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Extended Thoughts on ‘The Black Hole’

The Black Hole

Directed by Gary Nelson

Written by Gerry Day and Jeb Rosebrook

Something that has become a subtle poison over the years among the Disney fan community is the idea that we know what Walt Disney would have wanted. Most of the truly dedicated fans are predominantly obsessed with the Disney theme parks; thus, when an attraction opens and they don’t like it, some fall onto the old saw: “Walt wouldn’t have done this. He’s spinning in his grave right now.” It gets even worse when the Disney executives and Imagineers choose to update an old favorite or, in the case of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Walt Disney World, remove it altogether. The fans would want well enough left alone, but the Imagineers and executives would advocate change.

Now, it’s well documented that Walt Disney said that Disneyland—the only theme park with his name on it that he was actually alive to see open—would never be finished, because it would always be changing. But fans—and I admit, I’ve acted this way—are resistant to change. We’re all resistant to change, small or large. When it comes to things we hold dear, as frivolous as they may be, our protests become far louder, far more shrill. I say all of this as a prelude; I don’t like using the “Walt wouldn’t like this” argument very much, because I am not Walt Disney. (I know—you’re shocked.) I don’t know what Walt would have wanted. I do have a fairly good idea of what the Walt Disney brand is, though.

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The brand that Walt Disney cultivated in his theme parks and his films, animated and live-action, was capturing the childlike sense of wonder and awe at what the world could be. Disney, his animators, and filmmakers working for the studio were able to bring to life flights of fancy our imaginations could barely fathom. If you want to know what it’s like to live in the forest with deer, rabbits, skunks, and the like, go watch Bambi. How about an adventure on the high seas with one of the most famous pirates of all time? Check out Treasure Island. The best Disney movies, old and new, provide us with a resonant experience that is both universal and specific. Pixar has taken on the mantle of the great Disney films lately, not only because the filmmakers are making intelligent, entertaining, and emotional movies, but because they know how to appeal to our inner children.

The Black Hole does not appeal to the inner child, which is a grave error. Not every movie can do this, and the Disney name branched out after the man passed away in 1966 so even the Walt Disney brand got fractured. But The Black Hole should work; instead, it fails miserably at even being passably interesting. The concept seems right at home with the live-action films that were released while Disney himself was still alive. The crew of a spaceship searching for life at the outer reaches of space have stumbled upon a massive black hole, which can suck all matter around it into its gaping maw…but there’s another ship astride it, not moving. They must investigate this fascinating occurrence, but find themselves at the mercy of a very powerful, very smart, and very crazy man. Can they survive the black hole? Can they survive the man who wants to dive straight into literal oblivion?

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This movie has a plot that should be compelling from the word go. Describing it is more fun than watching it, unfortunately. Though The Black Hole features an impressive cast, including former and future Oscar nominees and winners Robert Forster, Maximilian Schell, Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Perkins, as well as Roddy McDowall, Yvette Mimieux, and Slim Pickens, it lies dead once the opening credits end. What goes wrong with The Black Hole is the killer trifecta: the directing, the acting, and the writing. It’s rare for a movie to be so wrongheaded from each of these angles, but that’s The Black Hole for you. Despite boasting the aforementioned actors, this movie is inert, lifeless, and dull.

I often wonder which actors are consistently great no matter the material, which actors are just bad all the time no matter the material, and which actors can be great if the writing is there or if the director coaxes out a splendid performance. Considering the varied performers here and their respective filmographies, I have to assume that the genuinely terrible acting here is a mix of actors being bored out of their minds and not caring who knew about it and actors who could only do well if they cared or the director tried to make them work at it. While I was not expecting Shakespearean-level emoting here, the performances here surprised me in how poor they were.

Though no one comes out unscathed, I was most shocked at Perkins, who plays Dr. Alex Durant, one of the crew members of the Palomino, the ship that discovers the Cygnus hanging on the edge of the black hole. Durant is immediately taken by the captain of the Cygnus, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Schell), who is just about ready to send his ship into the black hole and whatever wonders it may hold. I presume that we are meant to find Reinhardt a compelling, enigmatic, mysterious figure. Though some of the Palomino’s crew is immediately wary of Reinhardt, Durant is swayed, a true believer out of the gate. Partly because the dialogue is on the nose and bafflingly straightforward, Perkins never sells his character’s newfound beliefs.

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What’s more, Perkins’ final scene is laugh-out-loud funny when it should be horrifying. The first half of The Black Hole tiptoes around the idea of whether or not Reinhardt is a bad guy. We assume that he’s got a few screws loose, thanks to Schell’s bulging eyes and his homeless-guy hair and beard. No one who looks so gaunt and frazzled could be truly good, but it’s not until Durant, out of curiosity, pulls off the mask of one of Reinhardt’s robots that we get confirmation.

See, Reinhardt’s ship used to be peopled by…well, people, including the father of one of the Palomino’s crew members. But the Cygnus was lost for 20 years, and everyone on Earth presumed the crew was dead. Reinhardt initially says that all of the crew except him flew back to Earth, but it turns out that he lobotomized his fellow crew members so they could do his bidding. When Durant is encouraged to find out for himself what’s really going on, he’s shocked to find that, yes, the robots are actually brainwashed humans. For his troubles, he gets killed by Reinhardt’s henchman, a robot named Maximilian; Maximilian guts Durant with spinning metal blades. The death seems gruesome—though it’s a bloodless scene, it kind of is pretty dark for a Disney movie.

But what’s funny is Perkins’ face. Instead of watching this death unfold in a wide shot, we get a close-up of Perkins’ face as he dies. Picture how you looked, as a child, playing cops and robbers with your friends, as you “died.” Picture how ridiculous you tried to make your death. Picture your face, contorted and gasping, as you groan your final breaths. Picture an adult doing that in a mainstream movie. Thus, you have Anthony Perkins’ death scene in The Black Hole, which could double for his gleeful realization that, finally, he could drive himself off this picture, to paraphrase Hedley Lamarr.

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As laughable as that scene is, the overall movie never achieves a consistent tone. The special effects aren’t revolutionary, but they’re more impressive than the B-movie story being told and conveyed by the actors, who seem this close to being fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000. What’s more, the WTF-level insanity of the last 15 minutes comes out of nowhere; its existence makes me wonder if someone just told the film’s director, Gary Nelson, “We need to tip our hat to 2001: A Space Odyssey. I don’t care how, but we have to.” The climax takes Reinhardt and the remaining crew from the Palomino into the black hole.

Now, on the one hand, it makes perfect sense for the story to go here. The movie is called The Black Hole, one of the main characters’ primary goal is to go into the black hole, so it would be nothing short of flagrant false advertising for us to not see what lies in that darkness. But what does lie in that darkness is half-assed religious imagery, faux-kooky colors, and a man and robot becoming one. Because we’ve never been invested in these characters and the filmmaking is so creaky, we’re never fully sure what’s actually happening—did Reinhardt just meld into Maximilian or is it a hallucination?—and don’t really care.

Something I’ve noticed more and more is how Walt Disney’s name drives a lot of the movies from his studio. It’s rare for a Disney animated film to have an auteurish vision behind it, as opposed to the films from Pixar Animation Studios. With the latter, it’s easy to identify the difference between a movie directed by John Lasseter versus a movie directed by Brad Bird. It’s not as easy to tell the difference between a movie directed by Wolfgang Reitherman and a movie directed by John Musker and Ron Clements (aside from the obvious advancements in animation technology).

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Having a lack of vision is The Black Hole’s downfall. A story as potentially awesome as this needs to have a strong director behind the camera. I could ignore the faults of the script if it wasn’t for the slack direction from Gary Nelson, whose previous movies included that sci-fi epic Freaky Friday. I don’t know what compelled the Disney executives to hire Nelson for the job, but if he had any passion for the story, it doesn’t show up on screen.

Walt Disney was an auteur long after he passed away; the ideals that made up his animated shorts, features, and live-action films live on today. From the hearts of the dedicated fans to the minds of the Imagineers, Walt’s dream continues to thrive. However, movies like The Black Hole show what happen when the people at the top of a company have no idea how to honor the man whose name hovers over them. The Black Hole is a disaster, all right, but it’s worse for the viewer.

– Josh Spiegel