Black Hole, The (1979)

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 11/12/07 23:08:51

"Disney trying to out-Star Wars Star Wars? Not quite."
3 stars (Just Average)

Hoping to cash in on the success of a modestly budgeted science fiction/adventure film called "Star Wars" (just "Star Wars" as "A New Hope" wasn't added as a subtitle until years later), Walt Disney Studios greenlit their own genre entry, "The Black Hole," or to be more accurate, had the screenplay retooled and expanded to focus on the visual effects that made "Star Wars" a box office hit in 1977. Disney's first PG-rated live-action film, "The Black Hole" cost $26 million to produce (not including advertising and marketing costs), almost four times as much as "Star Wars" cost just two years earlier. While "The Black Hole" didn't exactly bomb, making $36 million domestically, it received mixed to negative reviews, primarily for its clichéd, muddled storyline, thin character development, and a misguided ending that tried to emulate "2001: A Space Odyssey" for its metaphysical ambiguity.

The Black Hole is set in the year 2130 C.E. An interstellar research ship, the Palomino, carries a crew of five, Capt. Dan Holland (Robert Forster), Lt. Charles Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), and V.I.N.CENT. (Vital Information Necessary CENTralized) (voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall), a sentient robot prone to dry aphorisms. Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine), a journalist, is the sole passenger aboard the Palomino’s. The Palomino comes across a black hole and a derelict space ship. On closer inspection, Holland and his crew identify the ship as the U.S.S. Cygnus, a ship presumed lost more than two decades earlier. McCrae discloses that her father captained the Cygnus.

After almost losing control and slipping into the black hole, the damaged Palomino is forced to dock with the Cygnus. Within moments, Holland and the others are disarmed and brought to the control tower where they might the Cygnus' lone survivor, Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), a brilliant scientist. For company, Reinhart has created several different classes of robots, including a malevolent, red-eyed model he calls Maximilian. Reinhart reveals that he hopes to fly Cygnus into the black hole with the hope that his anti-gravity device will save him and the Cygnus from being crushed by the gravitational well of the black hole. Holland expresses skepticism at Reinhart's idea, but Durant sees the brilliance in Reinhart's apparent madness.

Borrowing plot elements from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and George Lucas’ first Star Wars film, The Black Hole is nothing if not derivative. From Verne and Melville, writers Jeb Rosebrook and Bob Barbash and director Gary Nelson borrowed the fanatical, monomaniacal, idealistic captain who has little regard for human life, unless it’s expended in pursuit of his egotistical dream. From Lucas, Nelson and the writers borrowed the “cute” robots, even going as far as pairing up V.I.N.CENT. with a cantankerous old robot, BOB (voiced by Slim Pickens) for comic relief (much of it forced). From Kubrick, they borrowed his metaphysical preoccupations and the star gate sequence from Kubrick’s film, but implemented here with far less innovation.

Even worse, Nelson and his writers’ throw together ill-defined, underwritten characters into a plot that gets increasingly ludicrous the further away it gets from science-based logic and the closer it gets to Judeo-Christian ideas about heaven and hell. That’s not a knock against Christianity, but a knock on the writers and, by extension Disney, who either ran out of places to “borrow” ideas from or had none of their own to offer. It makes for a confused, muddled, and rushed ending that leaves too many questions unanswered. Circa 1979 moviegoers were hoping for light, adventurous storytelling in the Lucas or Spielberg mode obviously left movie theaters unsatisfied.

Sadly, Nelson’s direction is as lackluster as you’d expect from an undistinguished TV veteran. With the exception of the final set piece and the close to 550 visual effects shots, a credit less to Nelson’s skills as a director and more to the effects crew at Disney led by Richard Ellenshaw (who not coincidentally worked on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Disney twenty-five years earlier), The Black Hole moves through expository scenes, with one or two minor revelations about the fate of the Cygnus’ crew, at a lethargic pace that makes The Black Hole feel like it’s much longer than it’s 98-minute running time. Nelson’s choreography of the battle scenes is just as sluggish and uninventive as you’d expect from a work-for-hire director who had no business behind the camera for an effects-heavy film. Too bad Steven Spielberg wasn’t available to direct or at least act as a consultant.

What makes "The Black Hole" still watchable after twenty-eight years is certainly not the story, the characters, the performances, or the direction, but the production design by Richard Ellenshaw and the visual effects which relied on a mix of technologies from the pre- and post-"Star Wars" era. Whether it�s the first sight of the black hole, sucking in matter into its dark core, the "Palomino�s" first encounter with the "Cygnus," a ship designed to resemble a steel-and-girder aircraft carrier as designed by Gustav Eiffel, humanoid robots working inside the control tower, a meteor shower that leaves the "Cygnus" damaged, or a giant fireball running amuck through the ship�s structure, "The Black Hole" will elicit the requisite awe and wonderment expected from a big-budget spectacle. At least there, "The Black Hole" doesn�t disappoint. Unfortunately, that�s not enough.

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