Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Right Next Door to Hell

This post is one of three synched posts covering nigh-80s sci-fi movies from PaulAl and Jamas. Check 'em out!

'The Black Hole' (1979)

As a young viewer, or one new to the cinematic form, the experience of entering a movie theatre must be a kind of surrender.

 I am nine, and having been one of Oamaru's biggest Star Wars fans, nothing is going to stop me from seeing the next best thing. So far I've braved an omnibus edit of Battlestar Galactica (the first two episodes cut into movie length for foreign markets, NZ included), but this time I and the kids next door and up the road, are seeing the new Disney movie The Black Hole.

I've not heard much about it, except that it's a Disney film - so I'm sure it'll be good, and it has spaceships and robots in it  another plus. I enter the theatre, the lights go down, my young impressionable mind dutifully surrenders to the images and unfolding story on the screen - and despite some false bravery for my fellow movie-goers, I'm not a little traumatised by this movie, and don't really recover from its impact for a while. I did manage to recover enough to buy the read-along 45 story version of it, though. I still have it, in fact.

The Black Hole occupies a discreet stage in Disney's development; before it fully branched out into mature adult-oriented movies under the Touchstone Pictures brand; its late Seventies, early Eighties family movies have distinct edges to them - this, Dragonslayer, Tron and Something Wicked This Way Comes are all movies which sit uneasily with the rest of the fare from the House of the Mouse. Dragonslayer and Black Hole would by my estimation definitely be the most mature, and deal with very adult notions: The Black Hole, despite being riddled with the rigours of fifteen drafts between 1974 and its year of production, is at times a philosophical piece, a moral play exercising a very Christian form of judgement on its central villain/s. Your actual mad scientist aboard the mysterious Cygnus, Dr Reinhart, is part Nemo (Verne's Nautilus captain, not Pixar's clownfish) and part Ahab, and has in effect entered a Faustian pact with his creation Maximillian (some viewers read the relationship as the android having the scientist in its thrall, perhaps by telepathic control), and both are delivered in the movie's controversial ending to a literal scientific purgatory within the event horizon of the titular stellar morass. Despite this surreal and deeply disturbing scene, I don't even remember the hellish ending scenes (perhaps I covered my eyes?), and naturally they and the question mark fate of the surviving heroes of the good ship Palomino are brushed over somewhat on the 45, so this latest viewing - probably only my second - had me watching the last five minutes with my adult mouth agape.

 Still, this is not a conventional horror movie. There are no jump scares in The Black Hole, more a creeping tension that builds slowly (too slowly for some, as it turns out.) The largest scares are not scares in themselves - Reinhardt's robot guard Maximillian is simply a massive red wall, a bulking construction of plate metal, a baleful red eye slit and two arms termination in pinning, shredding blades. Subtle he is not, yet it's still a remarkably intimidating character for its silent hovering in shot - a serous bogeyman. Worse is the reveal of the true nature of Reinhardt's android technicians, zombified souls trapped behind mirror-masked cowls. Nightmarish stuff.
There are pitfalls. As Guanolad notes, the casting is a little flat, with senior actors for the most part playing senior roles - there's Ernest Borgnine, looking for all the world like a dress rehearsal of James Doohan in his last years. Anthony Perkins doesn't last the film (another horror flashback moment!), but Meg Tilly and a later career revival beckon anyway. Maximillian Schell is a pretty good Reinhardt, but is called to give a largely linear and saturnine performance; there's only really a brief instance where he reaches out to the sole female character in the movie to 'protect' him from his monstrous android alter ago, which invites any further intrigue. More successful characters are the two speaking robots: both are unapologetically Disney, with the urbane yet surprisingly scrappy V.I.NCENT voiced by an uncredited  Roddy McDowell and the battered and beaten B.O.B by  Slim Pickens. They're hardly the stuff of Asimov, but robots of the time were still a developing phenomenon onscreen, and it's not as if Return of the Jedi's comedy pairing four years later was Citizen f*cking Kane.
The model work is very good indeed, despite some rushed-looking matte compositions towards the end, and some obvious green screen fringing. Internally the Cygnus is deliberately vast, shrinking its visitors to Lilliputian dimensions and in most areas of the interior the design is noteworthy, too. All burnished bronze and shadows, with only one room all banks of flashing lights and screens - otherwise the Cygnus is an empty vessel, quiet corridors and impassive crew. While on the outside it resembles a prone Eiffel Tower with battleship turrets, within it has the menace of an unoccupied Bond villain lair. Reinhardt's dining quarters are urbane with their gilt chairs and chandelier, but the spectacle of the slowly whirling maelstrom outside is dis-quietening - the whole place is convincingly 'off' from the get-go. Rounding this out is John Barry's superb score - I got lost in its swooning strings.

This is definitely a movie of yesteryear, but thirty-five years on doesn't appear to have dated any more than it seemed at the time anyway. The Disney effort has a 'one-foot-in-the-sixties' earnestness that at least spares it from resembling too closely the lazier Star Wars rip-offs from around the same time (which we may well cover in further synched blogs.) A quick glance at my fellow bloggers reveals that yes - this is a movie which divides its audience, and so cast me in (or out if you must) among the lovers. That surprises me, but I don't think I'll be sending off for a hair shirt at the same time.

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