I was watching “The Impossible Planet” on BBC last week, an old episode of Doctor Who (which is to say, season 2 of the rebooted franchise and not the classic serials), and it occurred to me how much the story seemed to be riffing on the 70s Disney scifi movie The Black Hole. Sure enough, when I dug out the DVD of the episode and listened to the audio commentary, it was revealed that some of the original CGI FX work for the show had been rejected by the producers who wanted the black hole in the episode to be more like the one they remembered from that very movie. Clearly the connection was very much in everyone’s mind while making this, and a rewatch seemed called for.
I didn’t realise it when I saw this film as a kid, but what a total mess it proves to be. It was made in the aftermath of Star Wars’ explosive impact on the box office, and all the studios were suddenly desperately scrambling to find their own sci-fi blockbuster. They started wildly lashing out in panic, knowing that the sci-fi mega hit was the way of the future but still completely unsure what exactly it was about Star Wars that had made it such a massive hit. So Universal repurposed a TV pilot by the name of Battlestar Galactica into a copy-cat rip off; James Bond was dispatched to space in Moonraker; Paramount revived an old TV franchise for the worthy-but-dull Star Trek: The Motion Picture; and Roger Corman recognised George Lucas’ pilfering of Western classics and followed suit, remaking The Magnificent Seven as Battle Beyond The Stars.
With a four-decade history of making family-orientated fantasy films, Walt Disney Studios should have been in the best position of all. But what they came up with was The Black Hole, a film that shows the symptoms of the film industry’s blind panic and is practically a playbook for how not to make a scifi film. It starts with some 2001-ish “proper science” with scenes of zero gravity and explanations of what a black hole really is, but then immediately sets about misunderstanding and abusing every single concept. Suddenly there’s gravity; a probe ship can return from a trip to the black hole where – it’s just been explained – not even light can escape from. Characters can wonder around in open space and suffer only a bracing wind and a light frosting. ESP powers are thrown in just as something cool to communicate with over a distance instead of a mobile phone.
The film can’t decide whether to go for the sort of grandiose longeurs of 2001 and Star Trek: TMP or for the shoot-em-up blasters of Star Wars. Scenes with the robots are strictly for the kids (the lead droid has the stature of R2-D2, the voice of Threepio and the exaggerated wide eyes of Bambi), yet an early line of dialogue references Dante and the closing scenes explicitly play on the vision of hell from Inferno, which goes straight over the head of 95% of the audience. One of the main cast deaths is a particularly nasty implied moment even when kept mainly off-screen and certainly far too horrific for any Disney film. There’s a prolonged final sequence at the end clearly intended to mirror the hallucinogenic star trip of Dave Bowman at the climax of 2001 – only it’s too literal and stuck with the poorest effects of the entire film, suggesting that either the budget or the schedule presumably had expired by this point.
It’s the script that is particularly dire: the basic storyline is a rehashing of Disney’s own 1954 hit 20000 Leagues Under the Sea with Dr Hans Reinhardt as Captain Nemo, but the character quickly degenerates into a stereotyped Bond villain (of the Stromberg/Drax variety) complete with silent robotic henchman Maximilian standing in for Oddjob/Jaws. When Reinhardt meets his end by being flattened by a large video screen that simply falls off the wall of his command deck rather than anything the nominal heroes do, it feels this is surely an attempt at laugh-out-loud black meta-humour; except it isn’t.
There’s not a single line of dialogue in this film that doesn’t come across as painfully wooden, the sort of exposition that no one would ever say in real life but exists simply in order to info-dump necessary data into the heads of the poor audience. The characters are likewise two-dimensional cut-outs, and not one of them is remotely likeable. It takes some doing to extract such truly terrible performances from a world-class cast that includes Maximilian Schell as Reinhardt along with Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux (from George Pal’s The Time Machine) and Joseph Bottoms (the juvenile lead of the film, treated like a child despite the actor being 25), but the writers (Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day) and director (Gary Nelson) manage it between them. Poor Roddy McDowell – voicing the inevitable post-Star Wars likeable droid Vincent – is given a script that consists literally of witless clichés and eye-rollingly bad quotations. No wonder he dropped the screen credit, as did Western movie veteran star Slim Pickens.
Of course, at the time the target audience (young boys like myself who wanted any scifi they could get in the wake of Star Wars; and who left the theatre to excitedly buy the comic book and the action figures of Maximilian and Vincent) didn’t much care for the script anyway, as long as the effects were good. And for their day, those optical effects in The Black Hole really were pretty spectacular – as evidenced by the Doctor Who team still thinking of this as the touchstone for their own black hole sequence. The FX have not aged well, however, with the matte lines very apparent and the photographic processes employed seemingly having a detrimental effect on large sections of the film stock, which have turned a sickly green-sepia colour at least on the evidence of this DVD release. Still, fair’s fair and there’s some good visuals among the misfires, such as the opening computer graphic wireframe (simple stuff now but the longest such animation used on screen up to that time); the derelict USS Cygnus is an impressive model (which explains the long, dull tracking shot spent establishing it); and the scene where a flaming meteor rolls down the central section of the ship has an impressive sense of scale and substance (even if it makes precisely no sense from a scientific reality point of view.) And of course, the black hole itself does look cool as it’s continually glimpsed out of the windows, churning its way remorselessly through an unending diet of doomed stars and planets.
But the reality is that this is a film where pretty much nothing works anywhere near as well as it’s supposed to – even the music. The legendary John Barry supplies a memorable and grand main theme, but unfortunately it’s a bit too memorable: it’s hard not to think of the scores for Moonraker or Dances With Wolves from which it feels that it’s been ripped from. And then it’s repeated ad nauseum throughout the film, with little regard for the on-screen action its accompanying: this slow, majestic score plodding along at its own speed makes for a very odd background to an on-screen fast-paced futuristic laser battle between humans and robots.
By the time you’ve reached the end of the 90 minutes, the score has been infuriatingly overused and you just want it to stop. Pretty much the same as the feeling you have about the whole film, really, which really only goes to show that sometimes you really shouldn’t revisit and look too closely at childhood memories lest they deeply disappoint.
[Nerdology has now released a podcast audio commentary for the film which is well worth a listen to and is distinctly more fun than the film itself!]