Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Black Hole (1979)

          By the late ’70s, a decade after Walt Disney’s death, the movie company bearing his name had lost the marketplace dominance it enjoyed during Walt’s heyday. Although the animation division remained adrift until 1989, Disney’s live-action unit began a brief but daring creative renaissance in 1979. That’s when the studio jumped onto the Star Wars bandwagon with The Black Hole, a dark sci-fi adventure story boasting opulent special effects and a memorably brooding music score by the great John Barry. The story involves a wonderfully absurd contrivance: In the year 2130, a deep-space exploration ship encounters a black hole and discovers that a long-lost spaceship, the Cygnus, is somehow locked in a permanent orbit over the mouth of the black hole. Our intrepid heroes enter the Cygnus and discover that megalomaniacal scientist Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) controls the ship with an army of robots. When Reinhardt tries to shanghai the heroes into participating in a mad scheme, they rebel and trigger a chain of events that sends all of the movie’s main characters plunging into the black hole.
          The story is goofy and turgid, and the clumsiest fingerprint of the Disney brand is the presence of cutesy robots including the wide-eyed V.I.N.CENT (voiced by Roddy McDowall). Furthermore, the acting and dialogue are laughably wooden, with unfortunate leading players Joseph Bottoms, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, and Anthony Perkins effortlessly upstaged by Schell, who works a florid Bond-villain groove. (Flattening the overwrought performance styles of both Borgnine and Perkins is a dubious sort of accomplishment.) As a piece of dramatic art, The Black Hole is, well, a black hole. As a compendium of vivid sensations, however, the picture is memorable. Barry’s music is grandiose and malevolent, expressing the vastness of space in such a powerful way that many scenes are genuinely unnerving. Some of the old-school optical effects are breathtaking, with exquisitely detailed spaceship models faring better than inconsistent greenscreen work.
          The Black Hole also boasts one of the weirdest climaxes in mainstream sci-fi cinema—a grim, phantasmagorical sequence illustrating the trippy horrors hidden inside the titular phenomenon. To say there’s disharmony between cutesy robots and a 2001-style head trip is an understatement, but if you’re an imaginative viewer willing to pick and choose which parts of this movie to enjoy, you’ll discover many superficial pleasures, as well as a few surreal ones.

The Black Hole: FUNKY


adam said...

Great, fair review of the movie. This had the shell of a much better movie inside it but it was never less than enjoyable.

JKruppa said...

The shot of the giant molten asteroid rolling toward the camera as our heroes rush across the catwalk, which is destroyed by said asteroid seconds after our heroes reach safety, could be a summation of the film as a whole: brilliant visually, but silly otherwise.