Space Oddity: The Black Hole

 

Now that Disney have bought Lucasfilm, will they plough ahead with their intended remake of Star Wars’ coat trailer, The Black Hole, or consign this imitators memory to the dustbin of history?

The success of Star Wars took Hollywood by surprise in 1977, and suddenly science fiction films were hip again. Disney dusted off elements of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and an earlier proposal from 1974 for a space set disaster film called Space Station One for this tale of a mad scientist, Dr Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell), and his mysterious vessel The Cygnus, perched on the edge of a black hole. Discovered by the crew of The Palomino, their initial awe and admiration for Reinhardt turns to horror when they discover he has turned his crew into automated zombies and intends to fly them all into the black hole for further scientific glory. Cue a desperate escape attempt and one bonkers ending, but more on that later.

The film is an odd mix. On the one hand it has obligatory cute robots, The Palomino’s V.I.N.CENT, and an older version of the same model, B.O.B, on The Cygnus. The design of these is interesting, apart from the ridiculous eyes which nowadays make them resemble the kids off South Park. V.I.N.CENT is voiced by Roddy McDowell, and has an aphorism for every occasion. He makes C3PO look positively modest by comparison. B.O.B is voiced by Slim Pickens, like an old time prospector. Interestingly, neither actor is credited. Perhaps Disney thought kids would think they were real?

It was a strange time for Disney, they were trying to adapt to a changing market. The film tries to tick all boxes, not always successfully. It went through several rewrites, ditching a lot of character back story and motivation because Disney felt it would slow the (already slow) pace. It has however, superb visual effects and production design that just about hold up today. Chief concept designer from the beginning was Robert T McCall, best known for his 2001: A Space odyssey poster. Very few of his designs made it into the final film however. Disney veteran Peter Ellenshaw took over most of the production design, including the cutesy design of V.I.N.CENT and B.OB, to McCall’s disgust. Ellenshaw’s design of The Cygnus may not look like it makes sense, but it is a very striking concept.

Ellenshaw concept of The Palomino and The Cygnus

Ellenshaw concept of The Palomino and The Cygnus

Unable to secure ILM, Disney created its own effects system, A.C.E.S (Automated Camera Effects Systems), enabling the models to move convincingly around the matte backgrounds. The film was nominated for Academy Awards for cinematography and visual effects. The black hole itself was achieved using a 1,000 gallon plexiglass tank and adding various coloured pigments to the swirling water. It was then backlit, photographed super fast then slowed down, and inserted into bluescreen backgrounds.

 

The crew of The Palomino are a bland mix. The noble, dull captain, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux (Kate), who has ESP, but only when the plot calls for it (even esper linking with the robots!); action man Joseph Bottoms; cadaver like Anthony Perkins; and civilian journalist Harry, played by stalwart Ernest Borgnine. Harry reflects the black hole “Looks like something out of Dante’s Inferno.” Not a reference many kids would get. Then there is Perkins’ death at the hands, or should I say blades, of Reinhardt’s Vader substitute robot, Maximilian. Max is a brilliant design, with spinning blades that flick out of his arms for no discernible reason, other than to eviscerate Perkins, probably because he got in his eyeline. He also has a face off with V.I.N.CENT, and shares a bizarre fate with his master on the other side of the black hole.

When the heroes are stuck on The Cygnus because cowardly Harry has stolen their own ship and crashed, the huge ship begins to be torn apart by both gravitational forces and a meteor shower. There then follows one the strangest endings since 2001: A Space Odyssey. As they pass beyond the event horizon, Reinhardt appears to be trapped within Maximillian. The camera pulls away from a close up of his face trapped within Max’s visor, to reveal the robot standing on a rocky promontory while The Cygnus crew shuffle along a fiery, purgatorial plain below. Linked telepathically by Kate, the remaining heroes pass through a chasm of gothic glass windows accompanied by an angelic choir, to emerge seemingly in orbit around a planet on the other side of the universe.

An alternate ending was mooted that would have had a slow pan out from Michaelangelo’s The Creation in the Sistine Chapel. Kate’s face would be in the background of this and she would also be looking up at it, implying the crew experienced the dawn of time and returned safely home. Huh?!

The film deserves neither great acclaim nor disdain. It is an interesting, if flawed, attempt at a SciFi spectacular, with some iffy science, good action, mild horror and mind bending philosophising. A special mention should be made for the excellent score by John Barry, a grand, sweeping piece that suitably conveys menace and mystery. It’s the best Star Trek film that never was. JJ Abrams could do worse than pilfer the basic idea behind this for a future Trek film.

 

Originally posted 2012-11-18 13:31:12. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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