Inescapable: The Black Hole
Disney's The Black Hole achieves the vastness and breadth of an epic in a relatively brief 97 minute runtime, and this efficiency is present in its opening scene. Foregoing lengthy introductions to its crew of spacefaring protagonists, we meet them on the approach to the Cygnus, a massive ship that will be the story's primary setting. The film can avoid extended character exposition by relying on a stellar cast to simply embody their roles. Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster, and Anthony Perkins are among the legendary talent on hand. Released in 1979, The Black Hole is the product of a decade in which the presence of movie stars could still be a major draw to audiences. Maximillian Schell, Yvette Mimieux, and Joseph Bottoms, are also part of the ensemble, which manages to create a group of distinct individuals, each sharpened to their archetypal essence.
The humans of the story are joined by a host of robots. Chief among them is Vincent, a bulky orb with large, cartoon inspired square eyes, a sharp wit and the incomparable voice of actor Roddy McDowall. Hovering effortlessly and arrayed with indispensible gadgets and weapons, he often trades philosophical barbs with his crewmates, and is deceptively tough, courageous, and resourceful. It is easy to underestimate just how endearing he can be.
Quite the opposite is Maximillian, the chief enforcer on the Cygnus. Taller than a human an generally possessing the shape of one, Maximillian is a sleek, broad shouldered crimson armor made sentient. Each of his arms is actually multiple limbs gathered into one, which can spread apart like the blades of a Swiss army knife, every component capable of dealing death. And deal it he does. The epitome of mechanical malevolence, he floats silently above the ground, the angry, glowing visor that is the red eye of his featureless face ever watchful of our main characters, waiting just around the next corner or looming menacingly in the background, anxious to strike.
The movie's other constant, foreboding presence is the titular astronomical phenomenon. In nearly every window to the starfield outside, the black hole slowly rotates, rimmed by a black haze, a glimmering spiral, churning and threatening to swallow up all that ventures too close. The Cygnus, despite its proximity, is not in danger of being pulled in. Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Schell), sole remaining member of the missing ship's original crew, has devised a gravitational shield that not only enables it to remain near the black hole, but, if his plan comes to fruition, will allow the vessel to travel safely through it. Dr. Alex Durant (Perkins), having arrived with his crewmates, is tempted to stay on board for the dangerous trip. Durant is the selfless, knowledge seeking aspect of science, and here it is seduced by the unethical, monomaniacal, ambitious aspect, the reckless want of power and prestige, as manifested in Reinhardt.
In its final act, The Black Hole assumes another trait often associated with films from the decade in which it was released, in that it becomes something of a disaster movie. Since the disaster in question occurs in a hypothetical future, and is one which humans have not yet encountered in reality, however, it manages to sidestep the sometimes troubling implications typical of that genre. Instead of earthquakes or fires, which can mirror real world tragedies, the wrath of the black hole can alternatively be enjoyed as pure action spectacle, and the setpieces here are stunningly massive and thrilling, testament to what is clearly a lavish production all around. One standout moment involves an escape across the Cygnus's enormous inner chamber from an equally large, fiery asteroid that is barreling down its length. The urgency of these sequences is enhanced by a truly exceptional and iconic score from John Barry, as well as often superb practical effects. The use of miniatures to represent spacecraft is preferable to any other method, as they are objects that can be convincingly scaled down, with sculptural detail and a properly crafted starfield being the only visual context needed. When executed competently, such models possess unequaled believability.
As their situation deteriorates, becoming more and more dire, one begins to wonder just how the film's heroes will escape the monstrous gravitational pull of the black hole. And therein lies the movie's most startling turn. In it's final minutes, The Black Hole becomes truly strange, and transforms from a spectacular, large scale science fiction adventure into something yet more unique and memorable. Whether or not the protagonists can resist the galactic force, the filmmakers themselves are irrevocably drawn into conceiving what happens within it. Though their solution is wildly surreal, the specific plotpoint of being unable to overcome this anomaly's power is an unexpected instance of scientific fidelity. Amazing that such a detail would survive here in the midst of Disney's cosmic whirlpool, where even a viewer's expectations are torn asunder.