B-MOVIE CRAPFEST: “The Black Hole” (1979)

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Happy Armistice Day!

As you’ll probably notice, “The Saturday Afternoon B-Movie Crapfest” is now simply the “B-Movie Crapfest.” This is because producing seven days worth of material, plus current show reviews has frankly burned me out. So I’m doing this feature when possible, and it’ll run on weekdays now. Just so you’ll know.

This movie made a huge impact on me when I was twelve. I saw it several times in the theaters, conning all my local adult relatives in to taking me at one point or another. I also attempted to con Kim Dipple into going with me, since I had a massive crush on her at the time, but no dice. She also wasn’t interested in going to see Xanadu with me (That was probably for the best), so my first date would have to wait for Christine Holden and “Flash Gordon” in 1980.

I didn’t get any face.

But as sad as that is, this movie held up better than I’d expected it to. It’s not great by any means, but it’s got a nice look and feel to it, some neat music, and it’s got a sort of timeless sixties feel to it, which was more than a decade out of date when it was made, but is no less timeless for its anachronism.* I’d been holding off watching it for a while for fear it would be utterly embarrassing, but it was a pleasant, occasionally moody almost-gothic doddle.

In one of his later reviews, Philip K. Dick referred to this movie as “Crap,” though he hadn’t seen it, and was going by reputation. Certainly he wasn’t wrong - I mean, hell, I’m covering it in “B-Movie Crapfest” for Pete’s sake, the title isn’t at all inapt - but it’s interesting that this movie actually touches - clumsily - on some of his own themes. Frankly, what this flick needed to make it a kickass cult film as opposed to a ‘what were they thinking?’ Disney oddity is Phil. If you kept exactly this same story, but had someone like him doing a final pass on it, it would’ve been brilliant.

PLAY BY PLAY

First we get this gorgeous, moody, funereal theme music by John Barry

After which we find the USS Palomino, a scientific scoutship heading back to earth in the year 2130. They’ve been out there 547 days, and are anxious to get home. The crew consists of Captain Dan Holland, Lt. Charlie Pizer, Dr. Kate McRae, Dr. Charles Durant, Harry Booth, a grizzled old reporter that you just know has a bottle of bourbon stashed somewhere, and V.I.N.C.E.N.T, the obligatory cute robot.

En rout they find a huge black hole, in all it’s really super-cool Technicolor glory. They’re about to simply move on when they discover a ship near the hole. It’s huge, and it’s not moving, which is seemingly impossible. They quickly identify it as the USS Cygnus, an American starship that went missing, presumed lost, twenty years earlier. They go in for a closer look, but run into trouble with the increasing gravity and take some damage. They reluctantly dock with the Cygnus, which suddenly comes alive while they were passing.

To their surprise they find the ship abandoned aside from some robots. Two kinds: stormtrooperish/Cylonish robots, and some gothic mirror faced (read: cheap) ones. Eventually they come to the massive control room, where they meet professor Hans Reinhardt, commander of the expedition. The Cygnus was ordered home twenty years prior, but never showed. Kate’s father was on the ship, conveniently enough for the plot. Reinhardt’s right-hand monster is a floating killbot named “Maximillian.”

Reinhardt tells them they took damage when making a pass by this black hole, and couldn’t leave, nor could they contact earth, nor receive messages. Reinhardt sent the crew back to earth in the lifeboats. He doesn’t even bother to feign emotion when he hears they never made it. He explains that he’s built an army of robots to fix and man the ship, and they’ve been doing antigravity research, with the intent of going into the black hole, through it, and coming out the other side into whatever awaits. Dr. Durrant is pretty excited by this, Booth - who casually knew Reinhardt years ago - is amused by it, everyone else regards it as crazy talk.

Holland et al decide to fix the ship and get out of there since something clearly isn’t right. Reinhardt accepts this, and even asks Durrant to take his notes back home just in case he doesn’t survive this whole “Probing the Cavern of the Unknown” dealie. V.I.N.C.E.N.T. meets up with an old robot named B.O.B, who informs him that actually the crew have been Zombiefied, and are the goth dudes wearing Cobra Commander’s mirrorshade mask. V.I.N.C.E.N.T. (Man, I’m already sick of typing that) warns Holland, who recalls the crew.

Alas, Durant has been seduced by Reinhardt’s ideas. Given that Durant is played by Tony Perkins, he could have easily been seduced by Reinhardt’s other qualities, but this time out it’s strictly a platonic seduction. No, no, dammit, no, “Plato” in this context just makes it even gayer. Sorry. Sorry. I’ve gone too far in the pursuit of a cheap joke.

But not really far enough to remove it.

Anyway, so Reinhardt clearly thinks that he’ll become effectively the god of whatever lies on the other side of the black hole, and Durant is pretty attracted by the promise of immortality for those who travel though. This doesn’t entirely make sense, and I get the feeling there’s a lot of diolog excised from the film or the script explaining this. Reinhardt *clearly* has a god complex, and Durant is clearly enthralled with the hirsute German’s madness. Yet when he tells Kate that the trip will be “A grand pilgrimage straight into what may be the mind of God,” it sort of comes out of nowhere since we’ve been told nothing beyond that on the other side of the hole, the normal rules of time and space might not apply, people may be immortal, and there’s at least a reasonable likelihood that there will be easy access to a Sams’ Club, or at least a Costco. Throwing “God” in there is a total non sequitur based of stuff mentioned up to this point. And yet it’s pretty easy to reconstruct the missing intellectual bits chopped for prudence sake.

Durant comes to his senses, and so Maximilian kills him in a non-graphic but surprisingly shocking fashion. Reinhardt is pretty upset at losing his disciple, and yells at Maximilian, but then begs Kate to protect him from the robot. She refuses, so he has her sent off to be Zombiefied.

The crew of the Palomino whip out the guns and the last third of the film is all running battles and Irwin Allen-styled destruction during which this music is played over and over and over again:

Which should be really cool, but there’s just something slightly off about the fanfare, you know? Too slow, I guess. Anyway:

Holland rescues Kate, and everyone tries to make their way back to the Palomino, but the Cygnus starts getting hit by debris that’s also getting sucked into the black hole, and is beat to hell. Harry, the reporter, attempts to steal the Palomino out of cowardice, leaving Holland and the rest behind, but Reinhardt blasts the smaller ship as it moves away, which turns out to be a bad plan as it careens out of control and whacks into the Cygnus, making a bad day even worse.

Holland decides to steal the Cyngnus’ probe ship, basically an experimental shuttle, which has Reinhardt’s anti gravity hoo-hah attached to it. Meanwhile, Reinhardt, realizing his ship is doomed, also decides to take the probe ship. He sends Maximilian to ready it, but then there’s a structural failure on the bridge, and Reinhardt gets buried in heavy, painful-looking crap. He lays there dying, begging Maximilian to help him, but the killbot just turns and leaves.

The surviving crew of the Palomino have made it to the probe ship, where they fight Maximilan. They manage to launch just as the Cygnus breaks up, but they can’t escape the black hole as the probe has been programmed to fly through it.

The probe goes in, and this is where it gets trippy: We see Reinhardt floating through space with wildly unkempt hair. (Seriously: the dude looks like he’s spent a couple decades alone - his personal grooming is pretty lax) He’s joined by Maximilian, and the two of them draw together in what looks uncomfortably like a loving embrace, then, suddenly the two of them merge, and we see Reinhardt’s terrified eyes looking out from/trapped within Maximilian’s body.

He/they/it are standing atop a rocky prominence in hell, surrounded by flames, through which march the damned souls of the Zombiefied crew.

No, really! Check it out for yourself:

A bright light appears in perdition and as we fly towards it, it resolves into a mirrored crystal gothic hallway, and as we fly down that, a woman in flowing robes flies past and guides us into a bright light. Suddenly the probe pops out of the black hole, and we see a planet in the distance.

The End

OBSERVATIONS

Here’s what I think is going on: Reinhardt wants to be God, or at least *a* god. He goes on about the end justifying the means, about how he’s grown tired of accolades. He even quotes the Genesis account of creation at one point. We know he wants eternal life (Who doesn’t?) and though the specific dialog has been removed, Durant’s “Mind of God” statement indicates that he and Reinhardt were talking about the metaphysical implications of their journey. His last words are “light.” He dies as they’re falling into the black hole, and suddenly he finds himself as evidently some version of the devil, lording his will over an army of the damned. He got what he wanted - he is something like the god of a world - but the reality of it is terrifying: Reinhardt basically sees what he’s been all along: a fearful and evil and self-serving tyrant, much like another more famous one who tried that same deal.

Though Durant is clearly enthralled by Reinhardt, I think we're supposed to believe he's a fundamentally better person, as he only speaks of visiting the mind of God, whereas the professor clearly wants more. Durant only wants to make a worshipful journey - he even calls it a pilgrimage at one point - which is inherently respectful. Reinhardt wants to storm the gates of heaven and take it over. Blasphemer versus the pious. The mad scientist who seeks to command versus the good scientist who's merely motivated by a desire to understand God's creation.

At first, Reinhardt appears to be crazy, and he's kind of maybe implying that since the Black Hole is a place where the fabric of reality is ripped, it's a gateway to the supernatural. This seems like madness through the the bulk of the film, but then it turns out to be true: I think we’re supposed to believe that Black Hole really *is* a gateway to the supernatural, but of course that realm is already claimed and populated. Holland and company are escorted back to their own universe, possibly Earth’s own solar system since they weren’t evil, and attempted to stop this whole mess from happening. And of course they weren’t dead yet.

The camera zooms in on Kate as they go into the black hole. They’ve established several times that she has an ESP link with V.I.N.C.E.N.T., so I guess we’re supposed to believe what we’re seeing is in some way a result of that, but it’s unclear.

I love the gloomy almost-gothic feel of this movie. The sets could be better, they’re a bit too clean and Spartan, no humanizing factors, no signage, no apparent bathrooms, no bright lights. It's huge, there's no handrails, no cozy bits, and the whole thing was clearly designed without a whit of concern for human psychology. This is an immense ship, probably close to two miles long, but the scale of the thing is neat, and the Cygnus is gorgeous. It's big and empty and quiet as a tomb, and kinda' low-key spooky. It’s deliberately supposed to be a kind of modern version of a Gothic cathedral. Which is appropriate, since it's poised at the edge of the netherworld, and Reinhardt intends to use this temple for his apotheosis.

There are a number of quiet moments that get across the immense size of the thing, and how empty it is. My personal favorite has Holland finding the crew's quarters, which stretch off as far as the eye can see. Endless rows of what look a bit like monk's cells, affording nearly no privacy, still showing the personal touches of the long absent crew: Closets full of uniforms, posters and pictures on the walls and desks, but even these oddly uniform and organized. It's a quiet, sad walking-through-the-tombs scene.

The miniature use for filming was huge, and made of glass and brass, but didn’t survive filming. When lit up, it looks like no other ship in the history of SF, and it is really beautiful.

When the movie came out, I remember someone grousing in Starlog about “How can the Palomino, which was launched twenty years after the Cygnus, look like it was launched twenty years before?” Indeed, it’s got a deliberate skylab thing going on, design-wise. The obvious reason - though never stated in the film - is money. Harry repeatedly says that the Cygnus was the most expensive scientific boondoggle in history, and was determined to be a total failure. The Palomino is clearly a more cost-conscious survey ship.

Reinhardt is supposed to be a cross between Captain Nemo and Werner von Braun. Maximilian Schell kind of sleepwalks his way through the part. Good actor, not trying. In fact, the acting all the way through is pretty average-at-best. The real standouts here are Tony Perkins as Durant, and Robert Forster as Captain Holland. He’s not the most obvious casting choice for a part like that, but he’s got a quiet strength thing going on. It works. I also like how he and Kate are clearly a couple, but they never play that up, nor refer to it openly: A furtive glance here, a stolen touch there. When Holland rescues Kate from a lobotomy, I like that he doesn’t kiss her on the lips, he just holds her close until she calms down, and gives her a peck on the cheek as much to settle his own nerves as to reassure her. Nice, breif touch in basically a kids film.

They actually try to simulate zero gravity in the movie, and God bless 'em for it! I like how they roll the cameras to emphasize that, and they have the actors in wire rigs through much of the first act. It's low tech, but very effective.

Much of the movie has the Palomino crew scrambling about on the outside of the Cygnus without space suits. How is this possible? I once heard someone connected to the movie saying that the disk of matter falling into the hole sort of piled up and took a while to fall in, like the sands in an hourglass, and this included gases as well. He said that effectively the black hole had a temporary and unstable atmosphere.

I’m not sure what was going on with Reinhardt’s sudden fear of Maximilan, nor why the two of them merged in hell. I assume there was probably an explanation of this the excised bits.

V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and B.O.B. are borderline-obnoxiously cute. I’d forgotten how cute they were. That said, I do like that they have perfectly human, and quite divergent personalities. Roddy McDowell does a good job with V.I.N.C.E, and Slim Pickens does acceptably with B.O.B, though the puppeteering team kinda’ make him overact a bit. (Can a robot overact?) I do like how committed to the robots the script is, treating them like people, and while they’re adorable, the script and the characters never make any reference to this. I like that they were willing to take a chance with scenes that are essentially puppets fighting each other. It doesn’t entirely work, but it’s a neat try.

S.T.A.R. is kind of useless, you know? Conspicuously set up and removed in one sequence. Pointless, really.

V.I.N.C.E.N.T. has four arms, generally retracted. The script called for him to be carrying pistols in his hands, but that turned out to be really hard for the FX and Puppeteers, so they decided he had internal guns.

The ESP link between Kate and V.I.N.C.E.N.T. is clever, even Reinhardt thinks so. I've never seen it done in a movie before or since.

The Black Hole itself was an interesting special effect: They took an above-ground pool, put lights along the interior sides, filled it with water, and had a huge propeller at the bottom. The propeller would create a whirlpool, which was lit from below and the sides, and the effects crew would dump buckets of paint into it. They’d get between 30 and 40 seconds of useful footage before the paint started hitting the prop, then they’d have to turn it off, clean out the tank, and start again. These segments were then edited together. In some scenes, they actually pushed the camera down into the whirlpool!

This movie was part of a batch of films Disney made in 1979 to try and capture the teen/adult market after a decade of unambitious kiddie films. All of them were PG. One of the other films was "The Watcher in the Woods," and there was a teen sex comedy I've forgotten the name of, and one other. The experiment proved a guarded failure, and the profanity and stuff reflected badly on the company in public opinion. This resulted in Disney creating Touchstone the next year, specifically to make and distribute non-traditional Disney fare. Their first huge hit was "Splash."

So: bottom line: There's some clever theological shenanigans going on here inside of a plot that is basically yet another variation on the Prometheus myth (IE: Don't piss off the gods, or they will kick your ass for all eternity), but it's hampered a bit by what appears to be a lack of nerve on the part of the producers, who clearly wanted an action flick rather than a smart action flick, and neutered it. It's almost brilliant, but you have to look for it.

This is one of the few movies that I'd actually be interested in as a remake.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

Socons: No. Everyone else: Probably. In the end, it upholds your basic Judeo-Christian framework, and is actually kind of respectful. That's a tough act for S.F.

*- Yeah, yeah, I know: you don’t even begin to know where to tell me what’s wrong with that sentence. Still, you get my meaning right?

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