Monday, December 21, 2009

30 Years Ago Today: Where Every Journey Ended; This One Began...

On December 21st, 1979, Walt Disney's The Black Hole was released theatrically in the United States. Critics immediately disliked it, for the most part, and the 25-million dollar space epic was considered a box office bomb.

Yet a generation of kids (this one included) grew up with the film...and never forgot it. Disney's first "PG" rated movie, The Black Hole was an one-of-a-kind combination of disparate styles and moods. It was a swashbuckling space adventure in the mold of Star Wars (1977), down to two cute robots (V.I.N.Cent and Old B.O.B) and mock heroics, but it was also oddly -- and thoroughly -- dark. Creepy even.

On an Earth spaceship in a dark corner of the universe, a mad Captain Nemo-type, Reinhardt, had transformed his human crew into drones; into slaves. He controlled his vast, cathedral-like ship via the massive, red robotic terror, Maximillian (who was equipped with propeller blades as a weapon and wasn't afraid to use them). At one point, Reinhardt even cryptically begged "save me from Maximillian..."

And the film's startling, do-or-die conclusion was a literal odyssey through Hell. Another of The Black Hole's unforgettable images: Reinhardt shunted inside the beast, Maximillian; his desperate human eyes entrapped inside a robotic shell.

Itself inspired by 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Black Hole seems to have been the inspiration for films such modern efforts as Event Horizon (1997). And, of course, we're due for a remake in the years ahead; though I doubt a new film can capture the pure, unique creepiness of the original. Hopefully, it can improve some of the film's dopier scientific flaws and dialogue.

In terms of look, The Black Hole was also something special. Outer space itself looked different (bluer...); the spaceship Cygnus resembled a vast haunted house; and the goose-stepping robots had a menacing but realistic air about them. Thematically, the film concerned how humans (and robots) faced the specter of the unknown: with madness (Reinhardt); with cowardice (Harry Booth); with blind devotion (Durant) and - thankfully - with heroism (Holland and the others). This was not an unimportant thing, since beyond the black hole laid a Manichean afterlife of sorts; a binary choice of Heaven or Hell for all souls going beyond the event horizon.

I can't believe it's been thirty years since I first saw The Black Hole. I was in the fourth grade...and I was stunned (especially by the violent death of Dr. Durant). Time flies. Anyway, here's a snippet of my detailed review of the film, from earlier this year: 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 characters, 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 Tartarus-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 (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 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.


  1. I was considerably older than you when I saw this at the theater, but I still very much enjoyed it. I was delighted when my kid's took to it when I showed them my old VHS of it (then the DVD). The violent death you cite also appears to be trait in Disney's fare to leave a shock on its young viewers (and/or to instill a memory). The death of Bambi's mom, the shackling of Dumbo's mother, the death of Simba's father in THE LION KING, etc. Sometimes, I think they love to traumatize us kids ;-). I have to look into that link of your full cult movie review, JKM. Great look back. Thanks for this.

  2. I've finally seen this movie in full a few days ago, prompted by this article. I was born in 1971 and had a few cereal box toys of the film and have seen many photos of this film on said boxes :P

    This film was pretty hard to sit through, and I think it doesn't hold well to time. Let's keep in mind, it has come out after Star Wars and was released the same year as Alien. There were higher standards of realism and character depiction out there. And it came out 10 years after 2001, a film with a similar ending! The Black Hole felt like a movie of the previous era.

    There is some bad green screen, and a sound-stage feeling but generally, it's fine. I don't think we're wowed by the size of the ship, but that may just be a factor of the time. I did like the weightlessness scenes, they are very, very well done.

    What bothered me were the limp sentinel robots, the lack of commitment in the action scenes, and the dialog. This is all standard B movie stuff. Nowdays it feels amateur.

    One thing that was really interesting in this film was the psychic link between the human and the robot. Have we seen this elsewhere? I cannot recall Hollywood linking humans and robots this way. It's a little bit outside of the standard pop scifi because there is no indication that the woman has an electronic implant and therefore it's telepathy with a machine.

  3. Great movie-so much better than most of the crap coming out of Hollywood these days!
    It had its' flaws, but there was a basic good premise with this, not to mention the score! I loved this movie as a child and still do today-I just hope they don't mess up the remake! And the ships, especially the Cygnus, were fantastic-really different!


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