Tuesday, April 21, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Black Hole (1979)

"There is an inexorable force in the cosmos where time and space converge. A place beyond man's vision...but not his reach."

-from the trailer for
The Black Hole
(1979).

In 1979, in the wake of Star Wars, Walt Disney Studios released an outer-space adventure called The Black Hole directed by Gary Nelson. It was the first movie in Disney history to be rated PG rather than G for general audiences. And it faced direct competition in theaters from the likes of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), the long-awaited revival of the popular sci-fi TV series.

Reviews at the time were generally negative. Roger Ebert gave the The Black Hole two stars out of four, found the film essentially a talky melodrama, and noticed similarities to Lucas's blockbuster of 1977. The word from science-fiction magazines and writers was far less gracious. "Poisonous" might be a better descriptor. Even twenty years after the film's theatrical release reviewers were still deriding the movie in articles with titles like "Does The Black Hole still suck?"


The main point of contention for most science-based writers appears to be The Black Hole's flagrant ignorance about the laws of physics (at least as we understand them today.) For instance, there seemed to be a breathable atmosphere in outer space (at the mouth of the black hole...) during the film's fiery finale. And then there is Kate McCrae's (Yvette Mimieux's) famously mangled line of dialogue early on insisting that the Palomino and Cygnus vessels shared the same mission: "to find habitable life" in space. What? Technically, the learned scientist claims to be looking for "life" that people can inhabit or live in. And obviously that makes no sense. Had Kate simply said they were in search of "habitable worlds" or new "life forms," this wouldn't have been a concern. But there you have it. The Black Hole didn't do itself any favors by featuring a nonsensical line that should have been cut.

Despite such problematic moments, The Black Hole has survived and endured for some three decades on the affection of fans, mostly ones like me, I suspect, who first viewed the film in childhood and never forgot it. But is there more to The Black Hole than the inescapable gravitational pull of nostalgia? Exactly what are the film's merits? And why, on its 30 year anniversary, does it remain such a polarizing and influential film?

First off, a brief synopsis of this dark space fantasy: The Black Hole dramatizes the story of the Palomino, a small Earth space craft charged with seeking out and discovering the aforementioned "habitable life" in space. On mission day 547, however, the exploratory craft commanded by Captain Dan Holland (a steady, impressive Robert Forster) discovers something else of interest: the largest black hole ever detected by man. As the ship's ESP sensitive empath, Dr. Kate McCrae reminds her shipmates, black holes are such powerful forces that they may some day "devour the universe itself." Dr. Durant (Anthony Perkins) notes that nothing, not even light can escape from one.

Intriguingly, the ship's robot, V.I.N.Cent (Vital Information Network Centralized) detects a stationary object near the black hole: the shrouded silhouette of a vast spaceship. The crew soon recognizes the craft as Space Probe One, The Cygnus...the costliest fiasco in America's space program history. The Cygnus's eccentric commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) -- "one of the greatest space scientists of all time" -- refused Mission Control's recall order and the Cygnus has not been seen from or heard from since.

Now, the quiescent Cygnus sits at the lip of the swirling black hole, miraculously resisting the pull of the devouring maw. After taking on some minor damage, the Palomino lands on the Cygnus and the crew comes to learn the secrets of Reinhardt and his vast "death ship." Palomino's science officer, Dr. Durant, becomes obsessed with Reinhardt's dream of traveling inside the black hole and learning the secret of creation....literally voyaging into the Mind of God. Meanwhile, journalist Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) believes he's stumbled upon the story of the century.

Soon, V.I.N.Cent learns from another 'bot, Old B.O.B., that Reinhardt is insane; and that he lobotomized his mutinous human crew, eradicating their will and leaving the men and women of Cygnus mindless, spiritless automatons, essentially. Also, Reinhardt has created a devilish red robot, Maximillian, to help him carry out his plans. The survivors of the Palomino attempt to escape from Reinhardt, Maximillian and his Sentry army, even as the Cygnus sets a fateful course for the black hole. The escape attempt fails, and characters good and evil meet their fates inside the strange, mystical forces of the black hole.

A Manichean Pilgrimage into the Mind of God
Mani was a Persian philosopher of antiquity (210-176 AD) who contended in his writings and teachings that that the universe was split into two opposing natures: Darkness and Light. He furthermore suggested that these warring forces fought their battles in the terrain of the human being. Man's body -- the material world -- was the world of sin and darkness. And man's soul -- his spirit side -- represented the Light. Roiling inside all of us is that never-ending conflict between these forces.

As is the case in the 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica (particularly the episodes involving Count Iblis), in The Black Hole, viewers can detect a number of Manichean ideas expressed in the dramatis personae and the narrative situations. This is especially so during the metaphysical journey through the black hole in the finale, a strange religious twist on the trippy denouement of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mani believed that Evil had many faces...but that at all those faces were part and parcel of the same Evil, not different ones. In The Black Hole, we see Maximillian and Hans Reinhardt as two faces of Evil (mechanical and human, respectively) and in their nightmarish last scene, these two evils literally join to become one: Reinhardt is subsumed inside the robot demon Maximillian. Hauntingly, we see Reinhardt's frightened human eyes peering out from the machine's mechanical shell. This is our last close-up view of the characterrs, of twin evils welded together.

This strange inhuman union occurs inside the black hole, in a realm that resembles a Boschean vision of Hell, with hopeless souls (the spirit-less humanoids) trudging across a Taratrus-like underworld of sorts as flames lick at the bottom of the frame. High atop a hellish, craggy mountain, the Maximillian/Reinhardt Hybrid rules, like Milton's Lucifer. In keeping with Manichean beliefs, this is visibly the realm of physical things: bodies, mountains, fire...materialism. It is no coincidence either that the production design of the film has colored Maximillian, Dr. Hans Reinhardt and Hell itself in crimson tones. This bond of red -- whether Reinhardt's uniform, Maximillian's coat of paint, or the strange illuminating light of Hell itself -- connects all of them as "the One Evil," not separate evils, conceived by the ancient philosophy.

Contrarily, the four survivors of the Palomino expedition (Holland, McCrae, Pizer and V.I.N.C.ent) find not Hell in at the event horizon, but rather a celestial cathedral of sorts. Their vessel, the probe ship, is guided through this realm of the spirit (not the body), by another soul...a white guardian angel of sorts. The protagonists temporarily seem to exit the world of the body, and the film reveals their thoughts -- past and present -- "merging" during a brief, strange scene involving slow-motion photography.

What this scene appears to portend is that the three humans -- and robot (!) -- have been judged by the cosmic, Manichean forces inside the black hole and found to be above "sin," hence their journey through the long, Near Death Experience-style "light at the end of the tunnel" and subsequent safe re-emergence back into space. Instead of remaining trapped in a physical Hell of sorts (like the Reinhardt/Maximillian hybrid), the probe ship and those aboard pass through the gauntlet of "spirituality" where nothing -- not even sin -- can escape, and arrive safely in what appears to be a new universe. The closing shot of the film finds the probe ship on course for a giant white sun...a beacon of light and hope, and perhaps even a new beginning for the human race (and again, robot-kind...).

Reinhardt's final utterance before entering the crucible of the black hole is simply a mumbled..."all light." This might be an allusion to William Wordsworth's poem, An Evening Walk Addressed to A Young Lady: "all light is mute amid the gloom," It may be Reinhardt's (too late...) recognition of the fact that just as he has squelched out all light in the souls of his crew; so will the black hole mute out his spiritual light...sending him into utter, eternal darkness.

The climactic and symbolic final moments of The Black Hole -- long a subject of debate among the movie's detractors and admirers -- fits the tenets of Manicheism perfectly, positing for us the metaphor of devouring black hole as a spiritual testing ground or judgement day: one where humans understand that the secret of creation...is man's spirituality; his sense of morality. So the use the movie ultimately puts the black hole to is not scientific at all, but rather spiritual, religious. For some viewers, that may simply be a bridge too far in belief. For other's, it's a recognition, perhaps, that man must ultimately reckon with himself, especially when facing the Mind of God.

20,000 Leagues Into Space: Jules Verne Redux
Another way to appreciate The Black Hole is as a virtual compendium of Jules Verne concepts and characters (as they appeared in both literature and film history...), only translated from the sea into the realm of outer space. For instance, Hans Reinhardt is clearly a futuristic version of Captain Nemo. Like his literary predecessor, Reinhardt is a figure associated with a magnificent and highly-advanced vessel. In this case, that vessel is Cygnus not Nautilus.

But consider that both Reinhardt and Nemo also grant their "guests" (prisoners?) an extensive tour of those ships, with special attention paid to technological innovation. In the book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Nemo created a ship that ran on electricity; in the film it was atomic energy that powered Nautilus. In The Black Hole, Reinhardt discusses his creation of a limitless power source called "Cygnium" after his beloved ship. This is the thing that allows his ship to resist the forces of the black hole.

Furthermore, both Nemo and Reinhardt are largely defined in terms of their ingenious ability to live off the resources at hand; off the sea or off outer space, as it were. In both 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and The Black Hole, the Nemo figure explains this fact in a dining room setting to his guests. In the former tale, Nemo serves Aronnax and the others delicacies acquired from the abundant sea. In the latter narrative, Reinhardt discusses his personal hydroponic garden, which has grown all of his food. Again, it's interesting that both dining rooms (on the Nautilus and Cygnus respectively...) genuflect to the traditions of the past in terms of decor (candelabras, crystal glass ware a naval telescope, statuary...) while the remainder of rooms on each ship suggest a technological future.

As in Mysterious Island (1961) and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), The Black Hole's screenplay explicitly debates the essential, conflicted and perhaps Manichean nature of Hans Reinhardt with the very words we've seen utilized before in relation to Nemo: "insane" and "genius," particularly. Similarly, like Nemo, Reinhardt is a man who has left mankind behind, dwelling in a realm of exile. Yet there's an important distinction here: Reinhardt is not an anti-hero like Nemo. He is not a hero of any kind. Reinhardt is actually an egomaniac who has robbed his crew of their very souls in his quest to probe the mysteries of God. Reinhardt is so narcissistic in fact, that he has forced his soulless crew members to wear reflective, mirrored face-plates over their own visages. What does this mean in practice? When Reinhardt looks at his crew, he sees only his own face -- reflected back. This is arrogance and vanity far beyond anything which Nemo ever aspired to or considered.

It seems clear that if Mysterious Island transforms Captain Nemo into a more palatable, rational 1960s "man of peace," Reinhardt is a post-Watergate, post-Three-Mile-Island, post-Vietnam figure of corruption, avarice and madness. He is Nemo, perhaps, but Nemo skewed heavily to the dark side, instead of to the light.

The remaining characters in The Black Hole also seem to have distinct corollaries with those found in Verne's works (literary and cinematic). Most clearly, Alex Durant is a dedicated man of science and one in "search of his own greatness." He thus seems a skewed version of the noble Professor Aronnax (another French name...) from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Aronnax clearly boasted a healthy moral compass, however, and by comparison Durant seems mesmerized, star-struck and overcome by the dreams and accomplishments of Reinhardt. Again, we see a character from Verne's universe skewed to the dark side. This is appropriate given the increasingly low public approval of scientists as the 1970s wore on.

Harry Booth is very much the same story. A journalist, he could very well be the "war correspondent" Spillit from the movie Mysterious Island, only once more decidedly tweaked to seem more negative: this time emerging as a treacherous coward. Both Mysterious Island and The Black Hole feature confrontational scenes in which the Captain Nemo figure reveals his disdain for the reporter. Perhaps it is because the reporter, in both situations, represents the interests of the population back home and their "earthly" concerns. The "unwashed" masses.

The similarities between Verne's world and the world of The Black Hole don't end with character descriptions, either. Consider that a crew funeral plays an important role in both the Fleischer version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the Disney space film. In 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the underwater funeral is the first thing Aronnax sees of Nemo's nature, crew and world. In The Black Hole, Holland spies a humanoid funeral and garners the first clue about the nature of those "robots." The dangerous black hole itself seems to represent the whirlpool, the deadly maelstrom that destroyed the Nautilus in Verne's literary masterpiece, serving the same function in The Black Hole.

Finally, it is impossible not to notice that Reinhardt and Nemo share very similar death scenes in both The Black Hole and the movie version of Mysterious Island. In The Black Hole, Reinhardt is crushed by a falling view screen, and we see him die with his (bulging...) eyes wide open. In Mysterious Island, Nemo also dies with eyes open, after a crushing beam has fallen on his torso.

While one or two of these Verne-style visuals, narrative points, characterizations or story traits might simply prove a coincidence, there is such a preponderance of them in The Black Hole that it becomes incumbent on us to view the film as almost literally a post-Star Wars adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. One that has updated the "fantasy" setting from the bottom of the sea to the most distant reaches of outer space; one that has re-fashioned the anti-hero Nemo as a more cynical, more corrupt 1970s-style figure. One that has replaced atomic age features of self-annihilation, with the 1970s "Me Generation" fear of personal oblivion and spiritual malaise.

Implications:

I believe it was Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country who discussed the idea that many of the greatest works of art leave some sort of "gap" for the percipients to fill in for themselves.

When we listen to music, our mind supplies the images. When we gaze at a great painting, our mind fills in movement or "life," perhaps. And in great, artistic films (like The Birds, for instance), some gaps in motive, narration and explanation are left open so that we -- the viewer -- can bridge that gulf with our own imagination. We thus engage the material not with passive disinterest, but with active thought.

For all of its ignorance regarding science and physics, The Black Hole is positively filled with bizarre, almost throwaway moments of remarkable imagination and implications. For instance, late in the film, after Maximillian has disemboweled Dr. Durant with his spinning propeller blades, Dr. Reinhardt approaches Kate with extreme fear -- and insanity -- in his eyes. He begs her in a whisper (so that his machine minion cannot overhear...): "Protect me from Maximillian."

There is no explicit follow-up to this moment; no real mention of it later in the film, just this urgent, persuasive conversational alleyway (lensed in medium shot) that suggests -- for a fraction of a second -- that Reinhardt fears his own Frankenstein monster. That it is the hovering, scarlet cyclops named Maximillian who rules the Cygnus, not the fallible, eccentric human being. It is as though Maximillian is Reinhardt's id, only separated from him, acting of his own volition.

We might extrapolate that this single line of dialogue helps better to explain Reinhardt's final disposition -- his personal Hell -- though no explicit mention is made of it. Inside the black hole, he is forced to join with Maximillian, to go inside the beast and dwell there for eternity. We know from that single, odd line of dialogue that Reinhardt fears such a thing...a monster he can no longer control...but that controls him. Where many people believe that in death we leave our bodies for non-corporeal spirit forms, the Manichean truth of Reinhardt's afterlife is that the Darkness has prevailed and he will be trapped in a metal shell for eternity. There is no ascension for him because of his sins. We know this later when we hear (inside the probe ship), his repeated and tortured calls for "help."

There are several odd little moments like this one in The Black Hole that are worthy of mention and analysis. Many critics picked on V.I.N.Cent -- the Cicero quoting platitude machine -- as some kind of R2-D2 rip-off. They complained about his mode of communication too.

Throughout the film, the robot speaks almost entirely in proverb and platitudes, throwing out one after the other in clearly...mechanical fashion. You can look at V.I.N.C.ent's mode of expression as a result of bad writing if you wish, or as something a bit more interesting and unique. That V.I.N.C.ent apparently sees his world in terms of metaphors suggests that he possesses some sense of understanding of life beyond the literal.

Again, this uncommented-upon touch plays into the ending of the film: the robot boasts a "soul," apparently, and survives the crucible of judgment inside the black hole since he -- a machine -- is put there on equal footing with Dan, Kate and Charlie Pizer...and we are privy to his thoughts.. Even his throwaway line about disliking the company of robots seems to indicate that V.I.N.C.ent for all his lamentable cartoonish qualities...is more than mere robot.

Kate is able to communicate telepathically with the robot, another indicator, perhaps, that he is more than the sum of his parts. And that brings us to another interesting line of dialogue laden with implications: while on the Cygnus V.I.N.C.ent reveals the specifics of something called "Project Black Hole," a governmental operation which sent robots to the event horizon and telepathically recorded their responses to the strange events occurring there. Again, this idea has no play in the remainder of the film, but it raises all kinds of notions. Are robots the slaves of man in the future envisioned by The Black Hole? Or are they an artificial life form slowly developing sentience? And if Project Black Hole existed a long time ago as V.I.N.C.ent indicates, then did Reinhardt know of it? Did he actually create Maximillian to house his body (knowing a robot could survive there...) in case of emergency? Was Maximillian's armor Reinhardt's second fallback measure, behind the probe ship?

Yes, it's very easy to look at many moments in The Black Hole as being silly "fun with robots," or other such nonsense, but if you go back to my argument about Manichiesm, you might see how Maximillian symbolizes the realm of the body/darkness and V.I.N.C.ent seems to evolve beyond that, achieving the level of the spiritual/Light.

Another thing that The Black Hole does remarkably well is hint at the larger universe of the characters. You see that in V.I.N.C.ent's casual mention of Project Black Hole, but elsewhere too. Early in the film, the crew of the Palomino attempts to identify the Cygnus on a holographic projector, and we are treated to a litany of missing ships. Arcturus 10 from Great Britain, Liberty 7 from the U.S., Russian Series 5 Experimental Space Station, and the French Sahara Module, etc. Eventually the crew hits on the Cygnus, but not before we get a sense of how "dangerous" outer space can be in this particular universe.

This is a Death Ship: The Black Hole as Childhood Heart of Darkness


When I watched The Black Hole again recently, my wife Kathryn turned to me and noted with astonishment that it was not a kid's movie at all. Well, in some ways it is and in some ways it is not. Some of the heroics seem juvenile at points, and certainly the Sentry robots have a cartoony aspect to their movement and behavior.

Yet part of the film's longevity, I believe, derives from the fact that it possesses this creepy, almost gothic texture of dread and terror. The humanoids are like faceless medieval monks, and you can't deny Maximillian is deliberately a devil in red armor. The Cygnus itself is a vast, empty, flying dutchman of ghosts, loaded with mysteries (like limping robots, and eerily empty crew quarters...) which lurk around every corner.

The Black Hole even opens in macabre fashion, with an early digital representation of a black hole -- here something like a neon green spider-web leading to a kind of inescapable funnel. We spin inexorably towards this cosmic whirpool faster and faster, all to the portentous strains of John Barry's Hermannesque score. The stage is thus set for dark fantasy.

The creep factor finds it's fullest voice in a scene set in the Cygnus control tower. Dr. Durant removes a humanoid's face-plate and in horrifying close-up we see briefly what a human looks like without his soul. The face we see is drawn, dry, dessicated; awake but unseeing. It's a gruesome visage...and certainly nightmare fodder for children. And that moment is followed almost immediately by the sequence in which Maximilllian brutally slices and dices Dr. Durant (and Perkins' reaction is particularly effective.) Finally, the end of the movie takes us on a tour through Hell. Sci-fi movies don't get much darker than that.

So while it would be foolish and counterproductive to deny "nostalgia" as a reason for remembering The Black Hole fondly 30 years later, I must also wonder if the movie's creepy, unsettling nature is the thing that, over the years, has brought many of us (adults) back to the movie a second, even third time. Like we're finally trying to pin the experience of watching the movie down. Finally trying to see if it was as horrifying as we remember. If there was more there, perhaps, than the critics crying Star Wars rip-off told us.

I've talked a great deal about philosophy here, about literary and filmic antecedents too. There is, however, one final and basic -- one very concrete -- reason to appreciate The Black Hole: it is beautifully realized. The look of the spaceships, for instance, is fascinating and original. These are not the streamlined vesssels of Star Trek, nor the industrial tanker trucks of Alien (1979). Heck, they aren't even the lived-in junky ships of Star Wars. The Palomino, Cygnus and Probe Ship are all utilitarian in design, but in a way quite different from the eagle workhorse of Space:1999. I've never seen this particular look replicated in another film since, and it helps to grant The Black Hole an identity -- an aura -- all its own.

Also, in an age long before digital effects and CGI, The Black Hole features flying robots in virtually every scene, not to mention several scenes of "weightlessness" aboard the Palomino and Cygnus. These moments are painstakingly crafted and hold up pretty well after thirty years. Again, real life elements had to be rigged with wires and other tricks to work on-set. Not fixed in "post." Not green-screened in later. The level of care and attention to production design, special effects and miniatures is more than commendable...it's amazing.

Again, I wish I had the time and space to comment on all the visual flourishes and extravagances in The Black Hole. Just one more: The Cygnus -- a vast ship -- is traversible front to back only by a pod car that rockets through a transparent tube running the exterior perimeter of the vessel. Again, this is a detail a cheaper, less ambitious film would have certainly foregone. But not here: instead, we see Holland, Kate and the others riding this railcar at several points, the totality of outer space and the Cygnus outside the walls. Everything, from the vast control tower of Cygnus, to the vessel's mid-section (torn apart by a smoldering asteroid...) is rendered in such convincing, highly-detailed and awesome terms that you can't believe it wasn't done by computer. The integration of miniature and live action components is also astounding, and often seamless.

We can laugh at The Black Hole and some of the basic, stupid mistakes it makes, but we might have a better sense of how successful it really is simply by tallying the influences it has had on newer productions. Consider the likes of Event Horizon (1997), which posits a kind of Hell Dimension not entirely unlike what we see depicted inside the black hole here. Or consider Supernova (2000) with Robert Forster (!) and another endangered crew, or even Danny Boyle's brilliant Sunshine (2007), which concerns a lost mission to the sun and a madman's desire to alone touch the face of God there. These movies -- some of them quite good -- owe more than a little to 1979's much maligned Disney effort.

It's all too easy in the Internet Age to be dismissive of films just to show off how cool you are; to be snarky about the ways time has rendered old movies "cheesy." In the case of The Black Hole, the film's flaws are obvious (and perhaps legion...), but the film's strengths are worthy of excavation and praise too. To paraphrase a character in the film, The Black Hole walks "a tightrope;" if not between "genius" and "insanity," then certainly between "genius" and "banality." If you're looking at this movie as a Manichean exercise between darkness and light, then you can -- for at least a few hours -- entertain the "genius" part of that equation.

32 comments:

  1. Great review! This is why I love your blog; bringing that sort of insight to such a flawed movie. Makes me realize I shouldn't have dismissed it off-hand.

    I recognize that "Me generation" has become a sort of shorthand for the failure of what started our as the "WE generation" but I will point out again that those ideals were beaten out of them - hence the loss of faith seen reflected in the characters played by Schell, Perkins, and Borgnine, resulting in the later "Feh Gneteration" and the current "ME!!! Generation". Hmm, those three characters all have parallels in the 50's "The Thing".

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  2. Anonymous9:21 AM

    I could care less about the scientific inaccuracies or a botched line of dialogue, the reason I dislike this movie is that it is terribly boring. Also, it has some of the worst music I've ever heard in a movie. Just awful.

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  3. DLR:

    Thank you for that nice comment about me and the blog. I really appreciate that. I'm glad you enjoyed the review.

    best,
    JKM

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  4. Anonymous, I most heartily disagree about the music - the main theme is hauntingly beautiful. I saw this film for the first time only this year, so did not bring any late 70's expectations along for the ride. I found it enchanting and gorgeous. What you call boring, I call refreshing. I appreciate movies that take their time, as opposed to the rapid-fire, motion-sickness-inducing, music video style stuff that's so ubiquitous now. Cinema is supposed to be a visual experience first and foremost, and this film delivers on that front.

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  5. John, your words warm my heart. The Black Hole was a love of mine as a kid, and as I grew older I saw many more facets to this film which keep it as one of my all time greats. To be honest, much of the "scientific error", particularly in a medium of science fiction, never jars that badly. I've always found it amusing how people can find the idea of Pizer floating off in an air bubble at the end of the movie stupid (ignoring the fact that they were meant to have space suits in that scene), yet accept the artificial gravity presented throughout the film. Sure, it's referenced within the script, but is it any more ludicrous to imagine that the dissolving gravity pocket might create an air bubble? Such grumbles (and I've seen this grumble made several times) so vacuous.

    What attracted me to the movie is its 2001 grace for the first couple of acts and then its bold trip into Star Wars gunfights. Seemed a neat fusion. If a film was either of those tonal elements in its entirety it would have been half the film the Black Hole managed.

    I thought the Palomino was a great design as well - functional with a feeling of weightlessness and clunkiness at the same time. Great effects.

    And the comparisons with Star Wars have always been ludicrous. The film's failing is its lack of Star Wars to make it marketable to the 70s demographic. While the film offers rays of hope, it is a dark film as you've said, and I love it for that.

    So glad to see such a relevant and well constructed essay on this film finally make it to the net. My hero. :)

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  6. hprice5:22 PM

    Fabulous review. I too saw The Black Hole when it first came out, and I also bought the novelisation - mainly I think to try to get my head around the astonishing ending. It still has to me one of the darkest endings of any sci-fi flick ... and was to my young eyes, at the time, very very scary ... and very very strange.

    The sight of Reinhardt's eyes peering out through Maximillian's body is still haunting and terrifying in equal measures. Urghhh ... why I never had nightmares after seeing this I will never know?

    And the score?? John Barry's sweeping score is one of the great sci-fi soundtracks no question about that (don't let anyone tell you otherwise). Its epic and fits the story like a glove.

    Oh ... and it isn't boring. Far from it. Its majestic, and it takes its time. It doesn't explain every single thing. Some things are left to you to work out.

    Anyway thanks for the really great review. I can now watch it again knowing that I wasn't mad to love it at the time ...

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  7. Gatchamandave8:59 AM

    However whilst your article is insightful, well-thought out and convincing in the main, John, it is regretably not entirely thorough. For you have missed out the one element in the film that prevents this on the whole worthy film from joining the pantheon of greats.

    For in among manichean meditations, dark transfers of soul between man and machine and the possibilities of death transcended - we have a robot with the voice of Slim Pickens.

    And not just any robot with the voice of Slim Pickens but a broken down, pyschologically damaged, kicked about and possibly alcoholic robot with the voice of Slim Pickens.

    A robot with the voice of Slim Pickens who's hand shakes so much he can no longer shoot straight. A robot with the voice of Slim Pickens who gets the only death scene in cinema funnier than that of Shelly Winters onboard the good ship Poseidon.

    A robot who every time he opens his picken mouth kicks the film square in the nuts.

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  8. Gatchaman Dave:

    Your comment gave me a good chuckle!

    I can't (and wouldn't dare...) deny that The Black Hole has some moments/aspects that are well...juvenile. You are right to point out an aspect of the silliness (and I also include the moment in which smoke comes out of Captain STAR's ears, essentially).

    The film has problems, yes, but merits too. Not a perfect film, but I maintain an interesting one.

    Thanks for the comment,
    JKM

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  9. Very, very well written review, and a pleasure to read. I only saw this movie once in childhood, and your review has brought it all back. Even as a child I had a problem with the "sciencelessness" of it. Yet I always remembered it, and periodically reflected on its scenes. Reading this post has made me feel that there may have been some reasons for that. :)

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  10. Anonymous3:10 PM

    It's gratifying to see that others remember The Black Hole as fondly as I. The fact that it keeps getting re-released on every home video format is an indicator that this film will endure.

    One thing I want to add to your analysis. Being the compleat nerd, I eventually tracked down and bought the film's novelization, written by the always-excellent Alan Dean Foster. There's a part of that novelization that has always stuck with me.

    Dan Holland of the Palomino is exploring the Cygnus’ crew quarters, investigating room after room. He pieces together what happened: when the Cygnus was launched, the crew were given separate rooms for privacy over a long voyage. But, the farther the ship went into space, the more the crew abandoned their individual rooms and started sharing space, eventually ending up in a cramped barracks configuration. Holland surmised that they grasped the immense loneliness of space and drew together, seeking human comfort against the void.

    That always struck me as a powerful piece of writing. Years later, watching Star Trek: Voyager’s crew in a similar situation, I hoped we would see something similar happen with the Voyager crew, but alas…

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  11. Hell Knight11:47 PM

    This movie may seem cheesy by today's standards, but I love this movie to no end. When I think back on my childhood, this and 2 other movies always come to mind.

    I'd read a comment somewhere that the musical score was what made this movie so great. I couldn't agree more. I also had no idea there had been a soundtrack released. I found and downloaded it today. I'll admit I got somewhat emotional listening to it.

    And now I discovered that there is a remake in the works....I honestly don't know what to feel about that.

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  12. Very nice, indepth review. As a kid I didn't get a chance to see it on The Big Screen-though I wanted to. But I remember lunch boxes aplenty. When I picked up the lasted DVD, I admit the 1st time I found it slow. But after the 2nd time, I enjoyed it so much I've seen it at least 6 more times. Fact is. It is beautiful visually. Nice costumes. Great cast/acting. Especially Capt. Holland and HcHale's Navy star (Ha Ha). Dr. McCrare is wonderful. But I kinda hoped they would have a hint of romance that obviously was between her & Holland Perkins has moments when his Bates stare is present. Like when the probe lights are scanning the Cynuss. But Schell is great-a handsome nut and Maximillion is awesome. Not a children's film. More like Tween on. But I love it. Only wish DVD had Full/Widescreen options button. Once again. Great piece you wrote

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  13. Andrew7:57 AM

    Another great review, thanks! This is why I love your blog and some of your books (Horror Films of the 80s in one of my favorite movie guide ever!). You offer insight and analysis instead of superficial criticism or snobbish points of view.

    Many movies like The Black Hole are misunderstood 'cause their good ideas and themes are hidden beneath a childish or faulty presentation.
    Your reviews often help us to see beyond that and to understand better.
    I've watched The Black Hole again after 20 years and it really is a different film, keeping in mind what you wrote about it. Thanks.

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  14. Andrew,

    Your lovely comment made my day! Thank you so much for the kind words about my blog and my books, particularly Horror Films of th 1980s. I appreciate words like that so much.

    And I really admire the way you put it yourself -- "Many movies like The Black Hole are misunderstood 'cause their good ideas and themes are hidden beneath a childish or faulty presentation."

    That is a very elegant and eloquent way of making the point, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. The Black Hole has so much great stuff in it...all while (ostensibly) aimed at kids.

    Thank you for a great comment,

    Best,
    John

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  15. Alex H5:32 PM

    It seems the most common criticism of this film are the silly moments with the various robots: Steam coming out of Captain STARR's ears, the rickety old podunk BOB, the way VINCENT speaks, etc. I think there may have been some pressure from the studio to make the film more kid-friendly (I'm imagining some executive at Disney saying "Science fiction? That's just kid stuff!"). I shudder at the thought of how even more amazing this film could have been had those scenes had a more serious tone.

    Another criticism is that it's scientifically inaccurate. Well, that's why it's science FICTION, folks. Have some fun with it.

    Oh, and thank you for pointing out the work that went into the special effects. Considering the age of this film, the quality of the effects have stood the test of time rather well. I fear the rumored remake will be just a dissapointing CGI-fest. Which brings me to this nxt point...

    Whoever is slated to direct said remake needs to read the above article. So many elements that make this film so outstanding, beautiful and horrifying are not immediately obvious.

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  16. Anonymous1:52 PM

    Some Black Hole symbolism & conspiracy. Cygnus is the name of a constellation represented as a swan or sometimes referred to as the northern cross - note the similarity of the ships configuration to this constellation. The constellation contains object Cygnus X-1 A binary star system containing a black hole. Cygnus is aligned to the dark band of the Milky Way which mythology describes as a dark river or passway from the here and now into the after life, and has had significant religious / astrological significance from pre historic times - may ancient site are aligned to Cygnus.
    Reinhart and his enslavery of the crew is a reference to nazi Germany V2 rocket program - use of forced labour and note the similarity of the probe ship to V2, and ReinHardt is reference to Von Braun former nazi rocket engineer designer of saturn moon rockets. Discussion of Cygnus mission as ...costly fiasco of all time..... Reference to Apollo moon missions which according to skeptics never went to the moon. This coming from Disney which supposedly stage managed the fake moon landings in
    Nevada. Did the nazis develop anti gravity towards war end? Anyway, I enjoyed this movie as a boy and now and still see something new each time I watch it. Col

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  17. Adam C. Sieracki2:59 AM

    One of the intriguing things about the design of the robots VINCENT and BOB was the contrast between the very clumsy, slapdash anthropomorphism of their 'faces' (painted markings around camera ports), vs. their very 'human' voices (smarmy and learned, hokey and wise). With all the talk of the 'uncanny valley,' maybe there's merit in having a robot that sounds and acts human, but doesn't look anything remotely humanoid.

    I agree with you that the Walking Dead crew were the creepiest, saddest thing about the movie. And, considering the year the film was made, don't you think Maximillian Schell kinda looks like the Ayatollah Khomeini?

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  18. Several of the biggest criticisms are about the design of the robots, as crappy star wars rip off. But this was not supposed to be, as the movie switched gears once in production to a more kiddie look. There was a great article years ago in Starlog magazine a interview with the original concept artist from the first production, and the designs are night and day to those kiddie versions. The Maximilian design would have been epic, a legless Asian fan shaped machine, the security droids where going to be tripods with turrets similar to security robots that exist now. He talked how the original mandate of real functional robots became cute along with changes to the story. If you can find the issue on eBay etc as the designs are starling in both originality and of a path not taken.

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  19. Anonymous12:12 AM

    This film was made in a time when scientific accuracy took a back seat for fun, awesomeness, mysterie, and dare i say touches of film noir lighting, ( i could be wrong on that). What made an impression on me when i saw it twice in one sitting back in 1980, was the juxstaposition of 4 elements that on the surface you'd think would not mesh. One was the music, very dark sprinkled with heroic cues of levity.
    John Barry created a mood so dark so mysterious on one hand, while keeping it fun and lively during the heroics of the Palomino crew+robots. To me this was so interesting and bizzare, never seen that before or since. Two; the characters and robots both very dark or cute and funny. Three; the utter and impending doom as they're escaping out of the cygnus. You can really feel like this is the end while all hell is falling around them. Four ; truly the saddest moment in robot history, Old B.O.B dies..waaa.... always gets me. Hmm i could go on, but in conclusion, the reason i find The Black Hole compelling is because from the start your lead from one thing into the next just as though your part of the Palomino crew. I feel like wanting to know what's around the next corner, even though i've seen this movie many times. This qualaty is very unique to the Black Hole in a time now that lacks that kind of mysterie and intrigue.
    Great blog...look forward to reading your ideas...don't stop. Thx

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  20. This is the best and most comprehensive review I have read of this flawed yet haunting & captivating film. Thanks!

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  21. Saw this on the big screen back in the day. Was all of 8 years old. Loved it then, loved it via many additional viewings, love it now. My little mind was blown by all the metaphorical/metaphysical/pataphysical touches weaved into the traditional space opera format. God knows, I wish more movie and TV sci fin had the guts to take an approach like that. I've grappled with the ending for years. I fully accept and believe that Reinhardt and Max died, merged, and went to hell, and felt that our heroes were led to safety by the Angel. Lately however I have wondered if our heroes likewise died and the Angel was leading them to Heaven? If so, then Vincent had an actual soul! It would certainly give meaning to "soul of the machine."

    Characterization was way strong in this one. Everybody had a recognizable character they could hang a hat on. Holland was a rugged, dependable, likeable Captain, Pizer was an honest to God gun toting space pioneer/cowboy, Reinhardt was the man driven by being too ambitious for his own good. Durant was too easily swayed by, and in awe of a stronger personality. And how about Booth? Holy crap was I upset and angered by his betrayal near the climax. Damn him for wanting to save his own skin. Fantasy/Sci Fi peopled with real characters. Now that was refreshing.

    And I loved Vincent. Interesting how he considered himself an equal to the humans, and they feel the same way. And that likeable arrogance he had, feeling that he and Bob were so far superior to the other robots.

    And kudos for the awesome grunge look the ships had. Always wished more movies and TV shows had ripped off this films ship and universe designs.

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  22. Anonymous12:18 PM

    is this movie in blue ray

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  23. Great review! Well told in all respects, and your analysis really brings this movie more to life for me. As a kid, I loved this movie for it's latter half action beats. As an adult, while I find this a largely guilty pleasure, it remains one of my favorite sci-fi films to date....taking me back to the days of ALIEN, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek the Motion Picture, and of course before all of them, Star Wars.

    Dialogue, watching as an adult, was one of the biggest problems of this movie for me. Kate McRae's horrid "search for habitable life in outer space" line is, to me, one of the most quotable nut-kickers ever written by screenwriter, or uttered by human voice. The line sounds as if the story were written by a nine year old. A line from Star Trek The Motion Picture was thankfully excised from the script, especially when reactions to it by the various actors resulted in mirthical hysteria on the bridge set. Otherwise, it would likely have been strong competition for one of the worst lines ever uttered in sci-fi history. "Captain, an object has been ejected at us." (This line would've been uttered by Spock, no less.)

    I think the only other down part for me in this film were the visible fly-wires during some of the film's attempts to portray "anti-gravity"....even seen on some of the robots.

    Other than these two elements, I think the film has some great performances, exhibited by Maximillian Schell (who does not look back on this film fondly, as I understand), Robert Forster, and Anthony Perkins. Roddy MacDowell's uncredited voice acting as V.I.N.Cent was also enjoyable, and I thought perfectly suited the loveable little kick ass robot. (I also enjoyed Marcel Marceau's vocal performance as Maximillian...ha ha ha.) Slim Pickens' voice acting, nor the presence of Old B.O.B. itself didn't really bother me badly. As an adult, I know why he was put there....for the kiddies. Two semi-cutesy robots for the kids to identify with, since Disney Productions at the time was not quite ready to entirely divorce itself from the trappings of its previous "family friendly" fare, despite this movie's PG rating. (I remembered this being a question on "The Joker's Wild" game show back in 1980, and it has always been one of my favorite matters of trivia...that The Black Hole was WDP's first PG rated film. As a further matter of trivia, Disney Productions set another benchmark for itself I think in the early 2000's by distributing an anime, and getting it's first ever PG-13 rating for it because the deal was that Disney could distribute it, but it had to be released unaltered. The Pirates of the Caribbean films are Disney's first, home grown PG-13 films. Disney has also released "R" rated films, but under the names of other production companies, like Touchstone. The 13th Warrior is one example. Sorry, I ramble. :) )

    Other high points of the film, I would have to agree with many others, are the designs of the spacecraft. The Palomino looks very "real-world futuristic", much in the vein of ships like the Eagle transporter from "Space: 1999", or even the Discovery from "2001: A Space Odyssey". And the U.S.S. Cygnus, whose mission was to (ugh....dare we revisit that horrid line of dialogue again?....nah)... it is a gorgeous ship, both within, and without. It looks as much at home in a Jules Verne styled sci-fi/fantasy story as it does in a more fully realized futuristic setting. It's definitely gothic. (Except for the fact that it is not quite as well lit as the Cygnus, I would say the ship, Event Horizon, from the film of the same name, has that same gothic quality, at least, externally. Not quite Jules Verne-ian, but definitely gothic.)

    ...to be continued...

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    1. ..continued from previous...

      Maximillian Schell, despite his latter-years displeasure, lends great credibility to this film as Dr. (Commander) Hans Reinhardt. His voice alone, practically the Teutonic equivalent of Orson Welles, lends considerable approachability and menace simultaneously to the character.

      The robot, Maximillian? I always called him: "The King of the Cylons" (from Battlestar Galactica). If Cylon Centurions (from either the 1978 Glen Larson original, or the more recent Ron Moore remake) had a leader to rally around, I think Maximillian would be it. All Max would need is the oscillating scanner eye. He fires laser weapons like the Classic Centurions, but his weapons are built in, like the new Centurions. He is wordless, like the new Centurions, but his actions say much. (In retrospect, one of the funniest moments in The Black Hole is when Reinhardt orders the Palomino blasted out of the sky before it hits the Cygnus. Maximillian fires one of the ship's laser cannons, hits the Palomino, and brings about the result that Reinhardt tried to avoid in the first place. The funny part is the movement-expression by Maximillian. He practically looks as if he's saying: "Umm...Oops!" LOL!) On a more serious note, I am glad that the filmmakers had the presence of mind to remember that once the Palomino left the physical presence of the Cygnus, that artificial gravity was no longer a factor, and thus contributed to the complications that Harry Booth already had in trying to fly a ship, when he clearly had no piloting skills in the first place. There's a definite pathos to Maximillian. He seems almost psychotic for a robot. For all his unchanging physical features, his actions speak volumes of emotion. After killing Dr. Alex Durant in his very macabre fashion, he backs off when Reinhardt rebukes him, and Max's emotion seems to state: "I was just trying to help, Doc. I'll, umm...I'll be just over here if you need me....umm...yeah."

      Another one of the more laughable moments in the film is the hospital rescue scene...for quite a few reasons. I have a rough time deciding which of them is chief among the skewed elements. So, in no necessary order: Captain Holland's hand to hand with one of the sentry robots. When the scene is established, we see Kate McRae being subjected to the mind skewering laser tools. Yet, those very same lasers seem to be capable of blasting a sentry robot's face clean off when Holland desperately forces the sentry under the surgical tool. (I would have to say, if anything were to justify that particular bit of action, it would have to be that perhaps the attending "humanoid" at the operating table managed to find one last bit of humanity within himself, and take revenge on the dutiful, yet overwhelmed sentry by ramping up the output power on that particular laser emitter.) Another laughable element was V.I.N.Cent. landing some physical "death blows" with his pincers on two of the remaining sentries in the room. It was not known he was a master of the martial arts, dealing death and destruction with so slow a delivery....

      ..just a little more to say, and I'm done.. :)

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    2. ...ok...last little bit here. :)


      A low point in the film, from a story telling standpoint: the Palomino crew's desperate climbing of the probe ship, which is clearly exposed to space on the hull of the Cygnus. It was already established that the Cygnus had an anti-gravity field (clearly, an extremely robust system, considering the on-going destruction of the ship as it neared the black hole), but apparently it was an "oxygen" envelope as well, because Charlie Pizer should've been at the very least frozen to death (this scene alone directly contradicts the previous events of the laser battle in the vast hydroponic garden, where freezing temperatures, not to mention super-hurricane force winds and the vacuum of space itself threatened the escaping Palomino crew.)

      With all I had to say, I shoulda started my own blog. LOL! Thank you, John, for indulging me, and for your wonderful review, and creating an excellent venue for discussion. :)

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  24. Anonymous2:29 PM

    Agree with the 20,000 Leagues influence but you missed another obvious link. Morbius from The Forbidden Planet. Morbius is another insane genius who sacrificed his crew for his own advancement into science - ie harnessing an unlimited power supply....sound familiar? Morbius created a monster from his id and in the final scene asked the others to protect him from his own creation.

    Reinhardt is Morbius and Maximilian is his monster from his id which he cannot control.

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  25. Bill Tanner12:20 AM

    I know this comment is late, as in four years later, but here goes....Excellent review! I just watched this movie for the first time since I was 8 years old...and I remembered quite a few scenes, it had a big impression on me! Lots of flaws, yes, but I always thought of this movie as a much more weighty science fiction film that Star Wars or Star Trek franchises, not afraid to take chances, and certainly far darker than anything else in sci-fi at the time. I imagine the remake will be a disappointing waste of an opportunity, like "Prometheus", but who knows, maybe they will tell the story the same way and make the robots more adult.

    One thing never mentioned as a source for this script which I should think was obvious is the legend of Faust. He was a German scientist who wants all knowledge and to be free of the bounds of morality imposed on him. So he makes a deal with the Devil, and is given a servant, Mephistopheles, to do his bidding for the term of the contract. He uses Mephistopheles to do various bad deeds, but he is also being egged on to further sins by the demon as well who is, after all, not really his servant but has another master. At the end of the contract, 24 years, Faust is carried off to Hell.....though the popular version of the tale by Goethe has him being saved by God listening to the pleas of a woman.

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  26. Anonymous8:37 AM

    The movie is called "The Black Hole". Yet about 95% of the entire movie is just people talking/scheming and a shoot-em-up with robots -- the nearby black hole is almost completely irrelevant. Not what I expected at all (I'm 52, and just watched for the first time); a completely, shockingly, bogus waste of time. I found your comparisons with Verne to be infinitely more interesting than the film itself...

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  27. Just stumbled on your blog and I'm so glad i did! Briliant break-down of one of my favorite sci-fi movies from childhood. It still holds up, and you're spot on about trying to contextualize the darkness and foreboding I felt as a child with my experiences as an adult. Two final things: Maximillian was for a while, the most terrifying thing I had ever seen on-screen, Xenomorph eat your heart out. And two, the "throwaway" scene when a wild-eyed Maximillian Schell begs to be saved from a demonic robot that shares the same first name. An interesting twist to be sure. Cheers!

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  28. Great analysis of one of the December 1979 Trilogy (Star Trek: TMP, 1941, The Black Hole), three great works of entertainment that were savaged by critics at the time and still remain unappreciated to this day. Although both 1941 and ST-TMP have a somewhat better rep today and a cult following, "The Black Hole" is ripe for a re-discovery.

    The cast alone makes "The Black Hole" worth seeking out to see again, not to mention Harrison Ellenshaw's gorgeous matte paintings, John Barry's hypnotic score, and the super cool and unique ship design you mentioned above.

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  29. I'm not sure if "The Black Hole" was an attempt to recreate "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Star Wars" or "Star Crash". This movie had some impressive special effects like the whirling black hole and the fantastic look of the USS Cygnus. But for every one of the top-notch visuals, there were as many dollar store versions. The BOB and VINCENT robots were cheap looking little beer kegs and the attempt at recreating a R2D2/C3PO relationship was pretty obvious. The story itself was good enough but the casting choices were curious. Ernest Borgnine? Maximillian Schell? The biggest negative, though, was the score. It was written by John Barry of the James Bond Theme fame and it doesn't work here. In fact, the music played during some of the gunfights is as misplaced and distracting as any I can ever remember hearing.

    I've taken a lot of shots at "The Black Hole" but its strangeness and its head-scratching choices are what makes it enjoyable to me. And last but not least...how about that ending!?!? It is certainly one of the most bizarre and baffling endings to any movie I've ever seen.

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  30. I saw this in the theater and was sleepy and nodded off several times for a few seconds, so later it was like I dreamed it. Other video viewings had the same effect on me even though wide awake. I just finished watching it again and then found your very fine review/explaination. It more atticulates what I felt after this last viewing. As you said, there is a feeling of dread, tradegy and as if they are on a 'flying duchman ship' all doomed. That music title score with the spiderweb titles sucking you in stays with me the whole movie. The crew is lost, our heroes are lost. I never had trouble with the ending. I got it, or was at least satisfied with my version (which matches yours) of what it meant. Excellent review from you. Paul Kyriazi

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