Saturday, 12 January 2013

SCI-FI: The Black Hole (1979)

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The Black Hole (USA, 1979)
Directed by Gary Nelson
Starring Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Ernest Borgnine

In the aftermath of Star Wars, a slew of films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres attempted to emulate the film's success. Many of these films had similar, if not larger budgets than Star Wars, but only a fraction of the special effects or the storytelling capability. The Black Hole is one of the more watchable efforts of this period, containing plenty of ambition but ultimately being stymied by its silly flaws and perplexing ending.

Even before we start on the content of the film, there are a number of interesting technical points to consider. At the time of its release, The Black Hole was the most expensive live-action film ever made by Disney; at $20m, the budget was just over twice that of the original Star Wars (inflation notwithstanding). With Star Wars threatening its dominance of the family fantasy market, Disney were determined to throw as much resources as it could at this film - which makes its more dated visual aspects seem all the more peculiar.
The film is also notable for having the first entirely digital soundtrack. John Barry, best known for his work on the James Bond films, does a really good job with electronic instruments, and his opening theme really sets things up for an enjoyably spooky ride. If anything his electronic compositions for the scenes in space are more apposite and memorable than his sweeping orchestral score for Out of Africa some years later. It's so effective that if you hadn't noticed Disney in the credits, you'd swear you were watching the opening of Event Horizon.
The Black Hole comes at a point when the sci-fi and fantasy genres were in a state of flux. While Star Wars had raised the bar (or shifted the goalposts) of what a mainstream sci-fi or fantasy film should look like, it took several years for its style to take root and for its pioneering technologies to become industry standard. Thus while a great many films were attempting to ape the film's success, they were often trying to tell post-Star Wars stories by very old-fashioned means. Even Dragonslayer, which boasted effects by Industrial Light and Magic, felt like a 1970s film vaguely dressed in 1980s clothing.
The Black Hole epitomises this trend in many ways, being a case of one step forward, one step backward. The scale of the internal sets is very impressive, whether it's the expansive greenhouse, the many long, tall corridors or the huge central control room. Gary Nelson isn't afraid to show off the sets, using wide angles during the fights on the gantries and long tracking shots whenever the characters are exploring on foot. But the other special effects are less impressive; some of the computer panels feel like they've been lifted from Logan's Run, and some of the later shots of the black hole itself look like they were done with marbling kits, a la Flash Gordon.
 
Despite the very high budget, the film all too often resembles a Star Trek episode, thanks to the expository dialogue and the costumes consisting either of jumpers or jumpsuits. You could even draw comparisons between the respective crews, with Captain Dan Holland standing in for Kirk, Dr. Kate McRae being Lieutenant Uhura, Dr. Alex Durant having aspects of both Spock and Dr. McCoy, and Harry Booth baring a passing resemblance to Scotty. Some of the design elements nod towards Thunderbirds and Space: 1999, adding to the feeling that we are seeing something which has its roots (visually at least) in television.
In terms of the story of The Black Hole, there are two different ways of looking at it. One is to view the film as an extended TV episode, somewhere between Star Trek and Lost in Space. The dynamic of the crew is like that of a dysfunctional family, with Kate's ESP functioning as a stand-in for Will Robinson's prodigious inventions. The story is driven by circumstances beyond the characters' control, and at its most basic it has the structure of a 'monster of the week' TV series. You could liken their encounter with Dr. Hans Reinhardt to the Red Dwarf crew meeting Legion or the Psirens; they have a certain amount of threat, but don't always stretch beyond their episode-sized pocket of space and time.
The other possible perspective is to view The Black Hole as an old-fashioned sci-fi film, but with all the most interesting ideas either removed or underplayed. The series that I've listed here for comparison give the impression that they had nothing to offer beyond being a vaguely enjoyable romp, but in fact the vast majority were interesting and ideas-driven. As I wrote in my Star Wars review, 1970s science fiction was "dominated by TV shows and films whose capacity for exploring ideas far outstripped their visual creativity." The Black Hole goes the same way as Star Wars, in which the need to be entertaining trumps what ideas are there until it all gets a little bit silly.
From this perspective, it is easy to spot the narrative touches of The Black Hole and therefore see what it could have been had Nelson and Disney applied themselves. The story is effectively 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in space, with Maximilian Schell standing in for James Mason's Captain Nemo. Both are deranged but highly intelligent sociopaths who possess a technology of great power, and the story revolves around taking ordinary people into dangerous situations under the banner of scientific exploration. The robot guards are equal parts The Stepford Wives and the Robo-Men from Daleks: Invasion Earth AD2150, while the chief robot Maximilian nods towards Forbidden Planet, which retold The Tempest in space.
Unlike these films, however, The Black Hole doesn't attempt to use it surroundings to draw out deeper ideas about the human condition. In short, it doesn't employ the fundamental technique of sci-fi, namely using outer space to explore inner space. There are conversations in the film about the fear of the unknown and pushing back the boundaries of science, but these conversations consist of so much exposition that the concepts are reduced to mere plot machinations. Even the basic premise, of a crew finding and exploring a seemingly abandoned ship, was handled better in Event Horizon, which used its plot to explore ideas of guilt and the supernatural.
Up until its last five minutes, The Black Hole is neither more nor less than silly, watchable tosh. Its battle scenes correspond to generic convention, with characters either avoiding hundreds of laser blasts or only being hurt when the plot says the time is right. The ESP device is underdeveloped until the very end, and the characters are enjoyable but not especially well-written. The robots, voiced by Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens, make for enjoyable comic relief despite making little impact on the plot, and all the big twists and turns are handled with just enough drama to keep you on course without entirely engaging you.
Having hovered pleasantly over the event horizon thus far, we now come to the one aspect of The Black Hole which drags it past the point of no return. Its ending is perhaps the greatest example of a film overreaching itself in an attempt to be memorable, being at turns confusing and disturbing. After the surviving crew are inevitably sucked into the black hole, we see the characters via an ESP hallucination, beginning in hell where Reinhardt and Maximilian have merged on a fiery cliff, and ending up flying to heaven along a long corridor before being spat out of a white hole in a new universe. Having spent so long being content with being tosh, the film attempts to pull a 2001 on us, trying to achieve the insight of Kubrick or Ken Russell in a film with anti-gravity drives and breathing in space. It's hard to say whether the ending is merely jarring or just plain ridiculous, but either way it ends things on a disappointing note.
 
The Black Hole is a disappointing but entirely watchable effort from Disney which earns points for its ambition but is ultimately let down by its execution. While its ending slightly tarnishes the whole experience, up until then it's a solid if completely silly romp with some decent spectacle and acting, particularly from Ernest Borgnine who makes the best of a tiny role. It's not going to challenge the status of Star Wars any time soon, but for whiling away a rainy afternoon, it's just about okay.

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For those interested in the post-Star Wars wave of fantasy films, I would start with Nash Bozard of Radio Dead Air and his new series, 'Here There Be Dragons'. The first episode, on Dragonslayer (1981), can be watched here.

My tribute to Ernest Borgnine, in which I recommended this film for his performance, can be read here.

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