Title: The Black Hole (PG)
Directed by: Gary Nelson
Written by: Jeb Rosenbrook and Bob Barbash
Starring: Anthony Perkins as Dr. Alex Durant
Maximillian Schell as Dr. Hans Reinhardt
Yvette Mimeux as Dr. Kate McCrea
Robert Forester as Captain Dan Holland
Roddy McDowell as the voice of V.I.N.Cent
Slim Pickens as the voice of B.O.B.
Tagline: A journey that begins where everything ends!
The Black Hole was another one of those movies that I was familiar with because of gossip around the playground. I had been too young to see it when it was first released, and without cable or a VCR there was really no chance to see it, so all I had to go on were the exaggerated stories of my classmates, and the toy Maxmillian that hung on store shelves. I never actually had the Maxmilian myself, although I always treasured my VINCent figure. I’d had enough time playing with the Maxmilian model at friend’s houses and heard enough of their tall tales about him to understand just how absolutely cool he was, and to cement my determination to see the film.
At around six or seven years old, I finally managed to see The Black Hole, thanks to an uncle who had both cable and a VCR, and it has the distinction of being the first film I remember being so upset by that I was unable to continue watching. The memories are so fuzzy that I can’t even judge how far into the film the disturbing part occurred, and time has left most of the film’s details as little more than fuzzy images in my mind. Men gathered around machinery, talking about science that I couldn’t understand. Lots of walking down long hallways with weird monks. Of course, the adorable floating robots, one of whom I remember feeling very sorry for because he looked so sad and beaten up.
And then Maxmilian gutted someone with a spinning claw, and my experiences with the film ended abruptly. I can’t swear that it was an especially graphic scene of violence, or even that it had no place in a G-rated film, but the image of a person being gutted by a deadly robot arm was so burned into my mind that it became the focus of my nightmares for years to come. The fact that it was Maxmillian, a figure second only to Darth Vader in my imagination when it came to cool villains, made it all the worse. Years of having the robot built up, his cool design capturing my imagination, led to it almost feeling like a betrayal to see him performing such a brutal act. Even as a child, I understood that he was the villain, and that was what villains do, but the quality of the action he took was far more intense than I was obviously prepared for – as evidenced by the fact that my screams of horror led my mother to turn the film off then and there, and my traumatized associations with the film kept me from ever watching it again.
You know what? I stand by my childhood cowardice. Although it was the only truly intense scene in the film, that gutting is basically as intense as you can get in a PG-rated film. It’s also a perfect example of how to get an incredible reaction without any blood. Anthony Perkins (who I did not remember was in the film!) is trapped in front of a door with Maxmilian’s spinning claw thrusting towards him – he holds up a book to defend himself – the claw spins right through the book and into Anthony Perkins. We don’t see what it does to him, he screams and then his body is tossed into some circuitry, but we saw what it did to the book, and that’s enough to let our imagination fill in the details. Something my imagination has actually been doing for most of my life. I think the reason this weighed so heavily on me is because it’s one of those rare moments of intense violence that made it into my extremely young viewing material. There’s basically just this, the earwig from Wrath of Khan, and my aforementioned experiences with Swamp Thing. It’s obvious that all the buildup of Maxmilian in my mind led to the kill in the movie being a key moment, but it’s important to note that it really is an intense sequence. Look at the only character to be a cooler villain than Maxmilian, Darth Vader. Across three films he kills a total of four people (not counting rebel spaceships he shoots down), and all of them in the most bloodless way possible. The heroes are cutting some people apart and blasting holes in others, while Darth uses a light saber to make a guy disappear, throws another down a pit, and, in the least bloodless murder method possible, uses remote-control strangulation on the other two. These aren’t really the things nightmares are made of.
Now for a discussion of the actual movie. My three-word review? Schizophrenia on celluloid. The Black Hole seems to have no idea what it’s trying to accomplish. Is it a meditation on the point at the end of scientific knowledge, where the limits of our perceptions and measurements lead us to a terrifying place where science and religion become one? Is it a wacky comedy about sassy robots? Is it an action-thriller about spacemen battling evil robots? I have no idea, and I just watched the movie. If it weren’t for the great art design tying everything together, I’d be left wondering if the individual scenes hadn’t been snagged from unrelated films and edited together. On its most basic level (ten or fifteen script drafts before production, I’d wager), the film seems to be a reworking of The Tempest set against a purloined vision of 2001’s future. There’s just enough of the original film in there to make me wish I was watching it – the actors are good enough to express the themes that the dialogue isn’t quite up to making clear, but for every scene that features characters essentially debating whether or not morality has any relevance in the field of scientific research, there’s another scene where pompous robots get into target-shooting competitions with each other to prove which model is superior.
And what robots they are. It’s hard to express to someone who hasn’t seen the film just how much damage V.I.N.Cent. does to the credibility of every scene he’s in. It was a daring choice to one-up to attempt to make the robots actual characters in the film, rather than just passive devices needed to move the plot along, as they had been in Star Wars. The attempt by the filmmakers is in no way helped by the utter failure of Vincent and B.O.B.’s design. While the zombies and Maxmilian look like they realistically belong in the world of the film, Vincent looks like a cartoon character brought to life, as if the whole thing was based on a long-running French comic strip, where the bizarre exaggeration of his huge eyes and ball legs made perfect sense, but then the filmmakers were too faithful to the source material and tried to recreate him exactly, winding up with an awkward thing that looks utterly out of place standing next to real people.
If nothing else, I’ll give The Black Hole this – it really made me fall in love with model-makers and matte artists all over again. The film is packed with FX shots panning around the Cygnus, and it looks fantastic every time, as do the endless hallways that fill it. While it may not ever have an important place in cinema history, if anyone ever wants some examples of two wonderful artistic disciplines that CGI has bludgeoned to death, they need look no farther.
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