Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Walt Disney, part XXX: Of course, that's our problem in all of these pictures... people can't be coming out of the theater saying, "That's great effects animation," or somewhere along the line we've goofed


THE BLACK HOLE

1979
Directed by Gary Nelson
Written by Gerry Day, Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Barbash, and Richard Landau

Spoiler alert: high


I always find it interesting to look at the first wave of Star Wars knock-offs, before Empire started to clarify how and why Star Wars was so successful in the first place.  Its early imitators, at least, seemed to have no idea whatsoever, and tended to flail wildly in their attempts to figure it out.  And so we have this bizarre clutch of big-budget misfits, spreading themselves all over the science fiction/fantasy spectrum, all of them obvious (even explicit) responses to the great blockbuster, yet all so different from each other.  And so we have things like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which evidently confused Star Wars with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and may have confused 2001: A Space Odyssey's stateliness with the intentional infliction of visual boredom as accompanied by loud, classical-sounding music and punctuated, occasionally, by wacky psychedelia; or Flash Gordon, which hearkened back even more fully to Star Wars' own pulp inspirations, only now with a mesmerizing combination of color, sex, camp, and Queen; or Alien, which was most interested in Star Wars' used future production design and creature effects, and thus simply turned the Millennium Falcon into a giant haunted house; or, hell, Moonraker, the Bond movie about anonymous dudes blasting other anonymous dudes with lasers in space.

Or Disney's 1979 entry into the fray, The Black Hole, which is, somehow—in just 98 minutes!—virtually all of these things in one awkward package.  Plus a theoretically-merchandisable Disneyesque magical friend, because of course.  I actually like all of these movies; hell, most of them, I love.  I like The Black Hole the least, but it's maybe the most perversely-fascinating of the whole cohort, because in every other instance, you can see the rational thought process that led to each one's existence; yet while The Black Hole's intended audience might be pretty obvious, it's not clear why anybody thought this particular lumpy grab-bag of genre elements would appeal to them.


In truth, it didn't actually begin its life as another Star War.  No, the project that ultimately became The Black Hole stretched back not to 1977, but to 1972, when a totally different trend was busting blocks, and writers Bob Barbash and Richard Landau came up with the bold idea of The Poseidon Adventure: In Space.  (And, naturally, the disaster film is indeed one more take on the "in space" concept that ultimately gets thrown into the final product.)   The duo pitched it to Disney, and Ron Miller tentatively approved it, though its development was rocky and frequented by false starts and sudden stops.  But then Star Wars happened, and Miller, having already taken direct control over the film, put it into production in earnest, investing huge resources into a space baby to call his own.  Ultimately costing the company $20 million, Miller shepherded it to completion under director Gary Nelson and a crew comprised largely of Disney live-action—and animation—stalwarts.  It came out just in time to compete directly with Star Trek: TMP.  Maybe surprisingly, it even held its own.

The script that Disney eventually hammered out is a hodge-podge that purloins ideas from the 1930s to the mid-1970s—ironically, the one piece of space fantasy it does not especially resemble is Star Wars—and it takes as its subject the crew of the USS Palomino, on a deep space journey to find "habitable life," either because the flop-sweat obscured the print, or because Yvette Mimieux flubbed her line and they left it in, both being possible.  Led by Capt. Dan Holland (Robert Forster), and accompanied by journalist Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine, for that Poseidon connection), the crew otherwise numbers four: Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), the group's requisite yearning astrophysicist; Lt. Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), the crew's requisite hotheaded kid; Dr. Kate McCrae (Mimieux), the crew's requisite girl; and V.I.N.CENT (Roddy McDowall), the crew's requisite droid.  (Okay, it obviously resembles Star Wars in some respects.)  V.I.N.CENT stands for Vital Information Necessarily CENTralized, and I am absolutely not typing out that acronym on account of something that stupid.

Disney Plus's subtitler didn't, so I don't see why I'm obliged to.

Quickly enough—I guess, we'll get to it—the Palomino stumbles across an enormous black hole, upon whose event horizon is poised another starship, which they identify as the Cygnus, missing for twenty years.  Investigating, they find that the Cygnus is contained within a miraculous null gravity field, permitting its survival; immediately thereafter, they discover the man who built it, one Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell).  Invited aboard to repair the damage they accrued getting to the Cygnus, Reinhardt regales them with the sad tale of how the rest of his crew abandoned ship after it was disabled, apparently only to be lost to the depths of space; McCrae, whose father had been aboard (a complication that neither the script nor Mimieux seem to remember is her motivation as early as the second act), is told that while the elder McCrae did remain, he has sadly since passed away.  Reinhardt introduces them, also, to his army of robots, led by the most fearsome of them all, Maximilian, who says hello by rapidly spinning the razor-sharp blades on his arms.  Whether it's Maximilian's provocations or Reinhardt's crazed demeanor or the eerie half-human vibe of his silent robot minions, most of the Palomino's crew figure out almost instantly that the Cygnus is a bad place to be.  The one exception is Durant, who finds in Reinhardt a great and misunderstood man, and (so he believes) a kindred scientific spirit.

He's wrong, duh, and yet The Black Hole is by far at its most effective when it's still establishing its world and its plot and is content with nothing but presenting a creepy sci-fi haunted mansion floating on the edge of oblivion.  This is, anyway, where all its genuine strengths lie—particularly its production design, its art direction, its set decoration, and in case I didn't mention it, its production design.  It looks every cent of its twenty million bucks, and Peter Ellenshaw et al clearly exploited Miller's indulgence to its utmost, building a starship that doesn't really look like anything else in sci-fi, because it looks like everything else in sci-fi, except all at once.  After these things, which are essentially only one thing, there aren't a lot of bona fide strengths to really take note of.  Even so, The Black Hole nevertheless has its lower-key charms, not to mention its somewhat-guilty pleasures.

Still, while on paper it has—just for one example—a pretty amazing cast, this is just one of the potentials that doesn't bear out in practice.  Gene Siskel achieved one of the most glorious critical insults I've ever heard when he referred to them as "dead stars in their own right," a sterling example of the 1% of the time that subject matter puns actually work in film writing, if perhaps also a sub rosa reference to the aggressive middle-agedness of virtually everybody here, an odd thing for a movie targeted directly at teenagers.

Indeed, The Black Hole is noted as Walt Disney Productions' first reluctant step towards more mature fare—it was their first PG movie, and in this Disney film, characters even say "hell" and "damn."  (In fairness, that's not the only justification for the PG rating: it also has at least one incident of bitchin' violence that exists just barely out-of-frame, because they weren't going to let Maximilian's blade-hands go to waste; it has an even cooler incident of robot-on-robot violence, which is captured vividly onscreen.)  Yet even with that mission in mind, The Black Hole feels like a child's idea of what "grown-up" cinema is, from its dry science exposition that's almost entirely scientifically illiterate, to the idea that serious adult movies deal with metaphysics and religion, to the suspicion that grown-ups enjoy the concept of "mood," even if this movie could never possibly have possessed the attention span necessary to actually bank on its mood, even though "mood" was, in a very real way, the only option it had—The Black Hole may be merely 98 minutes long, but it only has enough plot for about 40.  In recognition of this, the final third or so is an extremely long game of laser tag with Reinhardt's robots.

Meanwhile, what isn't audiovisual filler is often narrative filler, or at least comes off that way, with almost all of it being built out of various sci-fi clich├ęs, particularly Durant's early-50s-vintage science commie, who's cartoonishly credulous before Reinhardt's invocations of Knowledge!  As for The Black Hole's own obtuse pompousness, this is at its most off-the-rails belligerent in its famous finale, which is cheesy but also very fun.  It's what a boneheaded literalist might come up with if you described the stargate sequence of 2001 to them secondhand, though at least The Black Hole is being original here, in the sense that there is not one other movie I'm aware of that posits that black holes are the gates to the Christian afterlife, judging those who enter them and sending each to their appropriate place.  (Then again, a black hole would simply kill you, so if you are a Christian... I guess it really does check out.)  Cinematically, anyway, it's at least suitably trippy.  But if that's the most blatant example, the pretense towards heady sci-fi, devoid of any ability to reach the abstraction and mysticism of actual heady sci-fi, has already made itself known from the very instant the film's opened up: this 98 minute movie has a three minute overture, which then leads into a three minute opening credits sequence, the latter of which is accompanied by a computer-generated rotating green grid on a black background.  It was no doubt the proximate inspiration for the "Galaxy Song" interlude in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, which is also vastly more actually cosmic and meaningful.

On the other hand, this movie is arguably less vapid than Solaris.

Remarkably, none of this is actually fatal; it's mostly just clumsy, and while it was probably, in intention, extremely insincere, it at least comes off as deeply earnest in its execution, as if the movie Nelson wanted to make really was 1979's unasked-for follow-up to Forbidden Planet, and so he made precisely that, even if the screenplay wasn't there to support it.  And so Nelson does a credible job of evening out a script that, in its absence of substance, just keeps spiraling out on tangents—while you're watching it, you're not as keenly aware as you could be that half the second act is just watching Vincent dick around with Reinhardt's 'bots—and Black Hole remains pleasantly if not compulsively watchable, feeling only slightly longer than it actually is.

And, like I said, there are real pleasures, even if they're small ones: the one everyone agrees on is that, more-or-less alone in the cast, Schell is actually doing some manner of acting.  Leaning into the kitsch possibilities of the mad prophet of the black hole—punched up markedly by cinematographer Frank Phillips' overwrought key lighting and nutty angles—Schell presents a sinister affability which, in the early going, makes The Black Hole less akin to Star Wars, or even the 50s sci-fi it shares more DNA with, than to a 60s AIP Gothic horror, the kind where bland idiots stumble into a nitre-stained deathtrap inhabited by a psychopath.  It even has a tense dinner scene.


Rather less agreeably, I actually like Vincent, too.  Mostly, this is because I enjoy listening to McDowall play an aphoristically-irritating, laughlessly-funny robot muppet, but it probably also has something to do with watching it in 2020, where the idea of a robot as abrasively cutesy-poo as Vincent comes off instead like the single most plausible design decision in the film.  I don't even really mind Bob (Slim Pickens), the beaten-up predecessor Vincent finds in Reinhardt's scrap, who's even cuter, in his scruffy, pathetic way, and who somehow winds up being the most pivotal character in the film.  It's also fun to watch action scenes with floating robots that look like child's toys being thrown at each other, though there's also never really a shot where the Vincent, Bob, and Maximilian props aren't convincing, if more as "hovering objects" than "fighting machines."  (The ambulatory robots are much lamer, and make Stormtroopers look like the model of dynamism and danger.)

But the special effects are a salient quality in general, from the wirework and spaceships to the nominally-quieter stuff that's somehow more about showing off than the big stuff is: that aforementioned dinner scene really, really wants you to notice how they're moving the camera against a matte.  (One of the things Disney had to do with The Black Hole, with ILM's systems being unavailable to them, was develop their very own proprietary motion control cameras.  It's kind of nuts to me that this screenplay was gifted with an R&D budget, but that's sci-fi in the late 70s for you.)

My very favorite thing about The Black Hole is something else that's unique to it, however: it's one of the only sci-fi films I can even name where the lasers are actually instantaneous, rather than noticeably slower than either bullets (Star Wars), arrows (Star Trek), or rocks indifferently tossed in the general direction of a target (Forbidden Planet).  Obviously, the reason I'm doing The Black Hole as part of this Disney (animation) retrospective is just because I felt like it; but if I needed a pretext, it's there in Joe Hale's effects animation.  Starting as a character animator before graduating to layout in the 1950s, Hale also began working with the great Joshua Meador around the same time, and wound up bouncing back and forth between Disney live-action and Disney animation for the next two decades, before ultimately winding up in the ill-fated position of producing The Black Cauldron.  I haven't seen all of his live-action movies, but I don't feel much hesitancy in saying that the effects presented in The Black Hole, especially those lasers, must be the man's masterpiece.

So, between the cathedral-like sets, the gorgeous modelwork, the mostly-good mattework, and those solid streams of red fire, The Black Hole attains a certain pop art something that elevates it above the mediocrity it typically is.  As for the lasers, sure, they still become repetitive and boring, but this is maybe not as much due to the visuals as it is John Barry's score, which usually gets praised as one of the film's most successful aspects.  It has its undeniably awesome moments; it's also basically three bits on shuffle/repeat.  The best, anyway, is somehow the one he uses the least, this being the opening theme—not the overture theme, which is a generic heroic march that returns to plague us during all laser battles.  No, the opening theme is the "da-da-da-DA!" of Barry's iconic James Bond theme except it wigs out on the "DA!," and falls away into an odd musical squiggle; it's an extremely fitting composition for a movie about dying eternally inside a black hole, and insofar as I imagine people are remembering this when they talk about Barry's Black Hole score, I suppose it is pretty great, at that.

The movie's not, but it's never come unstuck from my brain.  The bits and pieces of it I love (ironically and un- alike) overshadow everything else, from the aimless plot that somehow gets less focused as it goes along, to the annoyingly-repetitive structure, to the fact that there's ESP in this movie (I forgot to even mention that!) and it has as much plot function as a radio.  It's no all-time classic.  Even so, one can (sort of) see why it's persisted.

Score: 7/10

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