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Black Hole, The (1979)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/14/07 23:34:02

"Underrated genre brilliance."
5 stars (Awesome)

Chances are good that you won’t find another critic who’ll say it, but it’s true: Disney’s “The Black Hole” ranks among the very best films to come from the post-“Star Wars” sci-fi boom. In an age where every studio scrambled to send robots and spunky, shaggy-haired heroes into outer space (both in theaters and on television screens), it took a studio stuck in a rut of backward thinking to create something more than just your average Skywalker rip-off.

Of course, “The Black Hole” has its fair share of “Star Wars” wannabe bits, most notably a cutesy tin can robot named V.I.N.CENT., voiced by Roddy MacDowell, thus managing to duplicate R2-D2 and C-3PO in one character. But for the most part, the film borrows instead from two major genre pictures from decades earlier: “Forbidden Planet” (itself a retooling of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”) and Disney’s own “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” And while the action sequences are of the modern era (modern for 1979, that is), the plotting and character work are all rooted in more old fashioned fare, and presented without a pinch of irony, either. This is by-gosh, boy-howdy big screen sci-fi, 50s-style.

The action begins aboard the spaceship Palomino, when her crew discovers the USS Cygnus, a vessel which went missing decades earlier and now, mysteriously, has been found floating dangerously close to - yet mysteriously unaffected by - the largest black hole yet discovered. Making their way aboard the Cygnus, the crew finds hundreds of robots but only one human: Dr. Hans Reinhardt, the apparent lone survivor of the ship’s original mission. Reinhardt is hospitable to his guests, although they’re none too keen on the announcement of his project, to fly directly into (and through?) the black hole.

Played with scenery-chewing gusto by Maximilian Schell, Reinhardt is all too familiar a character. You don’t have to look closely at all to notice liberal samplings from Captain Nemo (with his scientific genius and his knack for treating people like guests and prisoners at the same time) and Dr. Morbius (whose years of solitude may have crippled his sanity). We even get a Robbie the Robot-gone-evil companion for Reinhardt, in the form of Maximilian, a silent giant who’ll slice you down if you get too close.

Maximilian’s appearance here marks a stunning step forward for Disney, as the robot is a genuine threat - and his menace is all too real, as he does indeed wind up offing one of the humans in a scene that remains unexpectedly frightening nearly thirty years after its debut. Disney set out to make a PG-rated adventure to appeal to the tougher sensibilities of youths of the era (the same sensibilities that left almost every studio scrambling to avoid a G rating, as kiddie stuff just wasn’t selling anymore). What they got was a dark, sinister, grown-up space adventure, with death and madness all around.

And intelligence, too. “The Black Hole” may be remembered by most as a fluffy Disney actioner, yet its aims were definitely for a more mature science fiction. Sure, the physics of the whole thing are out of whack - meteors as fireballs? going through a black hole? no spacesuits needed for being in, you know, outer space? - but those are all immediately forgivable, as the rest involves solid character development and thought-provoking mystery. Indeed, the trippy finale, with its visions of heaven and hell and whatever else you think it might be, reveals just how grown-up Disney wishes to appear, with Kubrick’s “2001” winding up as a major influence.

Somewhere within all this darkness and maturity, the screenwriters (four were given screen credit) manage to filter in all the key aspects of an older sort of sci-fi. The Palomino crew come straight out of the Eisenhower years: the square-jawed captain (Robert Forster), the wisecracking everyman (Ernest Borgnine), the stuffy scientist (Anthony Perkins), the sexy female officer (Yvette Mimieux) with the added bonus of psychic powers, and the young hotshot (Joseph Bottoms). Even V.I.N.CENT. can be seen as a more 50s-influenced character; take away the “Star Wars” trappings of being a tin can robot, and you get a fix-it man whose non-stop folksy platitudes offer both comic relief and gentle amusement. (A second robot, the ramshackle B.O.B., is voiced by none other than Slim Pickens, thus doubling the film’s down-home-charm quotient.)

All these characters play their expected parts, none better than Perkins’ Dr. Durant, who, as any good scientist of the genre should, becomes so enthralled by Reinhardt’s genius that he becomes blind to the mad doctor’s villainy. Even after the most wicked surprises are revealed, Durant wants to find the good in Reinhardt. (In this regard, “The Black Hole” - perhaps unintentionally - returns us to the once-popular message that science unchecked can be a bad, bad thing.)

It’s not until late in the game that the movie fully breaks loose of its retro sensibilities and unleashes a barrage of action sequences meant to satisfy fans eager to see more “Star Wars”-level thrills. This often requires a heavy dose of ridiculousness - a meteor shower comes out of nowhere, conveniently hitting the Cygnus just when the plot needs it - but the payoff is worth it, as we get one of the movie’s most memorable shots: a giant fireball rolling down a mammoth corridor as our heroes struggle to escape.

Complimenting all of this is John Barry’s highly memorable score, which combines the weighty pomp of his late-60s James Bond work with a floating, dizzying “space” motif (and, late in the film, channels the spirit of John Williams’ big-brass adventure scores); Peter Ellenshaw’s phenomenal production design, which let the Cygnus interiors to fill the screen with great wonder; and the visual effects (also led by Ellenshaw), which saw some of the most detailed use of matte paintings seen on film, allowing for grand imagery to be duplicated all within the camera itself.

And so “The Black Hole” becomes both a colossal cinematic achievement and magnificent entertainment. It’s great, big fun that hasn’t lost its edge in nearly thirty years, and while much of it may seem all too familiar, it has yet to grow stale.

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