Friday, August 25, 2023

The Black Hole (1979): A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Ernest Borgnine.

Star Wars brought a science-fiction mania to film studios. Even James Bond jumped on the outer space bandwagon. Not to be outdone, the Walt Disney company opted for its own sci-fi epic. The Black Hole is a beautiful looking film with a great score. It is also a bit dull, longer than it should be and with some naked toy figures masquerading as characters that raise the cute factor to slightly comical levels. 

The spacecraft Palomino is exploring the deepest reaches of space when it comes upon the largest black hole the crew has ever encountered. Even more shocking is a spaceship that somehow manages to stay close to the black hole without being swept inside of it. An investigation reveals it is the USS Cygnus, thought long missing.

The Palomino crew decides to go and investigate the Cygnus. Led by Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster), the crew is astonished at what they find. The Cygnus appears to be run by robots, under the command of Dr. Hans Reinhart (Maximilian Schell). Save for Holland, Lieutenant Charles Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) and Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), everyone else from the Palomino is somehow connected with Dr. Reinhart. Cynical reporter Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) knows Reinhart to be an egotistical mad scientist. Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux) is the daughter of the Cygnus' second-in-command Frank McCrae, who according to Reinhart died years ago.

Reinhart has decided to take the Cygnus into the black hole itself and wishes the Palomino crew to document it. Durant, convinced that Reinhart is a genius, is besotted with the idea of joining him. The others, however, are suspicious. Booth sees one robot limping, while Holland sees what appears to be a robot funeral. The Palomino's robot, VINCENT (Roddy McDowell) encounters an earlier model of his named BOB (Slim Pickens), who eventually gives him the shocking truth.

The "robot" crew is really the reprogrammed Cygnus crew, transformed into cyborgs after a failed mutiny against the mad scientist. Dr. Frank McCrae, leader of the mutiny, was killed by Reinhart's monstrous robot henchman, Maximilian. Now, these clashing forces must face off in an ultimate space battle for their survival.

If The Black Hole has any positives, they are two. The first is the film's production design. The Black Hole showcases how matte paintings can still be more visually impressive than CGI, for this is quite a beautiful, even spellbindingly visual film.  The Cygnus is filled with vast, open spaces, particularly the Central Control Room. That is not to say the early CGI was not used in The Black Hole. Now, a shooting game between VINCENT and a laser gun spinning robot named STAR looks like a pirated Pong game, but that is really judging something made in the late 1970s with today's standards.

To be fair, the visuals did still have the issue of being able to see the strings holding up VINCENT and BOB.

The Black Hole also went strong, if perhaps obviously cutesy, with VINCENT and BOB. Both looked like ready-made toys that would appeal to children. They are adorable, though one wonders if the filmmakers did not go overboard with the adorable factor. Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day's screenplay (from a story by Rosebrook, Bob Barbash and Richard Landau) also made things a bit complicated by giving rationales for VINCENT and BOB's names. VINCENT is supposed to stand for Vital Information Necessary Centralized. BOB is for BIO sanitation Battalion. It might have been easier and better to have just named them "Vincent" and "Bob" because the crew liked calling them "Vincent" and "Bob". 

As a side note, I don't think BOB's acronym makes sense. Also, naming the villain "Maximilian" seems now almost funny when you think that Maximilian Schell is constantly calling out for "Maximilian". I figure it was just a coincidence that the monster robot and the actor who played the villain shared a name, but I digress.

The Black Hole's second quality is John Barry's score. I think we as a society have failed to give Barry his due as one of cinema's great composers.  He seemed the go-to guy for crafting great music in schlock films (case in point, the 1976 King Kong). The Black Hole starts with a two-minute overture, and once we plunge into the opening credits, Barry's music is eerie and otherworldly, suggesting a deep and thrilling adventure. To be fair, I think the triumphant music at the battle between Holland, Pizer, VINCENT and BOB against Reinhart's robot army was trying too hard and came across as comical. However, I think it has less to do with Barry's score and more to do with the music and the visuals being wildly at odds with each other.

Where The Black Hole goes wildly off track is in the script. Despite the promising premise, we get a standard "mad scientist" movie. It does not help that The Black Hole wants to be two different things simultaneously. With VINCENT and BOB floating about, the film wants to be cutesy and kid friendly. With Maximilian chopping up someone, the film wants to be dark and adult oriented. The schizophrenic nature of The Black Hole cannot and does not hold. 

In retrospect, The Black Hole may actually be going for a third thing. The ending is one of the most whacked-out, psychedelic, trippy film endings outside 2001: A Space Odyssey. If I understood things right, Reinhart and Maximillian somehow meld into one in Hell (apparently located inside the black hole) where they will rule over the robot clones Reinhart created on the Cygnus. As if that weren't wild enough already, the Palomino survivors are guided to safety by a celestial being as they hear echoes of their thoughts while apparently coming close to dissolving. Even VINCENT gets in on the act, making for something that goes beyond the surreal into the flat-out bonkers. 

I think The Black Hole's ending is as close as one can come to an LSD trip while being perfectly sober. That such a sequence is in a Disney movie aimed in part at kids makes it all the more looney. It won't make any sense to children. It doesn't make any sense to adults either, come to think of it. The final moments of The Black Hole must be seen to be believed. Yes, they are visually splendid. They are also quite insane.

That is to say nothing of the VINCENT/STAR battle, which ends with the latter having a robot version of a temper tantrum.

Performance-wise, I think with at least three exceptions the cast did their best to make things work. Forster and Bottoms played their parts as if they were action heroes, though not as believable as they could have been. Mimieux was blank, but I got the sense that she at least was trying to get through this with some dignity. 

The three exceptions were Perkins, Schell and Borgnine. Perkins gave a laughably bad performance as Dr. Durant. He appeared comatose throughout the film, as if were a zombie. Every line delivery was spoken with a weirdly detached tone, as if he did not understand what he was saying, let alone trying to communicate the words. There were times when I literally thought that Perkins was drugged. It is really bad, with Perkins reciting the script with absolutely no conviction over what his character says. His character's end is flat-out hilarious, which I figure was not director Gary Nelson's intention.

As if to counter Perkins' deadness, Schell went all-in on the cray-cray with his Dr. Reinhart. Constantly shouting for his Maximilian, he went from channeling James Mason's Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to ranting hippie lunatic. Borgnine, to my mind, at least had some fun as the renegade reporter who is probably the sanest member in the film. Suspicious of Reinhart from the beginning, Borgnine's Booth is not above some shady dealings in an effort at self-preservation. Still, Borgnine works to make Booth into a cynical, suspicious man that knows something is wildly off about everything going on around him.

The Black Hole is something I would put in the "noble failure" column. It does have some positives such as impressive visuals and arresting score. What it does not have is real direction in more ways than one. I am surprised that it runs only 98 minutes, as it feels infinitely longer. 

A bit like the Cygnus, The Black Hole just floats out there, held together by strange forces that ultimately do not hold. 


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