Wednesday, April 03, 2013

A Journey That Begins Where Everything Ends

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999–2000
THE PAPER: 2003–2004
THE HUB: 2005–2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

Rated PG
Running Time 1:37

Walt Disney’s first PG-rated feature is often confusing, childish, and scientifically laughable, and at the time of its original release, it was loudly bashed by critics. However, the movie also boasts outstanding sets and Oscar-nominated cinematography and visual effects, and, if you don’t think about it too much, is a lot of fun.

THE BLACK HOLE was Disney’s riskiest venture to date: a $20 million science-fiction epic combining philosophical themes about God and mankind’s search for a better existence with the company’s typically juvenile approach. Released just two weeks after STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, it seems to have been lost in the box-office shuffle, although it was considered one of Disney’s all-time biggest moneymakers.

An Earth exploration vessel, the Palomino, manned by Captain Robert Forster (JACKIE BROWN) and his crew—gung-ho first mate Joseph Bottoms (HOLOCAUST), twitchy scientist Anthony Perkins (PSYCHO), psychic Yvette Mimieux (THE TIME MACHINE), and cynical journalist Ernest Borgnine (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK)—encounters the Cygnus, a massive spaceship that was believed to have been lost 20 years earlier.

Its commander, legendary scientist Dr. Hans Reinhardt (JUDGMENT AT NUREMBURG’s Maximilian Schell), claims to be the only survivor. His ship is run by robots, including his ominous bodyguard Max, which has buzzsaws for hands. The Cygnus is perched just beyond an immense black hole. Reinhardt has invented a groundbreaking anti-gravity field that he believes will allow him to pass through the black hole safely and rule whatever universe lies on the other side. To do this, he needs the Palomino crew to guide him, whether they want to or not.

Basically a space-age remake of Disney’s classic 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA with Schell in the James Mason/Captain Nemo role, THE BLACK HOLE features enough colorful special effects and action to keep one entertained. Admittedly, the simple dialogue by Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day and the token “cute” robots with painted-on square eyes, V.I.N.CENT (voiced by Roddy McDowall) and Old B.O.B. (Slim Pickens), will probably annoy most adults, although they aren’t nearly as obnoxious as Jar Jar Binks. The familiar cast has done good work elsewhere, but there are no strong characters or meaty words in the script for them to get into, and as a result, the actors are left to their own unfettered devices.

The real reason to see THE BLACK HOLE is for its marvelous Victorian-style sets designed by Disney vet Peter Ellenshaw (who was also in charge of the miniatures) and the frequently stunning visual effects. Today’s audiences, used to cartoony CGI effects that are considered cutting-edge, may be surprised at the work on display here. Using matte paintings, models, animation, and even wirework, the Disney effects artists have created a real feast for the eyes (the colossal fireball blasting its way down a Cygnus corridor is very cool). John Barry’s outstanding orchestral score was the first to be recorded digitally.

THE BLACK HOLE originally came out during an exciting resurgence in filmed science-fiction which roughly lasted from 1977–1984, and was overlooked in favor of STAR WARS, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, BLADE RUNNER, THE TERMINATOR, and others. Although THE BLACK HOLE isn’t as good as any of those films, its old-fashioned visual thrills are too impressive to ignore.

1 comment:

William S. Wilson said...

I revisited this within the last few years and was impressed at how well it held up. As you mention, the designs and sets are pretty amazing. The scene where the robot uses its spinning claw through the book absolutely terrified me as a child.