Monday, 15 July 2013

The Black Hole (1979)

It wasn’t surprising that everybody wanted to jump aboard the science fiction bandwagon in the late 1970s after the massive 1977 success of George Lucas's Star Wars. It was perhaps a little surprising though that one of the companies that did so was Walt Disney productions. Their 1979 contribution was The Black Hole.

As you might expect from Disney this is a fairly lavish production and visually it certainly impresses.

The Palomino is a deep space exploration vessel. The crew comprises a couple of astronauts (Captain Holland and Lieutenant Pizer), two scientists named Dr Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) and Dr Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), a guy called Harry (Ernest Borgnine) whose function is never made clear and a robot known as Vincent.

The Palomino locates a massive black hole. That’s not the real surprise though - the real surprise is that there’s a spacecraft poised right at the event horizon. Even more surprising is that this ship is the Cygnus, a ship that had left Earth twenty years earlier. Included among the Cygnus’s crew was Dr Kate McCrae’s father. The Cygnus had been commanded by a brilliant scientist, Dr Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell).

Kate McCrae has telepathic powers that enable her to communicate with Vincent over long distances, and these powers tell her that there are living people on board the Cygnus. And indeed there are. Well at least there’s one - Dr Reinhardt himself.  Twenty year earlier he had ignored orders to return to Earth. He informs the Palomino’s crew that all of the Cygnus’s crew apart from him are dead. He has since equipped himself with a robot crew. Curiously enough his crew includes a very large number of very well-armed roots.

Vincent is immediately suspicious of Reinhardt (Vincent of course has telepathic powers so he can communicate with Dr McCrae). Vincent’s human crewmates are inclined to share his suspicions to some degree. Dr Reinhardt has spent two decades performing experiments, but with what objective? Our heroes will find that Reinhardt’s objective is both extraordinary and perilous. Possibly dangerous to them as well. In fact almost certainly dangerous to them.

Despite the black hole this movie does not delve too deeply into scientific matters. There’s just enough science to qualify it as science fiction rather than mere space adventure. There's a definite 2001: A Space Odyssey influence here, as well as the expected Star Wars influence. But there’s  plenty of adventure as well. There’s as much action as anybody could reasonably want. The bad guys, just like the bad guys in so many westerns, can’t shoot for nuts but there are an awful lot of them. Enough to make survival quite a challenge for the Palomino’s crew (needless to say they end up having to fight Dr Reinhardt’s robot army).

There are a couple of things about this movie that I really love. One is that it’s set aboard a spaceship and the crew members are actually weightless! Aside from 2001: A Space Odyssey there aren’t too many science fiction movies that realise that the only way you’re going to have gravity on a spacecraft is by simulating it artificially by spinning the ship. If the ship doesn’t spin (and the ship in The Black Hole doesn’t) then you’re going to be weightless. Of course the weightless thing is abandoned once they reach the Cygnus but it will recur later in the movie.

The second thing I love is that space exploration in the fairly distant future is still carried out by national governments - there’s none of this world government nonsense. That also means that the crew doesn’t have to include token members from other countries. This is an American ship and it’s crewed by Americans.

Director Gary Nelson worked mostly in television. Given the chance to do a feature film on an epic scale he acquits himself creditably enough.

The special effects are quite good. Production values are high and the spaceship models and the spaceship interiors look terrific. The Cygnus is particularly impressive, looking not just very big but very open - the stars seem to be visible from just about everywhere on the ship, emphasising the terrifying vastness of space. The only minor annoyance is that the obligatory robot looks very silly even by science fiction movie standards. But at least he doesn’t have an irritating voice and he isn’t used to provide too much annoying and unnecessary comic relief. The voice of the robot is in fact provided by an uncredited Roddy McDowell.

This is a reasonably well acted movie. Maximilian Schell does the visionary mad scientist bit well enough. Robert Forster and Joseph Bottoms are adequate as Captain Holland and Lieutenant Pizer. Yvette Mimieux manages not to be irritating as the telepathic Dr Kate McCrae. Ernest Borgnine is hammy as always but not too bad. Tony Perkins as Dr Alex Durant relishes the opportunity to play a non-psycho and he’s the best of the actors. Dr Durant is something of a visionary himself and he’s in danger of falling under Dr Reinhardt’s spell.

Disney’s Region 4 DVD is widescreen and anamorphic. The picture is rather grainy but it’s generally acceptable if not quite up to the highest standards.

Don’t expect too much in the way of profound speculations about the nature of the cosmos and our part in it, but The Black Hole succeeds well as action-filled entertainment. Recommended.


Randall Landers said...

I always had the impression that Harry was some sort of reporter aboard the Palomino. He talked big, but didn't measure up in the end.

Kho said...

I saw this film when it came out. I really wanted to like it as I really liked Tony Perkins, Max Schell, Ernie and Roddy but I was completely underwhelmed by it. I think the talking computer was part of the problem. I tried to watch 2001 on TV around 1975 and it bored me as I had no appreciation of classical music then and I didn't like soft-spoken HAL. I still have yet to watch 2001. I have seen 2010 and enjoyed that film very much! Go figure. I also was not a fan of Star Wars either unlike the other 95% of my fellow classmates. I despised C3PO and his little friend. Sasquatch too. That changed though when I saw the Empire Strikes Back and Return of The Jedi(thoughI didn't like the Ewoks very much-too cute). Now I do love the first 3 Star Wars films. Enjoyed the first one particularly after I developed a love for John Ford's The Searchers.

Anyway I wanted to like the Black Hole but it bored me then just as the first Star Trek movie would have bored the crap out of me if I hadn't already developed a fondness for the characters. Maybe I should give the Black Hole another chance.

tom jones said...

I always took this to be a sci-fi take on Disney's version of 20,000 Leagues, with Reinhardt as a straight-out villain version of Nemo. The Cygnus from the outside certainly looks like a 19th century idea of a large spaceship - almost like London's old Crystal Palace.

And I can't believe you didn't mention John Barry's amazing score - one of his best post-60s scores.