Examining a Movie: The Black Hole
The film The Black Hole was released by Disney in 1979. It was Disney's answer to Star Wars' big success (and Trek was having a big screen come back as well that year). However, when the film opened it bombed badly, and was an embarrassment to Disney. It fell into a strange obscurity thereafter- known by die-hard sci-fi fans, but ignored and unknown by everyone else. Even many of those sci-fi fans dislike the movie.
However, I feel this film needs to be re-evaluated on a number of levels. I think its bad reputation is not only NOT deserved, but unfair. This is not just nostalgia, though I did see the movie as a kid. I watched the movie recently with my wife, who had never seen it before. At the end, she said she liked it a great deal. She admitted it had flaws, but was an interesting movie. Now, my wife will tell me if she thinks a movie I get her to watch blows (she has reminded me about how much she hated Watchmen oh so often). She liked this movie, with no rose colored lenses of nostalgia.
I would like to discuss the movie in some categories. Forgive me if I jump around a bit...
Plot: I don't want to give spoliers at this point, so here is the set-up: The movie is set in the future- when is somewhat unclear. We have space travel, though it is risky, dangerous, and, frankly, arduous. We also have robots- they have "personality", but are they "living things" (one of the film's many ambiguities). The crew of the Palomino, led by Captain Dan Holland. Their mission is to explore and find "intelligent life". Without the crew saying so, it seems the universe is pretty empty indeed, and their mission has not been much of a success. At any rate, the Palomino encounters a Black Hole, more powerful than any recorded. They are nearly pulled in, but they escape due to the "aid" of another, almost ghostly ship. Upon scanning, the crew finds it is the USS Cygnus- a huge, behemoth, yet graceful and elegant, ship; one presumed lost in space. Holland and the crew decide to investigate.
On the Cygnus, they find only one man alive, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, commander of the vessel. Reinhardt explains that his ship had been damaged by meteors years ago, and that he had the crew abandon ship (he didn't leave the ship though; Captain is the last man on board deal, going down with the ship), and he didn't know what happened to them. He repaired the ship with the help of his robots. But rather than return home, he stayed in space, exploring the galaxy's mysteries. The one "challenge" that has eluded him is the Black Hole, and he is in the process of unravelling that one too. He is planning to go into the Black Hole, proving science (and his ego) can overcome anything, even the power of a Black Hole.
As the crew deal with Reinhardt, they notice three things. One, he is definitely on the "eccentric" side- is he crazy, or is just that he has been alone for so long that it has made him a bit weird? Two, the Palomino crew realize Reinhardt's story just isn't adding up, for reasons they can't explain. Third, they find that Reinhardt's robots are, well, threatening, to say the least, particularly Maximilian, Reinhardt's own special design. Holland and company have more questions than answers. Then, as the film goes on, Reinhardt begins to reveal his true motives and intentions, which have Holland's crew running for their lives, trying to escape the Cygnus, and the Black Hole. Can they escape? Will Reinhardt accomplish his plans? And just what is the true nature of these robots?
From here, I'm going to get into different aspects of the film. There will be spoilers, so if you don't want spoilage stop here and see the movie... If you haven't seen it, you really should...
What Went "Wrong" in 1979 (and after): The movie was a box office disaster for Disney, and at first glance, you can see why. This is NOT Star Wars (or Trek). The Black Hole is a complicated movie, part Sci-fi actioner, part mystery, and a whole heaping dose of questioning morality. The film is slow at the beginning, with a hefty amount of exposition. Once the threat is revealed, the movie then kicks into gear, progressing quickly. However, the nature of the threat is rather "dark" and frankly, a little scary- kids certainly would be scared. It is a "dark" film- somber, with some disturbing questions about life in the universe. It does attempt some humor with VINCENT, the robot member of the Palomino, but it is minor at most. So, when sci-fi people went expecting a Disney Star Wars type of film, they got a bleak movie. So, it failed. Further, the film does break some of the basic rules of physics (even my wife snickered at some of the rather implausible space physics). That turned off serious sci-fans too.
But "Wrong" is actually (mostly) "Right": Disney should be respected for taking a risk. They could have made a simple Star Wars clone, but instead they opted for something very different. This wasn't a space epic, it was a morality play. Disney didn't take the easy way out, and it hurt them, though it didn't deserve it. The pacing isn't fully action packed, but it isn't really that type of movie. One needs to "get" that in order to appreciate the film. This movie is examining big ideas, and even uncomfortable ones. Further, though the science/physics are wonky, one must accept it as the price of admission. It might be a bit of a leap of faith, but if you can really suspend your disbelief, you might be able to ignore the "bad" science. If you can, it won't actually matter to the plot of the film.
Special Effects/Music: If there is one area that people can agree on this movie, even the haters, it is that the Special Effects are top notch. The two ships are very well detailed miniatures. The Palomino is a small, but trusty vessel, while the Cygnus is just sweeping and ornate, with a hint of both grandeur and menace. The various robots are mostly cool (some hate VINCENT and BOB, but I get what they were doing here- they are "friendly" robots, so they look "cute", unlike Reinhardt's creations). In particular, the robot Maximilian is just the stuff of absurd nightmare- he is painted devil-red, hulking, fast, but with an odd assortment of weapons.
The interior of the Cygnus is cavernous, but again brilliant and just larger than life- Gothic is a good word for it. Finally, there's the Black Hole itself- omnipresent, in space, always swirling, moving, destroying. The effect will stick with you, as does the entire production design. Plot aside, the LOOK is unique, and no sci-fi film has this look and feel. The score, by John Barry, is equally good- ominous, brooding, and on occasion rousing. The score adds to the feel of the film.
The Plot Thickens: Now, here I want to get into the "twists", turns, and themes. The film is about the human mind- Reinhardt's in particular, but in general as well. Reinhardt is mankind- looking to the stars, blessed by God with intellect. Humanity wants to solve the mysteries of the universe. The NEED to know is great. It may be arrogance that man THINKS he can control science and conquer all, and what happens to man if he does accomplish this?
This is where we find Reinhardt. A brilliant man who believes that "the ends justify the means". He will achieve what none have been able to. He will solve this last great mystery- what lies on the other side of the Black Hole. His genius will make it happen. Unfortunately, he will do ANYTHING to achieve his (noble?) goal. Morality, humanity, God... all irrelevant to Reinhardt's quest. Reinhardt believes that the other side of the Black Hole is a place why the concepts of right and wrong are gone, fundamental laws of nature do not apply, they vanish. And one could live forever there.
As it turns out, the Cygnus' original mission was to find new life- the government spent a fortune building the Cygnus, based on Reinhardt's own singular vision. After a good amount of time exploring space, Earth contacted the Cygnus and ordered Reinhardt to come back, his mission deemed a failure. That was something he could not tolerate, and he refused to obey. His crew mutinied, but he managed to put down the revolt using his "Sentry Robots". However, he was faced with a dilemma- the ship was too large to be run by one man with the rest of the crew locked in the brig. So, bending his intellect to the problem, Reinhardt came to a horrifying conclusion. He decided to lobotomize his crew- basically he destroyed their free will and "programmed" them to continue working on the ship as they had before. Now, they are mute, wraithlike. He dressed them in robes and masks so he wouldn't have to look at their faces- he thought of them as robots, without troubling his mind too much over what he had done. He then turned to his obsession- the Black Hole, without worrying about any one else's needs. He is Niche's "Superman"- nothing can stand in his way of achieving great feats.
Interestingly enough, NONE of his robots speak, not even his greatest creation, Maximilian. Free will troubles Reinhardt. This is why humanity cannot accomplish anything- free will is too troublesome. You need a singular vision- an iron will and steely determination. Get rid of free will, and the "great man" can do anything. Or so it seems to Reinhardt.
However, the film has more to say on that. Religion (or, perhaps, a spirituality) is a major theme in the film. BOB says that intelligent life is the MOST important thing in the universe, and Reinhardt disregards that basic, important rule. Reinhardt himself quotes the Bible at one point. One Palomino crew member, Dr. McCray, has minor ESP abilities (more a psychic spirituality and empathy than anything else, though she can mentally communicate with VINCENT. Is that a huh? Yes, it is odd, yet the theme of Spirituality covers this- VINCENT has free will and is therefore alive). One character calls what lies on the other side of the Black Hole the "mind of God". There is a religious quality at work here that many Space Sci-fi movies lack.
And just to be clear, the theme of religion dominates the film. Reinhardt expresses SOME slight guilt over his deeds, and he IMPLIES that Maximilian is responsible, as if the creation is in control of the creator. Could it be? Or is Reinhardt simply projecting his evil onto his robot? Is Maximilian the DEVIL (as he appears)? Or is he just a physical representation of Reinhardt's Id? The movie gives no answers here. Is there a devil, or are we evil all by ourselves?
The end of the movie just adds to the Spiritualism. The Cygnus is struck by meteors (irony or karma?), and drifts into the Black Hole, breaking apart. Reinhardt has a smaller probe ship, and he intends to fly it into the Black Hole. However, his command center collapses, and he is stuck in the wreckage, surrounded by his lobotomized crew who, thanks to his evil handiwork, can only focus on their tasks running the ship, and thus pay no heed to his cries of pain. Maximilian ignores Reinhardt as well, following his last order to prepare the probe ship. Is Maximilian the devil leaving his pawn Reinhardt behind and discarded, or is the robot simply following its master's last order?
But then, the hellish scene gives way to a bright corridor, through which a robed figure glides through- Jesus? God? The Human Spirit? With a flash, and without word, the probe ship comes out of the other side of the Black Hole. Ahead of the ship is a planet, bathed in white light. Heaven? Sanctuary? Just an alien world? The film ends here, leaving you to ponder their fate.
Whoa, That Is Weird: Yes, the film is certainly an oddity. And I love it for that. It has big ideas, and isn't afraid to make you think about the darker side of human nature and the technology we have created. The film is anchored by Maximilian Schell and Robert Forster. Schell gives a great performance as Reinhardt. His German accent adds to the character (and the Niche threads). But, he is larger than life, full of grand thoughts and gestures. But he is also warped beyond all repair- knowing the evil he has done, but believing the evil was for a greater goal. The actor evokes awe, sympathy, and disgust in equal measures- which is no small feat.
Robert Forster, on the other hand, is in many ways the opposite of Reinhardt. He is neither brilliant nor grand. He is, in some respects, an everyman. He is captain, and his responsibility to to protect the lives of his crew. He does have an innate, quiet decency, even when it comes to the robots VINCENT and old BOB, which Reinhardt lacks entirely. It is certainly the less flashy role, but works as a good contrast to the antagonist. The other cast members are good as well, particularly Anthony Perkins, whose Dr. Durrant admires Reinhardt's brilliance and finds it hard to believe that genius has led to insanity.
This may be the strangest movie review I have written, but it is also a strange movie, so I guess it is fitting. I think any sci-fi fan owes it to themselves to check this film out (Disney, you need to make a special edition on Blu-ray, immediately). You need to put it into the context of the time in which it was made, as well as being able to have a stronger suspension of disbelief than you are used to. If you can do those things, you should watch this film. It is visually interesting, has a good cast, and does make you think. interestingly, Interstellar recently had somewhat similar questions about Black Holes and human nature, though that film is FAR more upbeat, optimistic, and positive than this older movie.
I give this film 3 out of 4 Marks of Chaos. If you're a space / sci-fi fan, you may want to check this out.
Until next time!!