Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Black Hole (1979)

Unluckily for this Disney sci-fi the greatest space set fantasy of all time had been released two years earlier in 77. On top of that 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' also came out in that same year which pretty much hammered the last nail in the coffin for this adventure.

Despite Disney clearly wanting this film to achieve the same level of grandeur that both Lucas and Spielberg managed with their sci-fi films, this venture feels very dated to me. Whilst watching I really couldn't help but feel it was simply '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' in space. A team of scientists/very intelligent astronauts discover a black hole with a large vessel parked up near by. They board the ship and eventually find a crazed bearded scientist and his legion of self created robots. After much speculation and pleasantries the crew realise the crazy scientist is a genius but wants to fly his ship into the black hole, what seems like a suicide mission.

So the crazed German scientist (Hollywood loves to abuse the Germans) played by Schell could quite easily be Captain Nemo. Living a solitary life on his impressive ship that no one knew what happened to, a genius inventing ways to defy a black holes gravitational pull, building his own robots etc...but also a madman with little respect for human life.

The way the story plans out is very similar too, the crew board the mysterious vessel unsure of what they will find. At first Reinhardt is welcoming and offers them tours around his impressive ship showing his achievements and they all dine together on a lavish main deck overlooking the black hole. But like Nemo as the crew dig deeper and become more suspicious Reinhardt changes and becomes very protective of his plans.

Now the main aspect of this film is clearly the visuals, which for its time were pretty slick, although no where near as good as the other two big sci-fi event films of the era. Using similar techniques of the time such as matte paintings, bluescreen, stop motion and of course models, I felt the effects really swing from one end of the scale to the other. Accounting for the age of the film of course some effects are actually pretty neat, the beginning of the film as the astronauts ship approaches the Cygnus, some interiors of the Cygnus are nicely done and haven't dated and the black hole is probably the money shot and it looks it.

Other times, from shot to shot, the film lapses into an eyesore! one minute you will have a good looking sequence or effect, the next it looks bloody awful and no better than some shoddy TV show. The age of the film has affected the quality no doubt with colours running all over the place, light/darkness levels seem to be shot to hell here and there and effects like bluescreen are showing big cracks very clearly.

The same can be said for the characters, a real mixed bag of familiar ideas. The crew are a oddball team led by Robert Forster who always always looks and sounds like he's acting in a shitty low budget 70's flick. Anthony Perkins of 'Psycho' fame is one doctor on the team yet I wouldn't go near him personally because he always looks so moody, like he's gonna kill you. Ernest Borgnine plays the Scotty rip off character and tends to moan a lot, Yvette Mimieux is the second team doctor and the obligatory bit of blonde ass, and then we have the R2D2 crew robot rip off voiced by Roddy McDowall. This prop looks terrible it really does, it literately ruins the film and any self respect they were aiming for. It looks childish, its clearly very limited, you can see the wires attached to make him hover and he appears to be useless to the crew anyway. His only useful asset is being able to mentally communicate with the good doctor Yvette Mimieux somehow, no explanation why or how, they just do it so there.

The most exciting part of the film for me was the moment they all go through the black hole, that's pretty much what you spend the whole run time longing for. Its one of those things, even though its an old film you're still really intrigued to find out what will happen and what you will see. In the end it was an odd and rather anti-climatic vision of heaven and hell unfortunately, it made little sense. Once the remaining good guys get through this afterlife-esque passage they reemerge in presumably a new universe and approaching a planet. A bit formulaic I suppose but what else would you expect?

This film is a bizarre combination of ideas all stuck in the blender. The actual premise about finding a ghost ship near a black hole is cool and clearly influenced a certain Mr W.S. Anderson with his horror flick 'Event Horizon'. There are so many movie elements to this film though, overall it feels like an old Doug McClure movie and I'm sure James Mason could of played Reinhardt perfectly. But then you have elements from Star Wars, Star Trek and even a touch from Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica when you look at some of the robot concepts. The popularity of Stormtroopers was clearly another concept sneakily pinched but like many of the copied ideas in this film none of them come remotely close to the original source material.

You can see how big the leaps in technology for special effects were by other films of the time, when you see this film. Both Star Wars and Close Encounters visuals crush this film, yet 'The Black Hole' had just under double the budget over George Lucas and was on level pegging with Spielberg. Its a floored film really, a solid plot covered by a patchwork of other ideas that can't top those original ideas. Despite the epic futuristic sci-fi setting its still very old fashioned in nature.