[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B000094P3Q][/pullquote] It was a time of much confusion in Disney’s life, after a hyper-extended infancy full of anthropomorphic animals and casual racism, the studio hit adolescence. Between growing its hair long, listening to loud music and spending hours in its room shouting at its mother for entering without knocking, Disney released its first PG rated movie, a cosmic reimagining of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: The Black Hole.
Riding the crest of the late 70’s sci-fi wave, it would be easy to dismiss The Black Hole as just another entrant to the burgeoning space opera genre. Certainly there are similarities to its contemporaries; however these are few and far between and the genre’s trappings are only conspicuous by their absence. With the story unfolding in a decidedly sinister manner, it is clear that the thrust of the movie is more reminiscent of early sci-fi horror such as Forbidden Planet.
The Black Hole story begins with the crew of the USS Palomino discovering the long lost space vessel USS Cygnus sitting stationary in the event horizon of the titled black hole. A stereotypical bunch they manage to cover most clichÃ©s with Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) the pragmatically stoic leader, Dr Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) the emotionally detached ship’s scientist, Dr Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux); the glamorous psychic and damsel in distress and Lieutenant Charles Pizer (Joseph Bottoms); a homage to the movie’s action laden contemporaries in the shape of a brash youth who helpfully self references as the straight man to a tin can. Further homage appears in the form of said ˜tin can’: the droid V.I.N.Cent (Roddy McDowell), a distinct analogue to similar sidekicks like Twiki, R2D2 and C3PO. Harry Booth (Ernst Borgnine), a civilian news reporter, completes the ship’s roster. This cast does its job but never really threatens to excel, with so many characters given equal weight and so little time there’s no room for subtle nuance and the script has to resort to a few clichÃ©d spots to clearly demarcate each character within their stereotype.
Boarding the USS Cygnus, the Palomino’s crew discover Dr Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell) the story’s equivalent to Captain Nemo and the only personality (outside of the various droids) to have any real character. As with Nemo he congenially incarcerates his ˜guests’, building up a rapport with Dr Durant based upon their mutual love of science that is reminiscent of Nemo and Pierre Anorrax’s relationship from Verne’s original.
As time passes the similarities between Reinhardt and Nemo wear thin however. Reinhardt has no altruistic agenda, his motivations and megalomaniacal god complex become clear through his desire to discover the mysteries of the universe in the black hole and his quoting of Genesis to describe this aspiration. Furthermore, he fails to share Nemo’s love and respect for his crew. Indeed, V.I.N.Cent and his loveable yet beaten up new droid friend Old B.O.B (Slim Pickens) discover this with the revelation that Reinhardt’s god complex has lead him to transform the Cygnus’s crew into cyborg slaves.
With this gruesome discovery the crew of the Palomino attempt to flee the Cygnus, with Dr Durant being diced to death by the blender like hands of Reinhardt’s ominous construct Maximillian, who then proceeds to pursue the crew. A vicious bully of a droid, Maximillian manages to convey more character than many of the cast despite only having a single red eye to express himself. Indeed, his relationship with Reinhardt is given a level of complexity when it becomes evident that even the creator fears his construct, with Reinhardt whispering a plea to Dr McRae to save me from Maximillian, sadly however this is never investigated beyond the single line.
The character Harry Booth and Disney Studios both demonstrate their contrasting allegiances during the crew’s escape, as the reporter, who has already expressed a dislike at government spending and has at times been known to strike feigns a leg injury in an attempt to flee in the Palomino rather than accompany Captain Holland on a rescue mission of Dr McRae. He’s summarily shot down by Reinhardt as a lesson to us all to never trust a cowardly commie pinko lefty.
After losing O.L.D Bob in one of the most heart rending robot deaths in cinematic history, the Palomino’s crew jump aboard the only available vessel; a small research shuttle. Cheating the laws of physics on the way, the crew ignore the vacuum of space and then the crushing gravity of the universe’s most destructive force to fly through the black hole and enjoy a surreal ending straight out of Kubrick’s 2001 play book.
Literally flying through hell we see Reinhardt subsumed into Maximillian as the two merge into some sort of cyborg like entity, with the mad scientist clearly reaping what he’s sown to become a strange demonic being in the fiery abyss. The crew of the Palomino fare much better, being led through the eye of the black hole and into the light by an angelic figure, exiting the other side in the peaceful stillness of space. Having already demonstrated they don’t need to breathe by previously cheating vacuum, we don’t have to worry about the pathetic life support on the tiny vessel and we can all assume Dr Holland and friends find their way home to live happily ever after.
Despite frequent comparisons with its contemporaries, The Black Hole is at its heart a far more classical sci-fi tale. Where Star Wars, Buck Rogers and Star Trek the Movie accept technology as implicit in the setting, The Black Hole follows the more traditional route, well trod by authors such as Huxley and Asimov, of questioning a world in which such technology exists. It attempts to tackle the dangers of unethical research and our inherent fear of snowballing scientific research.
While The Black Hole‘s finale clearly shows the black hole to be analogous to the 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea’s Moskenstraumen, it serves a far greater purpose. Ubiquitous; it is an ever present feature in the film, constantly alluded to as a demonic entity in its own right it stands as a metaphor for greed, hubris and forbidden knowledge. Like Icarus flying to close to the sun it spells the demise of Reinhardt who not only perishes in its midst, but seems to face an eternal punishment in hell for seeking to usurp that which is God’s: the essential truths of the universe.
While slow, the film is short and doesn’t suffer from poor pacing. A mundane script and generally weak characterisation lets down what is an essentially interesting morality tale that taps into our primal fear of the unknown, utilising a brilliant score and evocative set design to produce an eerie and ominous sense of unease.