The Black Hole
Sometimes, a movie’s ambition is enough to see it through its less illustrious aspects. When I last revisited this entry in the “Dark Disney” canon, I pointed the finger of blame for The Black Hole’s drawbacks at director Gary Nelson, and while I still believe that’s partially fair, I have to credit him with the fact that it remains commendably weird-arsed (as I put it) and light years ahead of most big-budget science fiction, not only in its broaching of ideas but also in pursuing them to their conclusion. Calling it a kiddie 2001: A Space Odyssey would be unfairly dismissive – only the robots really fall into such a category – but for a movie nevertheless aimed at family audiences, it’s remarkably unblinking in its willingness to stare into the existential abyss.
While the eventual arrival of The Black Hole came off the back of Star Wars, and I’d hazard its robot designs definitely came post facto, its genesis began a clutch of years before, inspired by the ’70s disaster cycle (The Poseidon Adventure et al). In development in initial form from 1974, it was reupped in 1975/6 – before Star Wars – with John Hough coming on board and then dropping out in 1977 amid recognition that the disaster strand was no longer at its zenith (little did they realise, the mighty The Swarm was still to come).
Disney – mostly Roy – were looking to expand their remit beyond merely the kids’ cartoon or Wonderful Worlds. Unfortunately, what they lacked, despite pools of specific technical talent, was the willingness to chase or even recognise the need for a guy with nous calling the shots on a movie rather than a – at best – journeyman. The irony being, this was the one time they might have valued such input (the era of the wunderkind); come the mid-80s and the Mouse House’s financial rebirth, the Katzenberg approach was in some ways not dissimilarly fiscally tight. He wasn’t chasing auteurs for his hits, and when he went there (Dick Tracy), he got noticeably burnt.
Off the back of The Black Hole’s experimentation, we saw a whole range of “too scary for kids” kids’ Disney fare like Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Watcher in the Woods, The Black Cauldron and Return to Oz. One might have assumed hiring the director of acclaimed Nixon administration miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors was a coup and lateral thinking for the production, but Gary Nelson was a resolutely TV guy whose Freaky Friday had made the studio a lot of money (he’d later guide Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold for Cannon). John Hough was a more interesting director (The Legend of Hell House), but he’d also been servicing the studio’s slapdash, kid-friendly fodder (Escape to Witch Mountain). A similar thinking characterises the screenplay, devised and written by TV guys (Bob Barabash, Richard Landau, Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Davy).
Nelson is upfront in confessing that matte painter and production designer Peter Ellenshaw (as a veteran of Powell and Pressburger, he needs no further comment), brought out of retirement especially for the movie, deserves due credit for the look of The Black Hole. Certainly, almost everything veering into the FX sphere is on the side of impressive; there are failings – a shuttle drive prior to the jaw-dropping rolling meteorite sequence, still an effects marvel – but when something doesn’t work, it’s invariably to be shared with other departments.
A particular laser zap sequence, at the end of which Vincent does a triumphant pirouette, has ghastly leaden staging, and there’s a general sense that Nelson is closer to emulating the tone – echoed in stodgy performance, costuming (the Logan’s Run designer) and camera work – of Space: 1999, rather than shooting for the movie stratosphere. Ironically, while I’ve been pointing to Disney stable and TV veterans as encouraging a less-than-flourishing ethic, DP Frank V Phillips work is entirely laudable, supporting the canvas of the effects rather than emphasising the joins (he previously worked on such Disneys as Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Herbie Rides Again and The Shaggy D.A., and while none of those exactly suggest flair, he was Oscar nominated for The Black Hole, as were Visual Effects). Also present, and offering significant dollar value via its swirling theme, is John Barry. A fine score.
You can see a certain tonal schizophrenia here – the uber-anthropomorphic robots versus the undead automata – but The Black Hole nevertheless finds a clear through-line from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (on which Ellenshaw also worked), with its mad Nemo genius. And from thence to later, more exclusively adult fare like Event Horizon and Sunshine; The Black Hole shares with those and Alien the discovery of a lost (haunted) space vessel. It has also been compared to Forbidden Planet, although that’s more for Prospero-esque intimations than any kind of Id.
The traces of the disaster genre are still here too. The casting is more in line with that genre than the SF going forward – Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowall, Anthony Perkins – and the general sense of escalation is not unlike that of a ship going down, even if it’s into a black hole rather than the depths of the sea.
For all that it was released two years after Star Wars, studios were still unsure how to cash in on the new SF cachet. It would be a few years yet until there was a steady annual flow of properties (fantasy would actually be better catered for). The big rip-offs (encouraging lawsuits) had been on TV, with Battlestar Galactica arriving in 1978 and lasting one season, quickly replaced by Larson’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (the pilot for which received a cinema release) and using much of the design work. Otherwise, 1979 saw shameless (Moonraker), serious (Alien) and this. 1978 had Invasion of the Body Snatchers. 1980 would yield – The Empire Strikes Back aside – Flash Gordon and Saturn 3 (and, at a stretch, Altered States).
Saturn 3 followed The Black Hole’s line in psychotic robots, of course. Maximilian is a silently depraved, seething red menace from our first sighting, and he remains a formidable piece of design. The argument that Vincent (McDowell) and Old Bob (Slim Pickens) are overly cartoonish is a legitimate one, to be sure, but I have to admit, I rather like them for that. Perhaps because there’s rarely a lapse (such as the one I mentioned) where the movie becomes kiddie-ish to accommodate their look. Maximilian is never less than imposing, and Vicent’s response, by turns brave and terrified, is legitimate. We only have to look at the grisly – all implied of course – exit of Dr Durant (Perkins) in a whirr of blades, pages and sparks, to know he means business.
And the same year’s Alien had its own psycho automaton, although Ash’s antic-ness is closer to Maximilian Schell’s Dr Hans Reinhardt’s megalomaniac quest for answers than playing the heavy (in that sense, Maximilian is closer to Darth Vader, functionally speaking). Schell is a powerhouse, and not just in terms of mad hair. You have to remind yourself he never played a Bond villain (and was quite eclectic in his movie roles; he’s particularly memorable in Cross of Iron, a few years prior).
No one else fares nearly as well. Perkins never quite finds a groove as the man who admires a genius. Robert Forster is the heroic captain, but can’t quite settle as a straight adventure player. Joseph Bottoms (of the Bottoms clan) looks the impetuous part, which means he’s serviceably annoying. Yvette Mimieux manages to be 38 going on 58 (and the party most poised to step onto Moonbase Alpha). Borgnine is the fully paid-up disaster movie vet, and he gives us the Carter Burke guy who turns rat and attempts to maroon our brave crew.
If the human element is lacking, through a combination of underwriting and underperforming (and underdirection), The Black Hole’s thematic components finish up feeling doubly direct as a result. The ending is a whole kettle of fish, obviously, but several of the movie’s presiding concepts are arresting in ways that inform what was said to be an undecided conclusion.
There’s obviously the disparaging view of The Black Hole’s ending: the makers didn’t know what they were doing, affirming its status as an ultimate failure. However, makers are often the least-qualified arbiters of a picture’s quality. The Black Hole takes in a host of influences for its climax, not least 2001, and it will further influence the likes of Brainstorm and Jacob’s Ladder. It’s unarguably unfinessed, but does that make it any less legitimate than Kubrick’s “manufactured” take on mankind’s destiny? Most noticeable in The Black Hole is how coherent it is in broaching the deathly influence of materialism.
Even its heroes have been inculcated and enslaved to the idea of the inevitably corporeal realm. In a sub-Deanna Troi twist, Dr Kate McCrae (Mimieux) is revealed as telepathically capable. Not in an ethereal, humanity-advancing way, however. Rather, her unique connection is with the machine mind. How this works, we can only speculate. What does seem evident, however, is that by 2130 – also the titular date of Dave Gibbons’ 1971 Quest: AD 2130 – the human mind-machine interface seems both feasible and desirable, aspirant and “remarkable”. One might argue this in Rudolf Steiner-ian terms as “inevitable”, part of the influx of Ahrimanic forces into the world, further embedding into our intelligences as manifest science takes an increasing hold. Steiner had it that such influences needed to be parsed, could not be escaped, and thus should be adapted purposefully rather than negatively (his perspective must obviously be couched in the knowledge of one whom the establishment enabled to have a voice, to whatever degree*).
This negative influence, if we’re to take Steiner at face value, is encapsulated in those humans who succumb to the influence of Dr Reinhardt. Evidently, he’s a doctor in both the Rockefeller and the Werner von Braun sense, which means he attacks the unknowable in a doggedly literal, tangible way; rather than through a genuine desire for enlightenment, he seeks merely for advancement. He has subjugated the souls of those who were his colleagues in the most entraining, servile sense, such that they have become – conveniently so, if you want to avoid having to rescue them – irreversible automatons (despite having the vestigial capacity to conduct funeral rites).
This is, undoubtedly, the stuff of horror movies, which is also – doubtless – why the reveal is treated as exposition rather than depicted explicitly. Old Bob tells Vincent the truth before Durant pulls back a mask, revealing a ghoulish individual sporting large contact lenses. Disney is wading up to its armpits in transhumanism here, and essentially arguing it includes good sides and bad sides. Thus, when it comes the climax, there are those transhumanists who are dragged down to the depths of materialist hell, and those who – and Vincent explicitly states this – disassociate themselves with the basest tendencies, and escape it, soaring with the angels.
The climax is, in some respects, a determinedly literal rendering of the afterlife, of heaven and hell, and the fate that befalls those who succumb to the lower – corporeal – instincts, even if not at their own behests (it is unclear who these minions are, shuffling over the underworld’s bridges and through its gullies; some have suggested Reinhardt’s victims, a cruel fate if so, but they are evidently those divested of an active soul or spirit).
And yet, the conclusion also manages to offer one of the most striking, unnerving images in cinema, suggesting those decrying the picture have ignored significant, salient parts of it. Reinhardt and Maximilian, perched atop a brimstone landscape, somehow merge, such that the machine becomes the vassal for the man, now possessed of roving, restless human eyes. This is the fate for those who accept the scientific-materialist impulse, even in the face of eternity (which, in context of the movie, the black hole represents). Thus, our heroes fly on, through cathedral structures and past angelic beings, and back into the comfort of a discernible (freemasonic) universe.
What’s interesting here is that Reinhardt is not exclusively, in his quest, a dogged materialist. Rather, it’s the devotion to his art that blinkers him. The Black Hole seems to be saying that hell is permanent imprisonment within the shell of the corporeal, and this results from detachment from source, as opposed to expressly rejecting the same. Appropriately, the movie was denounced for its scientific inaccuracy by Neil DeGrasse Tyson (at the time of production, illustrious “novelisation by” artisan Alan Dean Foster was so appalled by the screenplay’s errors that he called a meeting with Disney).
The Black Hole is very far from a great movie, and both the same year’s Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture do a better job in expressing their ideas – hell, so does Moonraker – but it shouldn’t be sniffed at for striving to achieve something more than a bog-standard SFX spectacle. It’s aiming for something more, touching on the spiritual sphere while appearing vague enough to deny all knowledge. You’ll never see the like from Disney subsequently.
*Addendum (26/10/22): It seems Steiner made Ahriman up, whether knowingly or inadvertently.