The Black Hole (1979)
The Black Hole was a milestone for the Walt Disney studio--it was their very first PG rated production. Fifty years after the founding of the only major movie company that was devoted exclusively to squeaky-clean family-friendly entertainment, they had finally made a film where people were using CURSE WORDS. From this film grew an interest in more mature feature production which led to Disney's experimental age and later to the formation of Touchstone Pictures and their acquisition of Miramax Films. Movies like Tron, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and maybe even Pulp Fiction might not have been made if not for this film.
To put this into perspective, Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was Disney's very first PG-13 rated film, released in 2003. Safe to say we won't be getting anything with an R rating under the Walt Disney Pictures banner anytime soon, but they've been gradually coming of age.
Released in 1979 during the sci-fi movie boom following the release of the first Star Wars film and directed by Gary Nelson, who gave us a young Jodie Foster starring in the original Freaky Friday just one year before, The Black Hole was an early example of the use of computerized camera technology in motion picture. When ILM couldn't loan Disney the equipment they needed to shoot the film, they developed their own computer-controlled camera system. This won them praise from critics who were a wee bit disappointed by the story. It even got them a couple of Academy Award nominations for special effects and cinematography.
Dan Holland (Robert Forster) is captain of the USS Palomino, a space exploration vessel currently returning from duty with its crew: the eager First Officer Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), rugged journalist Harry Booth (played by the dearly-departed Ernest Borgnine), civilian personnel Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins a.k.a. Norman "A Boy's Best Friend is His Mother" Bates) and Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), the science officer who has ESP capabilities for some unexplained reason.
And proving that even back then Disney couldn't resist putting cute talking mascot characters in their movies, there's V.I.N.CENT. (short for "Vital Information Necessary CENTralized", whatever that means), a smarmy, sarcastic little robot with a penchant for reciting axioms with a slight air of superiority in the uncredited voice of Roddy McDowall.
On their way home, they pass the REAL star of our film--a massive black hole in the middle of space with a derelict spaceship hovering nearby, positively identified as the USS Cygnus which was reported missing some time ago. (Kate is especially intrigued--her father served on the ship at the time of its disappearance.) Curious as to why the ship hasn't already been sucked INTO this black hole, the Palomino investigate, and after nearly getting sucked in themselves they finally find someplace to dock when the lights suddenly come on.
Turns out someone's home--none other than the notorious eccentric and Cygnus commander Dr. Hans Reinhardt, played by German actor Maximilian Schell, who explains to them that he ordered the crew to abandon ship after it was crippled in a meteor shower--only he and Kate's father stayed behind, the latter of whom has since died. He reveals his plans to become the first human being to enter a black hole, much to the jaw-dropping of his visitors. His entire crew have been replaced with robots, including a red hulking automaton named Maximilian who serves as--
Wait a minute. The robot's name is Maximilian and one of the actors is named Maximilian? This may cause confusion...
Not much happens from here to the climax--the Palomino crew give themselves a tour of the ship and debate the boundary between genius and insanity that Reinhardt--played by Maximilian the actor, not Maximilian the robot--is currently straddling until he invites them all to dinner. Meanwhile, V.I.N.CENT. wanders off to find some sentry bots playing a game where they...shoot lasers at dots or something and meets another new friend - Old B.O.B. (short for BiO-sanitation Battalion--not a very good acronym either), an earlier, more beat-up version of Vincent with the similarly uncredited voice of Slim Pickens.
Let's take a break here and give some character critique. V.I.N.CENT looks cool and everything, but he's also kind of...full of himself. He's very snooty and sarcastic, he's always rounding off philosophy like he's all "oh, I'm so great because I'm a robot and I'm more intelligent than these bipedal meat sacks". He doesn't even enjoy the company of other robots, since he's SUCH a superior model to them.
Old B.O.B. reveals that the crew never really left the Cygnus--a mutiny broke out amongst the crew when Reinhardt--Maximilian the actor, not the robot--refused to obey orders to return to Earth, and their captain had them all lobotomized and "reprogrammed" to serve as the robot crew they see all around them. Worse still, Kate's father was killed for leading the mutiny in the first place.
Dr. Durant, who up until now was fascinated by Reinhardt's exploits and was willing to accompany him on his mission, suddenly wants to leave when Kate is told of this telepathically, and then is given the distinct honor of having the first on-camera death scene in a Disney film when Maximilian--the robot, not the actor--runs him through with his metal...arm...blade...spinning thing, while Dr. Reinhardt--Maximilian the actor, not the robot--has Kate sent off to join his crew of the living dead.
The rest of the crew is notified of this through Kate's telepathic link with V.I.N.CENT., and Charles and Holland head back to rescue Kate. From then we get a big rescue scene/laser battle sequence with some very nice special effects.
Booth is killed when he tries to make a run for it in the Palomino and is promptly shot down by Reinhardt and crashes into one of the Cygnus' anti-gravity generators.
And because they're just not in enough peril already...BRING ON THE METEORS!!!!!!
As a hailstorm of giant glowing Corn Pops begins pelting the ship, Reinhardt gets ready for its final voyage and orders Maximilian to go kill the bad guys, making the robot, not the actor, deaf to the actor's, not the robot's, cries for help when the control room begins to fall apart and he is trapped under the debris. Maximilian--the robot, not the actor--reappears and voids Old B.O.B's warranty before V.I.N.CENT. disables him with his own...blade...spinning thing and sends him hurtling into space.
Our heroes manage to escape in a small probe ship before the Cygnus is completely destroyed, but they're not out of the woods yet! In fact, there IS no way out of the woods, because the ship's controls have been programmed to plunge straight into the black hole.
I smell another picture montage.
So, I guess the black hole wins in the end. Bummer.
Fortunately, in Disney's long-standing tradition of letting most if not all of the good guys survive, the ship pops out the other side in a completely different part of the universe, if not a completely different universe altogether. The survivors smile at each other as they rocket off to a planet eclipsing a star in the distance posing as sort of a sunset our heroes ride off into.
Not unlike Tron, The Black Hole is more lauded for its groundbreaking special effects than its plot, and it's easy to see why. If I'm honest, the characters aren't all that interesting, except V.I.N.CENT. whose smugness came off as a tad annoying, the plot's not exactly rocket science, and the ending is totally up in the air, but I'll tell you the truth, it is quite pretty to look at from its early CG opening credits to the final shot. One particularly impressive scene has the Palomino crew running across a gangplank leading across the path of a giant meteorite rolling towards them Indiana Jones-style. I think one of the reasons I dig these early sci-fi movies is because I'm always fascinated by how they pull off these visual effects before every movie started using CG and green screens.
Some credit should also go to John Barry's music score, which for the most part is pretty catchy, including the overture.
The Black Hole is a good movie to kill ninety minutes with. There's plenty to look at, and it's not too complex for the less discriminating sci-fi geek. As long as you don't get your Maximilians confused.
Adam Lafferty also likes to talk about movies, among other things, on his other blog, popculturevomitbag.blogspot.com.