Thursday, July 16, 2020

Space 1979: The one where a killer robot blenders Norman Bates in a Disney production

Title: The Black Hole
What Year?: 1976 (pre production script)/ 1979 (release)
Classification: Runnerup
Rating: Downright Decent!

If there is a lesson from the study of ripoffs and "runnerups", it is that self-described creative minds have never worked in a vacuum. This is all the more true with the studio system. If two people arrive at the same idea, and the word gets out that one of them has a major studio interested, then of course a competitor is going to look into getting the other guy on board, and of course a couple more guys are going to come out of the woodwork claiming they had the idea first. With the further vagaries of production, it can be a matter of pure luck which movie gets to audiences first. One would be hard pressed to find a film with worse luck than the Black Hole.

Our story starts with a spaceship and crew travelling through the depths of space. We meet the crew, including a crusty spaceman, the token scientist, a lady with ESP and a charming little bot named VINCENT. After an opening rescue sequence, they discover they are approaching a giant black hole with a long-vanished ship already in orbit. They board the much larger ship and discover its commander, an obsessive genius who runs the ship with the aid of a platoon of robots led by the menacing Maximillian. VINCENT meets up with a battered older robot who leads him to question the intentions of the commander and especially his vague tale of the loss of the ship's human crew. As the finale approaches, the mad commander reveals his grand plan, to fly his ship into the black hole. His unwilling guests must race to escape before the predictably disastrous outcome, but Maximillian and the robotic guards have their own plans.

Per the lore, the roots of this production go back as far as 1974, when Disney's brain trusts proposed a live-action science fiction feature, original on the lines of something like The Poseidon Adventure in space. As the disaster movie trend mercifully faded, the project went in other directions, with a growing focus on a black hole. The project took shape soon drew an impressive array of middle rank talent, including Maximillian Schell as the villain Dr. Rheinhardt (surely a name more melodramatic than the character!), Ernest Borgnine of The Poseidon Adventure as the pilot, Yvette Mimieux of The Time Machine as the lady, Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens as the uncredited voices of VINCENT and his friend BOB, and everyone's favorite Psycho Anthony Perkins as the scientist. Disney's in-house crew provided the sets, models and effects, John Barry provided the ponderous score, and the toy company Mego signed on for the merchandising campaign. When the finished product reached the box office, it was quickly discounted as a Star Wars ripoff, but still earned most $36 million off a $20M budget.

This film is etched in my memory as one I wanted to like long before I got the chance to see it. I particularly remember reading a comic/ graphic novel adaptation in very early elementary school, which I acquired a possible copy of for the image in this review, already close to a decade after the movie. In the early 1990s, I finally saw it on TV, and came out more confused than impressed. Fast forward to about 2015, and I rented and then bought it to watch on my rides to work (a saga in itself that I may tell sooner or later). Watching as an adult, I found I appreciated it far more, and with the benefit of hindsight I can finally give it a fair assessment.

I can say from the start that this is by almost any standard the most well-made film I expect to review, and in a good mood I could easily give it the highest rating possible. Of course, Disney paid far too much not to expect competence, but the money is put to undeniably good use, with convincing characters, decent dialogue, and well-realized settings. However, given rating system I have designed to be fair to films with far more limitations, these tend to cancel out, and this quickly becomes a case of an ambitious film that suffers from its flaws more than a bad one. The fundamental problem is that the production sets a realistic and generally serious tone that becomes increasingly incongruous, especially in the final act.  Elements that would be good fun in a tongue-in-cheek science fantasy like Star Crash, like a shower of asteroids that act more like the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark (released 2 years later!), simply feel awkward here, while the set-piece battles became overlong if not tedious even when I watched the movie as a kid.

The big payoff her is certainly the leading bots, and how much goodwill one gives VINCENT in particular will probably settle if you like the movie He is usually held up as the central proof that the movie ripped .off Star Wars, yet comparisons are relatively limited and often favorable. This bot is as functional as R2D2, with extra anthropomorphic touches that don't quite push over into "cute"; as articulate as C3PO; and as capable and flatly deadly as any robotic protagonist short of the reprogrammed cyborg of Terminator 2. The fact that he shows no conflict of loyalties when blowing fellow machines to junk is just the right wrinkle to make him an interesting personality. His rival Maximillian is comparatively conventional but quite effective. His design is simple with a hint of mystery behind his glowing red gaze. His interchangeable arms prove to offer a variety of weaponry, with his favorite clearly being a set of whirling blades that make short work of Perkins' character. Of course, the finale sees the two in battle, and it is again as effective as anything before the Terminator franchise. Here, we finally see the kind of fast-paced and decisive action the movie deserves, set to an especially economical score that drones the same few low-key notes as the two machines size each other up before closing for the final grapple.

But the "one scene" had to be the one I absolutely remember, the ending, which was infamously written after shooting had begun. The finale sees the surviving characters dragged down into the black hole together. There, they are subjected to a series of explicitly religious visions actually foreshadowed in the film's opening scenes. Rheinhardt naturally falls into a hellish landscape along with Maximillian, culminating in an unforgettable shot of the doctor's eyes staring out from behind the bot's still-inscrutable visage. Meanwhile, the heroine experiences a somewhat more ambiguous trip through a cathedral-like tunnel of crystalline archways (suspiciously resembling the Tochata Et Fugue opening sequence of Fantasia) before emerging alive (or are they...???) with her crewmates somewhere in the depths of space. The credits roll on the final shot of an unknown planet directly ahead, transcendently illuminated by its partly eclipsed sun.

Thus, even at the end, this movie is a hot mess, weird and awkward but with more than enough good to remain interesting. It's exactly the kind of movie this feature was conceived to celebrate, and as a bonus I got to do a review I wanted to write of a movie I wanted to watch.

For links, here's a Good Bad Flicks history and review of the Black Hole, and a video by That Junkman on the toy line. See also the Introduction of the feature/ series for the rating system and other details.

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