Monday, October 7, 2019

Hubrisween 2019 :: B is for The Black Hole (1979)

In the year 2130, at the end of an extended deep space mission to find any signs of life or other habitable planets, the USS Palomino and its crew of five are now on their way back to Earth with not much to show for their efforts. And while drifting through this vast cosmos the first sign of trouble comes when the starship’s all-purpose A.I. robot, VINCENT (Vital Information Necessary CENTralized), detects they’ve inexplicably drifted off course and an immediate correction is needed or they will continue to vector off to who knows where.

And while Captain Dan Holland (Forster) and his Lieutenant, Charlie Pizer (Bottoms), head to the command deck to resolve this problem, the others, Chief Science Officer Dr. Alex Durant (Perkins), his telepathic colleague, Dr. Kate McCrae (Mimieux), and Harry Booth (Borgnine), an observing journalist out on a glorified joyride, discover the cause of the drift: they’ve been caught up in the peripheral gravitational acceleration of a ginormous black hole -- the largest any of the crew has ever seen. (Something right out of Dante’s Inferno, quips Booth in a clumsy bit of foreshadowing, as he gawks at a holographic rendering of the deadly phenomena.)

And as VINCENT probes further, he makes another startling discovery: his long range scans have picked up another ship that’s lurking dangerously close -- nay, impossibly close to the event horizon in the black hole’s accretion disc, where not even light can resist the enormous whirlpool of gravity at play. And yet, this ship seems to have obtained and sustained a stable orbit. Here, Kate perks up a bit as no other terrestrials should be out this far except for them and one other vessel. And when the Palomino’s computer confirms her suspicions and identifies the contact as the USS Cygnus, we get a brief history lesson from Booth on the mystery ship’s origin:

Seems the Cygnus, which kinda looks like someone strapped a bunch of rockets onto the Eiffel Tower, was the brainchild of Dr. Hans Reinhardt and it disappeared nearly twenty years ago after the future equivalent of NASA had declared its current mission too costly and ordered an immediate return to Earth. But the megalomaniacal Reinhardt ignored this edict and all communications ceased. Thus, until now, with the probability of its fuel and provisions long since exhausted, it was presumed the Cygnus and all hands were lost -- and one of those engineers just happened to be Kate’s father, who now holds out hope he might still be alive.

With that, throwing caution to the wind, Holland agrees to Durant and Kate’s request to go in for a closer look -- but only a quick drive-by to see what the sensors can pick up because that’s all the gravitational stress their ship can handle. And the captain may have been overestimating things at that as the ship is torn apart by cosmic forces as they approach the Cygnus, which absolutely dwarfs the Palomino in size; but as it gets closer to the other ship things suddenly calm down considerably, leading Durant to presume they’ve entered some kind of null field. And whether this is some kind of natural phenomenon or an anti-gravity field generated by the Cygnus, the scientist cannot say for sure. Here, Booth chimes in again, saying if anyone could learn to defy gravity, that bastard Reinhardt, whom he describes as both an arrogant genius and nothing short of a cackling mad scientist, would be the one to do it.

Either way, the Cygnus appears to have long gone dark, and all that remains now is a derelict ghost ship. Suddenly, as they all try to console Kate, alarms start tripping as whatever kind of pocket they drifted into they are now drifting out of, and this time the gravitational effects are much worse than before. And as Holland and Pizer fight to keep the ship together, they almost lose VINCENT when he does an EVA to effect some needed repairs on the stabilizers. But Kate, who is in constant telepathic contact with the little robot, reports he’s managed to magnetically tether himself to the ship. And knowing they’ll never survive if they keep moving forward, Holland reverses thrust and powers them back into the null field. But the damage is done to the Palomino, and its extensive -- maybe even irrevocable, meaning the ship is most likely destined to become another lifeless derelict, too.

But then, to everyone’s surprise, the Cygnus comes to life as the whole ship suddenly lights up like a Christmas tree and silently sets out the welcome wagon by opening up the docking bay. Kate even swears she saw someone moving in one of the thousands of portholes. And while the Cygnus stubbornly refuses to answer all hails, with no other choice, Holland limps the Palomino to the rendezvous point and, once the ship has docked safely, the nervous crew, sidearms at the ready, prepare for whatever the hell -- stress on the "hell', awaits them on the other side of the airlock door...

Contrary to popular belief, Walt Disney’s The Black Hole (1979) was not conceived and executed as a crass post-release cash-in on the highly successful Star Wars (1977). Sure, several elements from that galaxy far, far away were eventually co-opted into the feature but The Black Hole was initially conceived by Winston Hibler back in 1974, who was actually looking to Irwin Allen for inspiration and wanted to cash in on the box-office success of Allen’s star-studded disaster films like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974).

At the time, Hibler was a seasoned veteran at Disney Studios, who first hired on back in 1942, where he scripted and directed a number of training films for the Armed Services. And once World War II ended, Hibler would serve as a contributing writer on a lot of Disney’s classic animated films -- Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953). At the same time, he also served as producer, screenwriter, and narrator for a ton of Disney’s Academy Award winning live-action nature documentaries and shorts -- Seal Island (1948) Nature's Half Acre (1951) Prowlers of the Everglades (1953), where he scarred countless childhoods with harsh lessons on the circle of life and all of that. Myself included. So, thanks for that.

Thus, Hibler had become one of Uncle Walt’s many trusted right hands. But when Disney died in late 1966, Card Walker became executive vice president and the studio’s chief operating officer. And when Walt's brother Roy Disney died in 1971, Walker became company president and solidified himself as head of the studio. And while Disney Studios had once been a house of ideas and technical innovations under its brash founder, Walker was cautious and miserly and seemed satisfied to keep churning out the same old thing -- or thinly disguised carbons of the same old thing. And Disney’s output under his watch suffered a drastic drop in production quality -- both animated and especially in their live-action films, which were really starting to fray at the seams FX wise, where the edict was to keep churning out the same old same old as quickly and as cheaply as possible -- quality be damned.

As the company moved into the 1970s, Hibler had phased out of writing and directing and settled in as a producer, overseeing the animated The Aristocats (1970) and the live-action features, Napoleon and Samantha (1972) and The Island at the Top of the World (1974), which was a box-office bomb that got shellacked by critics as a cheap and pale imitation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Knowing the critics weren’t wrong, and seeing how the once great studio was on a slippery slope to obsolescence, Hibler took a meeting with Walker and laid out his ideas on how to turn the moribund studio around, saying, "We have to stop imitating ourselves ... It's time to do what Walt really would have done. Which is not authorize production of yet another Herbie sequel. But do something truly daring and original."

And what Hibler had in mind was a huge sci-fi epic, with special-effects to rival Douglas Trumbull’s work on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). And the film Hibler had in mind was Space Station One, which was based on an unpublished novel by Bob Barbash and Richard Landau, where the inhabitants of a space station barely survive the effects of a supernova only to be inexorably drawn into a black hole. To see if the intrepid crew, with the help of a trusty robot, was able to survive this mounting catastrophe all depended on what Card had to say to the proposal. And while Hibler felt Disney’s special-effects department were up to the task to deliver the goods, Card wasn’t so sure, finding it too ambitious a step, and ultimately balked at the astronomical figure it would take to realize Hibler’s vision.

But! Hibler would not go quietly and Card eventually gave him the OK to at least do some preliminary production concepts to get a better idea of the budget needed. And for that, Hibler coaxed long time Disney contributor Peter Ellenshaw out of retirement. Ellenshaw was an FX artist and a matte painter extraordinaire, who broke in with Alexander Korda on such films as Things to Come (1936) and The Thief of Baghdad (1940). He would later work for Powell and Pressburger on Black Narcissus (1947) before Walt Disney snagged him to work on Treasure Island (1950). Ellenshaw would then continue to apply his talents as an artist and forced perspective specialist for Disney with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) and Mary Poppins (1964), which earned him an Academy Award.

But after contributing several matte paintings for The Love Bug (1968) and Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968), Ellenshaw had hung up his brush until Hibler came calling. And loving the idea, Ellenshaw set to work and their combined efforts at least got Space Station One a blurb in Disney’s annual report in 1975: "Space Station One, now in long-range planning for production in 1977, will be our most ambitious live-action feature to date. In this truly fantastic science-fiction story, co-produced by Winston Hibler, an incredible robot joins in the daring rescue of the personnel aboard a doomed Earth station, which is steadily being drawn into a black hole in outer space. The film will provide a very special challenge to the studio's talented special-effects department.” But what hard won momentum Space Station One had earned thus far soon went up in smoke when Hibler unexpectedly died in 1976, which put the film unofficially on hiatus -- until Star Wars hit the very next year. And hit very big.

And with that success, came an urgency to try and cash in as Disney’s executive vice president, Ron Miller, took over the production. Miller had married into the Disney family in 1954 when he and Diane Disney, daughter of Walt, got hitched, had a passel of kids, and lived happily ever after until her untimely passing in 2013. Along the way, Miller was brought into the family business around 1961 and worked his way up to producer in 1964 with That Darn Cat (1965), and then followed that up with Monkeys, Go Home! (1967), The Boatniks (1970), Now You See Him, Now You Don't (1972), Freaky Friday (1976), Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), Gus (1976), The Shaggy D.A. (1976) and The Cat from Outer Space (1978) -- essentially producing the very same cookie-cutter films Hibler was complaining about, which probably explains why the movie we got bore little resemblance to what Hibler had originally intended.

See, after JAWS (1975) and Star Wars ushered in the era of all-age mega-blockbusters, Miller felt a quantum shift in product was needed to maintain an audience share, which meant venturing into territory well beyond the boundaries of Disney’s usual G-rated parameters because there was a going concern at the box-office, as people were starting to shy away from the Disney label altogether due to its juvenile and kiddie-friendly connotations. Thus, Miller wanted to change the tone and the gist of the story, scrapping the space station angle and focusing on a terrestrial encounter with a black hole in deep space. Here, the title was changed to Space Probe One and the script went through several massive overhauls as six different sets of writers took a crack at it before finally settling on Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day's version of events.

Several directors turned them down, too -- most notably John Hough, who had directed both Escape to Witch Mountain and Return to Witch Mountain (1978) for Disney so he could direct Brass Target (1978) instead. Miller then turned to veteran TV director Gary Nelson -- Gilligan's Island, Get Smart, Love, American Style, who also directed Freaky Friday for the studio. But after reading the latest draft of the script, which had been punched-up to within an inch of its life, Nelson initially turned it down. But Miller gave him the hard sell, showing off the production paintings Ellenshaw had done along with several completed models and miniatures -- including the Cygnus prop, which was over 12-feet long and weighed in at 175lbs, which finally got an impressed Nelson on board.

And so, with all the pieces finally in place after the marketing department decided The Black Hole (1979) had more marquee punch, the film finally went into production. And with this chaotic origin it’s no wonder the film is kind of a tonal mess; what with it being an odd combination of several already existing Disney properties (-- most notably characters and character traits pilfered from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), with several sequences clearly designed for the express purpose of being recreated later as a theme park ride, and how it settled on an overall tone of Gothic melodrama and horror to distance itself from the matinee whizbang of Star Wars and appeal to a more adult audience -- but not far enough to prevent them from throwing in running laser battles, a Darth Vader like henchman, and a couple kid-friendly and highly merchandisable comedy relief trash-can robots to hedge their $20 million bet, the most expensive film Disney had made to date.

And the end result of all of this dickering are, well, inconclusive, as the crew of the Palomino are greeted rather rudely by a squad of stiff-armed and even stiffer-kneed robots, who disarm them with laser pistols set on stun apparently before allowing them onboard the Cygnus. These robots then escort the refugees down several canaverous hallways to the main control deck, an amazing reveal:

Here, we meet yet another kind of humanoid drone, decked out in robes and mirrored face-plates, who man the controls of the ship. And with Kate picking up nothing telepathically, Durant concludes the Cygnus really is a ghost ship and the entire thing is essentially on autopilot, run by these automated automata. 

And if that is the case, I believe they’ve just met the robot in charge, too, as a large, heavily armored crimson brute silently hovers toward them from the center of the room; it’s glowing cyclopean eye burning a hole right through these interlopers as the robot extends it’s insect like appendages menacingly, each ending with a deadly Cuisinart food processor-inspired talon. But just when things are about to turn really ugly, a voice calls out, calling Maximilian off, saying that is no way to treat their guests. With that, Dr. Reinhardt (Schell) reveals himself.

Here, we firmly establish Reinhardt is clearly a surrogate for Captain Nemo and the Cygnus is his Nautilus as he answers the expected barrage of questions from the others. Revealing he is the only one left alive, seems he knew nothing of the recall order, saying the ship was damaged beyond repair due to a meteor strike. And in the face of cascading system failures, he then ordered the crew to abandon the Cygnus, which they did via escape pods; but like any good captain Reinhardt chose to remain behind and go down with the ship along with one other, his trusted second in command, Frank McCrae. 

Alas, Reinhard is sorry to report he, too, also passed away in the interim, much to Kate’s regret. As for the others, he has no idea what happened to them. However, in the same interim, Reinhardt was able to cobble together an army of robots, starting with his chief enforcer, Maximilian; and with their efforts he was able to restore the Cygnus to full capacity, then modified it even further, explaining away how his anti-gravity field generators came to be. He then spent the last 20 years (or even longer if Einstein was right about time and space travel) exploring the spaceways, unlocking the secrets of the universe.

And now, he is doubly excited to have witnesses for his most daring experiment yet. E’yup, Reinhardt intends to fly the Cygnus through the black hole to see what’s on the other side. All he’s waiting for now is the return of his latest probe, then a little data crunching, and then it’s off to this new and perhaps final frontier. Thus, Reinhardt heartily agrees to give them the parts they need to repair the Palomino so they may witness and record his triumph, then return to Earth and relay his great accomplishments and discoveries, which are collected in a ledger he entrusts to Durant.

Thus and so, Holland and the others are given free run of the ship -- to a point, as they affect repairs and try to decide on what to do before Reinhardt takes the plunge to end all plunges: Pizer thinks Reinhardt is crazy; Booth agrees, and thinks they should hold a mutiny and take the Cygnus and Reinhardt back to Earth and have him brought up on criminal charges; but Durant seems infatuated with Reinhardt (--more on this in a sec), believes he can do what he says, and is even contemplating going with him if he’ll allow it. And as the repairs progress, the crew splits up and starts exploring the ship and slowly unravel a mystery, whose answers don’t quite fit Reinhardt’s narrative all that well: 

Booth discovers the greenhouse, whose massive stores seem a bit excessive given Reinhardt is the only one on the ship who requires sustenance. Not to mention one of the gardener-bots moves with a very pronounced limp. Elsewhere, Holland pokes around the abandoned crew quarters, where he observes several androids silently gathered at what looks like a funeral at sea as they jettison one of their defunct brethren out a torpedo tube.

But the real truth finally comes out when VINCENT (voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall) befriends BOB (voiced by an uncredited Slim Pickens), a dinged-up, dilapidated, and barely functional earlier model from the same line of empathic robots.

Seems the rest of BOB’s mechanical brethren were destroyed because they were self-aware, unlike Reinhardt’s sentries; and he’s only being kept around as something for Maximilian to abuse. Too terrified to talk at first, BOB finally gets VINCENT and the others alone and reveals there was no accident twenty years ago. Seems when Reinhardt refused the order to return to Earth, the crew, led by Kate’s father, tried to take over the ship but were thwarted by Maximilian. Reinhardt then converted the sick bay into an abattoir as he perfected a hideous process that lobotomized the surviving crew and turned them into half-human, half-robot, and highly obedient cyborgs, explaining away everything they’d observed thus far.

With that, Holland tells VINCENT to telepathically contact Kate, who is on the command deck with Durant, Reinhardt and Maximilian, with orders to get back to the Palomino, and why, with or without the infatuated Durant. But unwilling to leave her friend behind, Kate takes the stubborn Durant to the side. And once he hears the whispered truth, ever the scientist needing proof, Durant removes the face-plate from one of the androids, revealing something with empty eye-sockets that used to be human underneath.

With that, he rushes Kate to the nearest exit but it’s already too late as Maximilian cuts them off, fires up his appendages, and then brutally -- and I mean, brutally disembowels Durant. Then, in an odd twist, Reinhardt begs Kate for protection against Maximilian. When she refuses, he orders his minions to take her to the sick bay for conversion.

But along the way, the captive Kate sends VINCENT a psychic S.O.S. on her dire fate. He relays this to Holland, who takes VINCENT and BOB but leaves Pizer and Booth behind to guard the ship since Reinhardt is obviously onto them. Luckily, this ersatz cavalry arrives in time to save Kate but they run into an armed battalion of robots in the docking bay, cutting them off. 

On the Palomino, Booth fakes an injury when Pizer arms up to go and help the others. And once he clears out, Booth, whose own cowardice and paranoia has finally caught up with him, decides he no longer wants to wait around to be killed and launches the Palomino on his own. Alas, in his zest, Reinhardt forgot to wait until the vacating ship got some distance before launching a missile at it. 

Therefore, the Palomino expends its death throes careening into the Cygnus, where it promptly explodes on impact, killing Booth and causing an untold amount of damage to the other ship’s port side anti-gravity field generators. Despite this extensive damage, in his madness, Reinhardt is determined to see his experiment through to the bitter end and will just overcompensate for this loss of power elsewhere. And as the main thrusters ignite and the Cygnus moves to obtain the proper trajectory, with their ticket off this madhouse now gone, and the null-field failing fast, Holland and the others have no choice left but to storm the bridge and seize control of the Cygnus before it’s too late. And then the shit really hits the fan -- well, make that another batch of meteors that get caught up in the black hole’s gravity well at the most inopportune time, which start plowing into the already careening Cygnus...

It’s kind of ironic that George Lucas was well aware of Disney’s slow-moving development on Space Station One while he was shopping around his Flash Gordon knock-off in 1974, which added a sense of urgency to get it off the ground before Disney could beat him to the outer space adventure punch. This urgency might’ve even influenced Alan Ladd Jr.’s decision to take on this The Star Wars project at 20th Century Fox. Who can say for sure. What we do know for sure is neither Ladd nor Lucas were sure how they were gonna pull off the metric-ton of FX needed to make this space opera work as envisioned since Fox no longer had an FX department, leaving it to Lucas to build Industrial Light and Magic from the ground up by himself.

But as production on Star Wars ground on, it became readily clear they were gonna need some outside help to make the completion date. And one of those subcontractors was none other than Disney Studios, who would handle all the matte paintings needed in the movie, which were provided by Harrison Ellenshaw.

The younger Ellenshaw had joined his father, Peter, in the matte department at Disney after a stint in the Navy. At the time, Disney, along with Universal, were the only Hollywood studios left who still had an in-house visual effects team. And at some point Harrison managed to convince his boss, Walker, it would be financially advantageous to farm their talents and services out to other studios, which led to work on Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Star Wars in between the productions of The Shaggy D.A. and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977).

And in a bit of quid pro quo, to achieve the needed FX for The Black Hole, Disney tried to negotiate a rental of ILM’s new and revolutionary computer motion-controlled Dykstraflex camera system to film the miniature spaceship sequences. But Lucas, perhaps feeling a bit territorial after the system’s innovator, John Dykstra, essentially defected from ILM when he agreed to do the FX for the rival television series Battlestar Galactica, wasn’t too keen on anyone else playing with his toys. And when they failed to come to terms, Disney decided to just create their own version: the Automated Camera Effects System (A.C.E.S.), which some argued was superior to the Dykstraflex camera. And while they were at it, the FX department also perfected the Mattescan system, which enabled the camera to better integrate the live action elements with the background or foreground paintings, as well as a computer controlled modeling stand.

Thus, with everything done in house, The Black Hole would be the last production of its kind done under the old studio system. In total, there were over 500 FX shots on the film. Also, the Ellenshaws produced over 150 matte paintings for the film. In comparison, Star Wars had only used 15. These two would also spend three whole days punching random holes of different sizes into a 20ft high and 50ft wide backdrop for the required star-field. 

And the visual effect of the black hole itself were created in a large circular plexiglass tank filled with water and several different colors of paint that swirled together in this man-made vortex. But the heat from the lights and the stress of containment soon saw the tank collapse. And with no money to replace or repair it, the production just made due with the shots they had.

And that’s the sad thing with this movie; despite all these technical innovations, The Black Hole was still under the old Disney aegis of crank it out fast and what was shot was what the audience got, which is why the film is full of technical gaffes, with visible wires and characters getting lost behind the matte paintings when they missed their mark; and there was just no time to reset or retake and do these things again as the budget and time rapidly ran out to meet a looming Christmas release date in 1979. And that’s why a lot of the FX were done lo-tech with a lot of in-camera tricks, cell animation, and literal smoke and mirrors because it was faster, easier, and saved a lot of money.

But despite these restrictions, and despite all the gaffes that had to be let go, there was also a lot of over-achievement as some of the FX shots in The Black Hole are seamless and absolutely stunning -- especially during the extended climax, when one of those molten meteors crashes into the Cygnus and then barrels down the main shaft toward our heroes as they scramble toward the command deck. Meantime, the rest of those meteors managed to destroy the starboard side generators. And without the null field, the Cygnus cannot take the stress and starts to break apart. Seeing all is lost, Reinhardt orders Maximilian to prepare the probe craft for launch. But the good doctor will not escape his date with destiny as a large data screen breaks loose and crushes him underneath. Trapped, his feeble calls for help to Maximilian and his lobotomized crew are summarily ignored.

At the same time, Holland and the others realize the Cygnus is lost, too, but VINCENT saves the day by redirecting them toward the very same probe ship. But Maximilian stands between them and their only means of escape. The deadly robot fatally glitches out BOB before VINCENT manages to occupy him long enough with an extended headbutt for the others to slip past. Then, the tiny robot avenges Durant by drilling into Maximilian’s electronic guts, which sends him screaming into the void through one of the ship’s many breaches. 

This allows Holland, Pizer, Kate and VINCENT to safely board the shuttle. But once they successfully launch and get clear of the disintegrating Cygnus, they discover the controls are locked onto a direct flight path that takes them straight into the black hole. Praying Reinhardt was right and there’s something waiting for them on the other side, all they can do now is hold on...

When Alan Dean Foster was hired to write the novelization of The Black Hole during pre-production, he was so appalled by the bad science, anachronisms, and quantum leaps in plot logic in the script, he provided a lengthy list to producer Miller of what he felt were required changes to save them some embarrassment later on. If you want to read up on The Black Holes’ many technical sins, there’s a lengthy takedown on the IMDB under Goofs. Me, I don’t mind a little fiction in my science. And I’m willing to forgive the use of sounds in outer space in film, but ignoring the lack of oxygen in the vacuum of space is not a hill worth suffocating on. As initially conceived back in the Space Station One days, the entire film was also supposed to take place in zero-gravity in a nod to authenticity, but wiring everyone up was deemed a logistical nightmare and too time consuming, and so, the idea was scrapped.

Anyhoo, concerned over Foster’s list of shortcomings, Miller decided to bring in author Harlan Ellison as a consultant but the cantankerous Ellison was fired on his first day before noon when he encouraged them to scrap the whole idiotic thing and just do a porno movie based on their animated characters instead. With that, and like with everything else, the decision was made to just let it all ride as is.

But another consultant would have a huge impact on the production. Seems Disney had itself a resident astronaut. See, when Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, one of the original Mercury 7, left NASA in 1970, he took a job with Disney as an executive in charge of development of new rides and attractions for Disneyland and DisneyWorld. And along with offering first hand advice on the rigors of space travel, it was Cooper who suggested the production hire on George McGinnis, the guy who had helped develop the Space Mountain ride, to realize the robots for The Black Hole.

Obviously, the ready-made Christmas tree ornament-shaped VINCENT and Old BOB were included to hopefully create the same kind of buzz that R2-D2 had stirred up. And not wanting to appear too brazen about it, they at least made a token effort to muddy the waters of origin; the biggest change having them hover for movement, which was achieved through (highly visible at times) wire work or being mounted on an unseen armature. 

But all credulity is lost with these cute-bots when it comes to the comical cartoonish eyes. Originally, VINCENT was to have some elaborate electronic eyes made up of colored lights like a vintage Lightbright or scoreboard, which, in theory, would’ve allowed a greater range of expressions. But the gimmick constantly malfunctioned once principal photography started and with no time to fix it, they were swapped out with a pair of googly eyes. However, one of my favorite production stories is how director Nelson was unsatisfied with the broken down BOB prototype and took a baseball bat to the original clay model. And after a couple of swings and dents, a new mock-up was made based on the damaged model. And I can also really appreciate the efforts of making the Sentry robots seem more robotic, especially in their demise, to help sell the illusion they weren't just men in robot suits.

But the film’s true showpiece was the sinister Maximilian, whose sleek and streamlined design more than made up for the other bot’s deficiencies. The design for the murderous machine went through several stages, starting with what looked like a floating jukebox with several appendages tacked on. Another looked like a sentient pipe organ, which was a lot cooler than it sounds. Trust me. 

But these were all scrapped because the studio had wanted to use an actor inside the robot hull. McGinnis wasn’t too keen on that idea, but kept the relatively humanoid shape and swapped out the legs for a pair of thrusters. The studio loved this version, the design was finalized, and with a few more tweaks and a coat of crimson red paint the end result of these efforts was one of the most menacing of screen presences.

Of course, someone did wind up inside the robot suit after all as The Black Hole careens completely out of control into its brain-bending denouement. Apparently, there was no real ending written in the script, just everyone winds up getting sucked into the black hole and a hope and a prayer the FX department could come up with something and save the day. Well, they sure did! And though it makes absolutely no god-damned sense whatsoever, I know that, and you know that, even the makers of the film admit to this, but it sure looked cool.

Throughout the years Disney was never afraid to tap into the darker side of things to give audiences a case of the screaming mimis: the Pink Elephant sequence from Dumbo (1941), when the horrible truth of Paradise Island is revealed in Pinocchio (1940), or when the death coach and screaming banshees arrive in Darby O’Gill and the Little People immediately spring to mind. But The Black Hole was a whole ‘nother level of harshness and dread, which earned the studio it’s first ever PG rating.

And I vividly remember seeing this in the theater when it was first released at the age of 9. And already reeling from Durant’s death -- while not explicitly gory, with shredded pages of Reinhardt’s journals subbing in for the man’s viscera, it was implicitly horrifying -- I was not mentally prepared for that or what happened next, at all, as the Cygnus is reduced to its component parts and vanishes into the vortex. Here, a free-floating Reinhardt bumps into Maximilian, they merge into one being, and then keep a silent vigil over a molten, hellish landscape populated by specters resembling the crew he murdered as all his works burn below him, which convinces me this is no pocket universe. Reinhardt is dead, and he is in hell -- trapped in a hell of his own making.

As for the others, well, we’ve officially reached the “We don’t know what it means but it sure looks cool” segment of our program as the probe ship is led by what appears to be an angel through a crystalline cathedral. It then emerges from a white hole and we end on the ship as it approaches a planet, whose identity cannot be confirmed due to the glare of a nearby sun.

Where are they? Who can say for sure. It could be Earth, as one of the proposed endings had the film conclude with a zoom out from the Sistine Chapel, revealing Kate, alive and well, and looking up at the painting where Man is reaching out to touch the hand of God. But according to the Whitman comics, which extends the story past the movie adaptation, the survivors of the Palomino wind up in an alternate universe on an alternate earth that’s still inhabited by dinosaurs. (And, hey! Lookathat, Old BOB is still kicking.) Either way, I admire the chutzpah to even attempt an all-out existential stargate sequence hootenanny so geared even the preadolescent crowd can play along.

While The Black Hole did make a profit at the box office, earning around $36 million domestically on a budget of $26 million, it failed to light it up as Star Wars had. And the reason for that is many, most of which we’ve already discussed -- tonal inconsistencies, technical gaffes, and a script that made no sense. Also not helping were the bland and one note characters. And while I love every actor who was cast in The Black Hole, I feel every one of them was terribly miscast here with the two notable exceptions of Maximilian Schell and Anthony Perkins.

I think they were looking for a little more Harrison Ford from Robert Forster, who was a little stiff as our square-jaw Captain Holland. And like Sigourney Weaver’s Gwen DeMarco on Galaxy Quest (1999 -- wait. Galaxy Quest is 20 years old already? Really? What the hell?!), Kate McCrae’s sole purpose in the film, aside from being a psychic beacon to a trash-can robot, is to reiterate, repeat, and state the obvious. Yvette Mimieux does her best to sell it but her cause was pretty much hopeless. And I’m still not sure why Ernest Borgnine is even here aside from a solid name on the marquee. And why Slim Pickens of all people to voice a robot? Roddy McDowall I can understand, but a hayseed bumpkin bot? Really? Eh, sure. Why not.

Things only get interesting on a character level with the interactions between Reinhardt and Durant. In an interview during the film’s release, Schell talked about how his character had been out in space all alone for far too long; and so, he had a lusting attraction for Dr. McCrae. But from what I’ve seen, right attraction, wrong doctor. It’s a lot of fun to watch Perkins’ character come under Schell’s thrall and all his insecurities come crashing to the forefront; and he fawns over this superior scientist like a lovelorn cheerleader. I didn’t pick this up on first viewing, just found it all a little weird. But as I grew older, and wiser, and with repeat viewings, ah, now I get it. And in hindsight, I wish this angle could’ve been pushed a little further. But for now, we’ll just have to settle on Maximilian being one jealous bitch.

Add it all up and it’s easy to see why a person wouldn’t (and maybe shouldn’t) like this film. Story wise it’s a hodge-podge of too many ideas mixed with too many cliches delivered by a mismatched cast wrapped up in John Barry’s rousing, bombastic, and sometimes truly obnoxious score, but from a production design standpoint it is like no other film I have ever seen before or since -- with the closest being Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), which beat The Black Hole into theaters and at the Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects. And rightfully so. As others have noted, there’s a really great film somewhere in this mess before us. But it’s these very same faults and flaws that make The Black Hole so unique; and this uniqueness is one of the main reasons why I love this film so unconditionally.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween! 26 Days! 26 Films! 26 Reviews! And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage as The Fiasco Brothers and I countdown from A to Z all October long! That's two reviews down with 24 more to go! Up Next: The curse of the censors -- or Why Hammer Studios only made ONE werewolf movie.

The Black Hole (1979) Walt Disney Productions :: Buena Vista Distribution Company / P: Ron Miller / D: Gary Nelson / W: Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Barbash, Richard H. Landau, Gerry Day / C: Frank V. Phillips / E: G. Gregg McLaughlin / M: John Barry / S: Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, Joseph Bottoms, Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowall, Slim Pickens


tom j jones said...

Awesome review! I never knew about the earlier idea of a space station story - although now I can see elements of that remaining, such as the Cygnus getting slowly smashed up. Those scenes do look like they're from a disaster movie (although whether that was intentional is another matter ... )

I never really understood the ending until I watched Fantasia, which also ends with a scene with demons, followed by a church scene. I took it to be a copy of/homage to that. I sometimes wondered if the film had been financed by a church: the bad guy goes to hell and the good guys get saved.

When I watch it now, the planet they approach at the end always makes me think of the planet from Alien ...

W.B. Kelso said...

As I really dug into the history of the film the review kinda got away from me. And I though, you need to edit this down. But I thought better of it and decided to let it all ride as is. Glad you enjoyed.

Gavin said...

Always had a soft spot for this film, for many of the reasons you mention. I was 8 years old and just as ill-prepared! It was a hell of a ride though and really hit my imagination hard with its stunning design. I still get a sense of awe from the design of the Cygnus, and anytime I'm passing local steelworks I tend to glance inside at the high reinforced girder ceilings which look as authentic a copy of the Cygnus central corridor as anything.

W.B. Kelso said...

I'd be curious if Disney, who is remaking everything right now, would ever give this one a fresh coat of paint? If they did, I doubt it would have half the charm of the original.

Ross said...

It's kind of amazing they haven't already remade it as a Straight-to-Disney-Channel movie with a tween cast.

W.B. Kelso said...

I shudder to think of Larry the Cable Guy as Old BOB.

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