Saturday, April 25, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 71: The Return of Captain Nemo (1978)

"I am Captain Nemo. I have been asleep for 100 years aboard my submarine, Nautilus. I would probably still be left encapsulated had it not been for two intrepid agents of American Naval Intelligence...who quite by chance came upon my ship trapped by seismic underwater quakes..."

-Opening voice-over narration to The Return of Captain Nemo (1978)

On March 8, 1978, CBS began airing in prime-time the latest science fiction TV series from the master of disaster Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno, The Swarm, etc.)

In essence, this new venture -- which represented Allen's final attempt at series work -- was an unholy hodgepodge of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) mixed with a little Jules Verne, and with a huge helping of Star Wars, which was still playing in theaters and had become nothing less than a national craze. The extremely short-lived series was called The Return of Captain Nemo, though some viewers may remember it by its foreign, theatrical title, The Amazing Captain Nemo.

Only three hour-long episodes of The Return of Captain Nemo ("Deadly Black Mail," "Duel in The Deep" and "Atlantis Dead Ahead") were produced and aired, and the obscure, extremely rare series has mostly been seen since in an abbreviated compilation movie format. This strange broadcast and distribution history has resulted in some apparent confusion about whether or not the original production was a mini-series, a made-for-TV movie or simply a series. All the evidence suggests the latter, since the three 45-minute segments feature individual titles and writer/director/guest star credits. The series aired in prime time, drew terrible ratings, was unceremoniously canceled, and then exhumed from its watery grave as the theatrical or TV-movie that many nostalgic folk of my generation remember.

The first episode of The Return of Captain Nemo, "Deadly Blackmail" commences as a diabolical mad scientist, Dr. Waldo Cunningham (Burgess Meredith) blackmails Washington D.C. for the princely sum of one billion dollars from his perch in the command center of his highly-advanced submarine, the Raven.

Unless the President pays up in one week's time, Cunningham will fire a nuclear "doomsday" missile at the city. To prove his intent is serious, Cunningham destroys a nearby island with a laser called "a delta ray." The creature in charge of firing this weapon is a frog-faced golden robot in a silver suit and gloves. Every time the delta ray is fired (over the three episodes...), we cut back to identical footage of this strange frog robot activating the deadly device.

This introductory scene sets the breathless tone and pace for much of the brief series, proving immediately and distinctly reminiscent of George Lucas's Star Wars. Specifically, Cunningham's right-hand man in the command center is a giant, baritone-voiced robot/man called "Tor." This villain -- when not speaking directly into a communications device that resembles a high-tech bong -- looks and sounds like the cheapest Darth Vader knock-off you can imagine, right down to the rip-off James Earl Jones voice.

Tor even boasts psychic abilities not unlike the power of the Force. When intruders steal aboard the Raven, for instance, Tor can psychically senses their presence there; just as Vader could sense the presence of Obi-Wan aboard the Death Star. Yes, I know Darth Vader isn't actually a robot and his power wasn't actually psychic, but this is the kind of distinction that escaped the creators of The Return of Captain Nemo.

And speaking of The Death Star, Cunningham -- who essentially plays Governor Tarkin to Tor's Lord Vader -- the submarine Raven's deadly delta ray looks an awful lot like the primary weapon of that destructive imperial space station. Much more troubling, however, is the fact that the Raven, Cunningham's powerful submarine, is actually a just barely re-dressed Space:1999 eagle spaceship, replete with the four rear-mounted rocket engines, the dorsal lattice-work spine, the modular body, and the front, bottle nose capsule. Yep, it's all there. Many of the underwater sequences in The Return of Captain Nemo are incredibly murky and feature superimposed bubbles and dust in the foreground (probably to hide how bad the miniatures look...), but I've attempted to post a few photographs of the Raven here, so you can see for yourself that, yep, Cunningham's ship is an underwater Moonbase Alpha eagle transporter.

Anyway, while Washington D.C. puzzles over the nefarious threat of Professor Waldo Cunningham, two Navy frogmen, Commander Tom Franklin (Tom Hallick) and Lt. Jim Porter (Burr De Benning) happen upon an ancient submarine trapped on an undersea reef. From an exterior port hole, they detect a figure trapped inside a smoke-filled glass tube. They board the ship and find that this figure is actually the legendary Captain cryogenic freeze! The two men immediately free Captain Nemo (Jose Ferrer) from hibernation and he steps out heroically, wearing a cape and ready for action (after exclaiming "my experiment worked!")

Turns out Nemo has been asleep for one hundred years, and it is now April 9th, 1978. The spry captain reveals to Tom and Jim that Jules Verne was no mere novelist, but actually his biographer...and that all his adventures are true. Furthermore, Nemo wants to resume his search for the lost continent of Atlantis immediately. Jim and Tom, meanwhile, are astounded to see that the 127-year old Nautilus is a nuclear-powered submarine, one equipped with all the latest technology...including radar scopes. Interestingly, it is not just any radar device Captain Nemo has invented (along with cryogenic suspension and nuclear-powered submarines...), but rather radar devices that are identical in shape, mode and design to ones we have now on board our state-of-the-art ships. Incredible coincidence, no?

Jim and Tom help free the Nautilus from its perch and convince Captain Nemo to return to their headquarters in San Francisco. There, they all report to the leader of an Elite Navy Group commanded by a man named Miller (Walter Stevens). Miller promptly recruits Nemo as a secret agent for the government, and in return the Nautilus gets an refit (though it clearly doesn't really need one...) and a full Navy crew.

At this point in the story, I must admit, I nearly lost my lunch. The independent, head-strong, world-weary Captain Nemo of Jules Verne is -- without much argument or debate -- transformed into a dedicated agent for the U.S. government?! After a history of decrying war? After a history of sinking warships? After exiling himself to the "liberating" world under the sea? After leaving the world of man permanently behind? This man of science just becomes...a tool of one particular government?

Methinks Irwin Allen (along with Franklin, Porter and Miller) never actually read any Jules Verne.

Instead, Allen must have been secretly screening recent episodes of Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman, since the series premise (fish-out-of-water individual becomes government agent) of The Return of Captain Nemo shares more in common with that seventies superhero TV series than it does the literary work of Jules Verne, or any previous screen incarnations of Captain Nemo for that matter.

Regardless, here we are presented with the most bizarre filmic interpretation of Captain Nemo imaginable: as genius creator of suspended animation (!), and as dashing, adventurous secret agent (!) for the United States Navy. This iteration of Nemo boasts not a whit, not a scent, not even an iota of a dark or even melancholy side. Instead, this Nemo is an exuberant man of action.

In fairness to Ferrer, he's quite charismatic and physically capable in this leading role, even if the writing (and the entire scenario...) is ridiculous to the point of inanity. One wonders what Ferrer might have accomplished playing the character in a more faithful incarnation of Captain Nemo's world. This Nemo gets to voice some flowery language ("We must stroll through this orchard without bruising the fruit," he notes metaphorically of an undersea waste dump, in the second episode), and this Nemo does seem "above" worldly concerns (like Star Trek's Spock), but Nemo almost never asks Tom and Jim any questions about the new world he has arrived in. He has no curiosity about the 20th century or its customs, which seems odd. Wouldn't Nemo the scientist wish to see what man has accomplished? Or does he just assume he's already accomplished more?

Captain Nemo's first assignment as a government agent is to prevent Waldo Cunningham from firing his doomsday nuclear missile at Washington D.C. The Nautilus hunts the Raven at the bottom of the sea, and Nautilus evades destruction by delta beam when Nemo activates the Nautilus's protective electric force field. Deciding he needs to understand his nemesis better, Nemo boldly boards the Raven and is promptly taken hostage by Tor and Cunningham. Together, Nemo and Franklin escape custody and run down an advanced corridor that also appears to have been lifted directly from the Death Star construction blueprints. Captain Nemo -- now equipped with a hand-laser, destroys a bevy of Cunningham's storm-trooper-type robot goons in this very corridor, and the music actually sounds remarkably like a sped-up Star Wars theme. Again, I kid you not. It's just...brazen.

Eventually, Nemo destroys Cunningham's nuclear missile by firing a laser beam weapon he invented(!), and the Raven slinks away under the sea to fight another day. In case you don't detect the pattern here, the writers left themselves an easy out. Whenever threatened with destruction, Captain Nemo has a new invention up his sleeve that saves the day. A suspended animation device, a radar, an electric force field, now a ship-mounted laser beam. Not only is Nemo a genius, I guess, he's a super duper uber genius. There's nothing this guy didn't invent a hundred years ago. Nothing.

Because Star Wars is ripped-off so dramatically in the opening episode of The Return of Captain Nemo, the series changes tactics in its second episode ("Duel in the Deep") and rips off the premise of Space:1999 instead. Here, Waldo Cunningham (again!) threatens the safety of the world when the Raven begins ripping up (with grappling hooks...) the radioactive nuclear waste containers at the bottom of the sea, 35,000 feet down, at the Mindanao Trench near the Philippines. Just think the dark side of the moon, the atomic waste dumps, and the inaugural 1999 episode "Breakaway."

The Nautilus and Captain Nemo are assigned to repair the breaches in the nuclear waste dumping ground before a wave of radioactivity leaks to the surface, destroying all life there. Two nuclear physicists come aboard to help out, the beautiful Kate (Lynda Day George) and the duplicitous agent, Cook (Mel Ferrer). If you've ever seen any episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, you know that Irwin Allen really loves his submarine saboteurs (secret spies show up in every other episode during the early seasons of that series...) and here the Nautilus is drawn off course by undersea magnets, surrounded by sea mines, and Nemo's bathosphere is also sabotaged. Fortunately, Kate helps Nemo save the day, defeat Cook, and joins the Nautilus crew, becoming a regular on the series. At the end of the day, Cunningham escapes again and the breach in the nuclear waste dumps is repaired by a lucky rock fall.

The third, and mercifully final episode of Return of Captain Nemo boasts the name of Robert Bloch as one of its writers, but one has to assume he was heavily re-written, or had little to do with the show's development. "Atlantis Dead Ahead" also features Horst Bucholz as Atlantis's King Tibor and a very young Anthony Geary (General Hospital's Luke of "Luke and Laura" fame) as an Atlantean retainer named...Bork. In this adventure, Captain Nemo easily locates Atlantis (did I mention he's a super duper, uber genius?) but finds that Waldo Cunningham has already beaten him to the lost continent and enslaved the underwater people there with dastardly mind-control head-bands.

Cunningham captures Nemo and Tom Franklin and paralyzes the crew of the Nautilus (including Kate) with a "z-ray" that freezes the unlucky crew "in time," whatever the hell that means. Tom is fitted with his own individual brain-washing head-band (which makes him look like he's ready to participate in a Jane Fonda aerobics video...) and forced to torture Nemo.

Nemo himself is attached to a brain-sucking device that will reveal to Cunningham all of his one-hundred-year old secrets, including the formula for Nautilus's laser ray. Since Cunningham already has a death ray, why he needs Nemo's death ray is a bit of a mystery. Anyway, Nemo outsmarts Cunningham by re-playing in his mind (and broadcasting his thoughts on the view screen...), information about the Navy and U.S. government that re-activates Tom's sense of patriotic loyalty. They escape together and there's yet another shoot-out between Cunningham's robot stormtroopers and our heroes in the very same Death Star corridor. Still, Cunningham proves more dangerous than ever because he posses twenty pellets of a poisonous element called "Crosar" which he plans to release in 20 world cities.

After an undersea battle between Nautilus and Raven -- in which the Raven is apparently destroyed-- Captain Nemo decides to leave the freed Atlantis behind, "untouched by our progress." King Tibor thanks him and then jumps into the water, never to be seen again.

Then, apparently with nothing left to accomplish, Nemo turns to Kate (a possible love interest...) and suggests they head back to San Francisco and have a meeting with Mr. Miller, so the boss can give the Nautilus new orders. Yep, the inventive and brilliant captain Nemo can think of nothing else to do with Nautilus, and just wants a new assignment from a government bureaucrat. A sad end for a sad re-vamp.

I was nine years old when Return of Captain Nemo first aired on CBS, and I have to confess...I loved it at that age. It had lasers, submarines, evil robots, Captain Nemo, underwater adventure...everything a young, imaginative mind could ask for. As an innocent, impressionable youngster I had no inkling just how nonsensical, how ridiculous, how vapid, how inane and how derivative the Allen series was. Seeing the program today for the first time in thirty-one years, I'm amazed but just how craven it remains: how desperate and frenzied it is to latch on to the latest trend in the pop culture (Star Wars) and artlessly exploit it.

I've blogged many, many TV movies and series here -- and if you read my blogoften, you know I endeavor to highlight the positive -- but off the top of my head, I can't recall another TV series so regularly, so routinely, dreadful. The Return of Captain Nemo is so bad, so confused about itself, that it's actually baffling at points. Tor, for instance, is not only a robot sidekick with psychic powers (why? why?), but also a xenophobic bigot! For some reason, he is constantly seen railing against "aliens." Only problem, there are no aliens on the show. Tor keeps blaming aliens for everything...and there aren't any aliens around.

Why would Cunningham program a robot with this weirdo tic? If Tor is not a robot, what the hell is he, and why is he working for Cunningham in the first place? He can't be an alien and hate aliens, can he? It's clear the character was just thrown in to the mix, apparently at random, to appeal to the demographic that thought Darth Vader was super cool. But no real thought was ever given to Tor as a character. No thought was given to his background, his creation, his very nature.

Tor's not alone, either. The two Navy officers, Tom and Jim, continually play second fiddle to Nemo and have absolutely nothing of interest to do but issue orders from the bridge of Nautilus in Nemo's absence. In Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Captain Crane suffered from some of the same issues (always proving far less interesting than his boss, Admiral Nelson), but Tom and Jim are approximately a million times more uninteresting even then Crane.

And for Cunningham to act as the primary villain of all three episodes, escaping and returning, forever escaping and returning, makes the series seem repetitive and dull. And that's being polite. Imagine if The Master were the only villain the Doctor ever encountered, and you'll understand what I mean. Some essential sense of jeopardy is lost because you just know Waldo is always going to get beaten, always escape, always return, always gets beaten and always escape, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Burgess Meredith is a good actor, of course, but at times (particularly in one view screen exchange with Nemo...) you can see the veteran glancing down out of shot and then back...apparently to read the off-screen lines. Oy.

A talented writer could probably tell a Captain Nemo story with a flavor of Star Wars thrown in and get away with it if he or she had an airtight narrative, interesting characters and some sense of style. But The Return of Captain Nemo is bereft of all those ingredients. It is poorly-written and seems dashed off from the Irwin Allen assembly line in order to exploit Star Wars before the craze wore off.

Again, you have to feel sorry for Jose Ferrer. He's got the gusto, the presence, the intelligence, the wit, the attitude and the physicality to make an excellent Captain Nemo, but the scripts here require him to speedily race from one crisis to another, saving the day like a campy superhero, and the result is that he never seems like a fully-developed human being.

Many genre fans of my generation have -- like me -- spent an inordinate amount of time seeking out The Return of Captain Nemo. It's an item of nostalgic remembrance, something that appeared on a major network (and remember, in those days of the disco decade there were only three networks...) and then disappeared, never to be heard from again. The pull of such a production is tantalizing. Did I really see that? Did it really exist? Have I lost my mind? Was I dreaming? Was it any good? Indeed, this is the very journey I undertook.

Unfortunately, in the case of The Return of Captain Nemo, this is but a dismal voyage to the bottom of the barrel. Go ahead and watch it if you dare, but sometimes old memories -- like Captain Nemo himself -- are best left in stasis. I'll always cherish my memory of watching (and loving) the show as a nine year old kid, but I dare not re-visit this series again as an adult. Not trying to be snarky or mean here. Believe me, I'm being as charitable as possible. The great Captain Nemo deserves so much better than this nonsense.

Friday, April 24, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Captain Nemo and The Underwater City (1969)

Across the various Jules Verne-inspired films surveyed here on the blog, we've seen the classic literary anti-hero Captain Nemo depicted as self-sacrificing savior and anguished anti-hero (Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea [1954]), Nemo as older (and perhaps wiser?) benevolent benefactor of mankind (Mysterious Island [1961]) and even a futuristic Nemo archetype (Reinhardt) who has succumbed to his darkest, most narcissistic tendencies in the quest for immortality, in The Black Hole (1979).

1969's Captain Nemo and The Underwater City provides yet another interpretation of the character, and to put it bluntly, it isn't one of my favorites.

Here, as played by diminutive, thin Robert Ryan, Captain Nemo is portrayed as a soft-voiced, beardless, kindly, grandfather-type. In this British-made feature, Nemo commands not merely the advanced submarine Nautilus, but serves happily as friendly ruler of a golden undersea utopia, a domed metropolis called "Temple Myra," if I have it right.

More to the point, however, this 1969 version of Nemo is rather toothless, given to the occasionally 'bout of grumpiness, but overall most determined, apparently, to forge a romantic relationship with a castaway named Helena (Nanette Newman) whom he has rescued from a sinking ship. I suppose there's nothing intrinsically wrong with a film dramatizing the softer side of Nemo, but it's still a bit jarring to see such an edgy character rendered so bland, so...harmless.

Captain Nemo and The Underwater City (shot by the always-impressive Alan Hume) depicts the tale of six men and women who are rescued by Nemo when their vessel sinks during a storm on the high seas. These characters include the honorable U.S. Senator Robert Fraser (Chuck Connors), plucky widower Helena Beckett (Newman), her young boy, Phillip, a twitchy claustrophobic named Lomax (Allan Cuthbertson) and two petty crooks -- Barnaby (Bill Fraser) and Swallow (Kenneth Connor) -- who comprise the film's egregiously tiresome comic-relief duo.

Nemo transports these survivors to the bottom of the sea and to his gold-plated commune, a domed city of peace and prosperity. In fact, Nemo is even planning a construction expansion there: two additional domes are in the offing. Life in Temple Myra is a paradise, but for the people from the surface, it's also a cage. For Nemo won't permit the new arrivals to return home to the surface out of fear that they will reveal the existence of his amazing metropolis to the warring nations above. Soon, Fraser romances a sexy citizen in the city, Mala (Lucianna Paluzzi), which enrages her current beau, Joab (John Turner). We know Mala and the Senator are hot for each other, because she serenades Fraser with a strangely phallic musical instrument that she strokes romantically (and in soft-focus), while Fraser looks on, entranced.

Meanwhile, Nemo becomes a kindly father-figure to young Phillip, and develops a a close friendship with the obstinate women's libber Helena. When offered the choice to betray Nemo and leave the city, or stay with Nemo and form an ad hoc family (along with Phillip's little kitten...), Helena chooses to remain.

As all this soap opera occurs inside the safety of the city walls, a deranged giant manta ray named "Mobula" threatens the peace outside. Fraser becomes a hero after dispatching the murderous beast while in command of Nautilus. Despite this act of bravery, Fraser plots escape aboard a brand new Nautilus #2 with the help of the treacherous Joab and the avaricious Barnaby...

I first saw Captain Nemo and The Underwater City with my (patient) parents sometime in the very early 1970s, on a drive-in double-bill, as a I recall. As a child, I loved the movie simply because it featured cool submarines, undersea domes, and the giant Mobula monster. And did I mention Lucianna Paluzzi in a bathing suit?

Watching the film as a more discerning adult, however, Captain Nemo and The Underwater City doesn't wear quite as well. For instance, the production design is rather underwhelming. Specifically, the underwater city is saddled with an unfortunate and hackneyed leitmotif: not only is everything gold futura, but every architectural detail is ridiculously marine-life centric. What I mean by that is that Nemo makes his announcements through a microphone that is molded into the shape of a fish. And when a siren sounds, the alarm bell features a vibrating lobster figure. Nemo's diving suits are also somewhat silly in appearance. The suits feature transparent shoulder epaulets in the shape of fish fins. In toto, this sort of decoration resembles a bad seafood theme restaurant rather than the utopian headquarters of the world's greatest genius.

The miniature work is also unarguably terrible. I should add, this is not a case of the years being unkind to good special effects, to be certain. If you go back to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in 1954 or Mysterious Island in 1961, you can see some amazing and convincing miniature work and opticals. In both cases, those effect still hold up remarkably well: you believe the Nautilus is a full-sized vehicle ramming actual surface vessels. Captain Nemo and The Underwater City's effects never achieve that level of verisimilitude. It is simply inferior -- and obvious -- model work.

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City also wastes an inordinate amount of its melodramatic narrative concentrating on unfunny comic-relief. Barnaby and Swallow make pests of themselves -- and in one cringe-worthy moment -- Barnaby squirts a stream of alcohol in his face while trying to master an undersea drink dispenser. Again, you just think of a seafood restaurant...or maybe Jar Jar Binks.

Much more troubling and difficult to accept is the fact that secretive Captain Nemo not only goes out of his way to rescue a few survivors from a passing ship (when in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea he was willing to let Ned and the others die in the sea...) but that he here turns around and bestows upon them his instant and unquestioning trust. Specifically, Nemo permits Joab to give the squirrely Lomax and the gold-hungry Barnaby and Swallow full access to the city (except for a carefully labeled "Forbidden Area.") Joab obediently and politely shows these visitors everything: the gold repository room, and the pressure control room...the one room in the city that could be sabotaged, and could destroy the utopia.

Frankly, Nemo's insistence that these visitors remain at the bottom of the sea (10,000 fathoms below the surface...) is also more than a little mystifying. The good captain should have just dropped the survivors off on the nearest island, or given them a small raft so they could find help from a passing vessel. Nemo's stated motive for not permitting Fraser and others to return to the surface is that they would tell the world about his underwater utopia.

Yes, but what could they do about it? I mean, it's not like any nation in the world at this time in history (roughly the period of the American Civil War) boasted the technology to reach the city, let alone attack and pillage it. Nemo is the only human being in the world with the capacity to even reach the bottom of the sea at this juncture in time. Fraser and the others could be sent back freely with their wild story, and even if by chance they were believed by the authorities, there would be nothing that could be done about it. In fact, if you follow my logic, the only way malicious forces (or spies...) from the outside world could reach the domed city would if they were...rescued by Nemo and brought down by him as guests. Once inside they could then sabotage the city and escape back to the surface in his submarines. And that, in fact, is what happens. This is purely and simply a case of a narrative scenario without a whit of logical consistency.

A couple more things: it seems to me that if you wanted to write the story of Captain Nemo falling in love and becoming a father-figure, you would want to highlight his sad past, especially his alienation from the world-at-large. You'd want to include much information about the family he lost too. Captain Nemo and The Underwater City does none of that, providing instead a lukewarm romance between the elder Nemo and one of his much-younger visitors. It is also baffling that the anti-social Nemo, who exiled himself in the sea to escape his past, would cheerfully become the very visible leader of an undersea commune, presiding over school swimming competitions and the like. I'm not kidding, either. That's actually what Nemo is doing (celebrating All-Seas Day, poolside...) when Fraser steals the Nautilus # 2.

I've been rather tough on Captain Nemo and The Underwater City, but in closing, I would like to write something positive about it. And that is this: for all the hoary aspects of the movie (from design to the pedestrian script by Pip and Jane Baker), the film does boast a unique approach to villainy: Not one character is really a "bad guy" in the traditional movie sense. Lomax is a sick man, mentally unbalanced. Barnaby is simply greedy. And opponents Fraser and Nemo come to respect and admire one another, despite the fact they end up in conflict. Too often, movie villains are evil "just because," when in reality we know that battles are waged over ideologies or differences of opinion. As childish as Captain Nemo and The Underwater City sometimes seems, it's at least a little rewarding that the characters are occasionally less two-dimensional than the production design. The movie has a nice way of focusing on character motivations and decisions instead of assuming that all the visitors to Nemo's world would reflexively want to return home.

"Even Utopia has its hazards," one character states in the film, but Captain Nemo and The Underwater City's best quality is that it realizes our world has hazards too. And that choosing a "home" ultimately comes down to more than just returning to the place where you started out.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Four Years on the Blogosphere (So Far...)!

Holy cow! Today marks my fourth anniversary blogging here at reflections on film and television. Time flies when you're having fun, I guess. Hard to believe I began this endeavor back in 2005, on the eve of the release of Revenge of the Sith. In some ways, it seems like a lifetime ago. In other ways, it seems like the party's just begun.

Looking over my stats, I see that this is my 1,340th post on the blog. Broken down, that number includes 70 cult tv flashbacks, 85 retro toy flashbacks, 13 comic book flashbacks, over 200 movie reviews, plus another dozen or so TV movie reviews. Plus lots of essays, commentaries and plenty of theme songs of the week.

Blogging during this last year has proven an especially memorable experience for me. Between The House Between's nomination as a Sy Fy Genre "Best Web Production," my induction into the ranks of the The League of Tana Tea Drinkers, and the deluge of X-Files fans who arrived here to read my review of I Want to Believe and ended up sticking around...things have really been hopping 'round these parts!

But as I often like to say: stick around...the best is yet to come. And more importantly, I humbly and happily thank you, the readers, for making me part of your regular read. And -- in case you're worried -- I still have plenty to say. 1,340 posts isn't even scratching the surface...

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

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 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.


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 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'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.