palomino.

--I had a little toy Maximilian growing up. Never knew what it was from until I saw this film. Didn't play with it much afterwards.

--The green grid in the opening title was at the time the longest computer graphics sequence ever to appear in a film.

--When the film was released in the Soviet Union it was renamed because 'black hole' is an obscene term in Russian.

Dr. Reinhardt: "The word impossible, Mr. Booth, is only found in the dictionary of fools."

Lt. Pizer: "When I volunteered for this mission, I never thought I'd end up playing straight man to a tin can."

Dr. Reinhardt: "Maximilian, the time has come to liquidate our guests."

Two out of four smug robot sidekicks.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

1 comment:

  1. Amazingly, I'm an aging sci-fi who has never seen this movie. Your review made me laugh out loud three times, Mark. :)


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