Monday, February 8, 2016

Favorite Films: "The Black Hole"

What would the Right Honorable the Lord Alfred Tennyson made of Disney's 1979 sci-fi extravaganza The Black Hole?

It was Tennyson, after all, who wrote: "'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all."  And if you were a boy of anywhere from, say, 5 to 25, in the summer of 1979, you were hopelessly in love with the promise of The Black Hole.

Disney's first PG-rated movie!  (Back when "PG" meant you had to ask mom and dad first.)

Disney's version of Star Wars!

Robots and spaceships and "a journey that begins where everything ends"!

No, this wasn't love.  It was lust.  It was the closest any of us (probably even the guys in their 20s) had come to feeling that sort of physical need to see a movie, to learn everything there was to know about it.  We waited by the mailbox for our next copy of Starlog, where more of its secrets would be revealed.  My father, a Disney shareholder, offered to take me to the 1977 annual meeting specifically so I could learn more about The Black Hole (and, incidentally, EPCOT Center).

Looking back, there were some warning signs.  The story was never reported the same way twice.  Concept art seemed to differ from month to month.  Long articles from people who went to the set were filled with lots of technical details -- but nothing about the plot itself.  Never mind.  It was all going to be made right.  After all, in the hearts of those of us who had grown up on Disney, it was Disney, not that George Lucas guy, who should have made Star Wars.  That was a Disney movie, like Treasure Island or In Search of the Castaways, an adventure movie through and through, set in space.  So, if Disney were to try to out-do Star Wars, well, there was every reason to believe they could do it!  Disney could do anything!

Except, that is, make good movies, as Charley and the Angel and The North Avenue Irregulars and No Deposit, No Return and One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing proved. Those were the movies Disney was making.  And then there was The Black Hole.

The Black Hole was going to erase all of those old memories!  Disney movies would no longer be just the ones at the 75-cent kiddie matinees ... Disney movies would play at real movie theaters where real grown-ups went.  And three weeks before it opened, I begged by father to please stop at the Fashion Valley 4 theaters and pick up tickets for opening night.  My friend John Cooley and I wanted to go.  My dad could even go with us, if he wanted!  But I was sure the movie would sell out, and I had to be there opening night.

To alleviate some of the pre-opening tension, I made a presentation to the class about what The Black Hole was going to be.  If Disney marketing had used my presentation, they would have had a hit on their hands.  I sold every seventh-grader at Emerald Jr. High School on seeing The Black Hole.  Or at least the ones in Miss Ostermeyer's English class.

We got to the theater on Friday, Dec. 21.  Two weeks earlier, Star Trek: The Motion Picture had opened, and it had the area's biggest 70mm single-screen auditorium all booked up.  We had a 150-seat theater converted into a multiplex.  It was one of those ultra narrow shoeboxes that weirdly angled up toward the front.  The Black Hole had, in a nutshell, been booked into the crappiest movie theater in the area.

We watched the movie.  Even as a kid, I knew the lips weren't matching the words, a problem I learned much later related to a process called Automated Dialogue Replacement, or "looping."  The actors were supposed to recite the lines they read on set, but they did it sloppily.  They did it without any sense of urgency or nuance in their voices.

I could see the strings on V.I.N.Cent and Old BOB.  I couldn't figure out what purpose V.I.N.Cent was meant to serve (other than "to educate" Charlie Pizer).  The story almost immediately launched into how the space crew used ESP to communicate to robots, which seemed entirely unreliable and stupid to me even then.

The visual effects ran hot and cold.  In one key scene, the heroes of the story are sent to the bridge of the mad scientist, and they see his drone soldiers painting some pretty-colored orbs.  But ... why?  It's been thirty-seven years, it's about damn time someone told me what these are!

The scientist wants to keep the exploring astronauts aboard his ship, which is parked on the edge of a gigantic black hole, even though parking a ship on the edge of a gigantic black hole is, I'm guessing, stretching the limits of even cinematic credulity.

They try to escape.  The mad scientist won't let them.  He gets his robot soldiers working for him.  If Star Wars stormtroopers were sleek, exciting, militarized, The Black Hole's metal guards were more like some newfangled gas-station attendants.  They're slow, awkward ASIMO before ASIMO was invented.  In the movie, they don't do anything and they're terrible shots.  Based solely on their gunslinging ability, I would say the entire model should be retired.

Then a meteor comes and hits the ship, which suddenly appears to be made out of fabric.  It's a cool scene, but why is the metal girding on the ship billowing?  The good guys get away.  But the ship they're using to leave has been pre-programmed by the mad scientist to to into the black hole.  "In.  Through.  And beyond," as Capt. Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) says, in one of the most halting line readings in history.  By the time he gets to "and beyond," it's hard to know if he remembered what he started saying.

They all end up going through the black hole.  Guess where it leads?  Heaven!  They die!  Or, for the bad guys, hell!  They die!  Yes, the great mystery of what's behind The Black Hole seems to be, "death," but a very highly production-designed death, half of which looks like a football commercial for antacid, half of which looks like a commercial for hair spray that promises a heavenly look.

The movie still manages to set things up for a sequel.  I think we'll be waiting a very long time.

This movie stinks.  It's a terrible film.  There is no way to possible recommend it in any sort of objective way.

And yet ... you never stop loving your first love.

You never forget just why your first love made you swoon in such a specific way.  You never forget the promise of a life together.

Inherent in The Black Hole, in every single frame of this movie, those promises still exist.  I watch it three or four times a year and expect every single time that somehow it will be a better movie, as if just by letting it sit and rest, it might have taken on the flavors and spices of all of its better ingredients.

It doesn't.  And The Black Hole remains a most decidedly awful (or at least thuddingly dull) film.

Yet it belongs on this list.  To this very day, 36 years and two months later, I see it now only as I saw it then -- rife with the promise of taking me to this incredible place on the edge of a black hole. I see those computer-generated grid-lines in the credits, hear John Barry's haunting minor-key orchestral score, look at the amazing computer-font opening credits and ... I once again enter my eternal state of optimism, the state of hope around The Black Hole that will never die, all evidence to the contrary.

So, I must speak now directly to the film.  After all these years, I have some things I need to say.

The Black Hole, you are a great film. You are one of my favorite films.  I swear you are.

Quit letting me down!

Let me live with your memory.

It's there in that memory that you take on the best possible version of yourself, the one that I can still imagine.  Within your actual celluloid walls, you offer astonishing vistas, unparalleled design, remarkable ideas.  And despite what you actually are, you've also left me with a Black Hole Rubik's cube -- I can shape and reshape you in any way I want, but I can never solve  you.  I can take your best and worst elements and I can warp and reorder them into an unlimited number of possibilities.  One of them, one day, might even be exactly the movie I wish you actually were.

You are a terrible film, The Black Hole.  You were the movie I loved and lost.

And you also hold a place in the exalted ranks of the greats.  Even if you hold that place only for me.

Thank you, The Black Hole, for being so terribly wonderful.

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