DT Moviehouse Reviews: The Black Hole

Time to blow the dust off my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. I was previously doing this alphabetically but decided, since I was watching some of these anyway, to review them out of order. Today I take a look at 1979’s very much maligned Disney sci-fi horror movie, THE BLACK HOLE.

Directed by Gary Nelson

Screenplay by Gerry Day and Jeb Rosebrook

Tagline: A Journey That Begins Where Everything Ends

The Black Hole (1979) - IMDb

What It’s About:
The crew of the deep space exploration vessel USS Palomino comes across the largest black hole ever recorded, and discovers a long lost ship, The Cygnus, once commanded by the brilliant Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell), poised impossibly at the rim of it.

Why I Bought It:

Because I’m not entirely sure which year I saw Star Wars, I believe The Black Hole may have been the first live action movie I saw in a theater. 

As a kid I only remember loving the robots V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and B.O.B. and digging the villainous Maximillian, the double-blaster wielding S.T.A.R. and his pseudo-stormtrooper droids (that looked a lot like illegitimate children of Darth Vader). I also vaguely remember a sense of existential Roman Catholic dread at the apocalyptic heaven-and-hell ending when the characters pass through the black hole and experience their just desserts/punishments as warranted.

In my adult years I grew to appreciate the technicality of the sets and models. I adore the design of the Cygnus, essentially a massive haunted house in space. It’s one of my favorite fictional spaceships. It reminds me of Chicago’s Sears Tower (sorry, Willis Tower), a monolithic skyscraper in space, replete with suspension girders and antennae. Totally black and apparently abandoned when first encountered, the lights coming on in response to the diminutive Palomino’s trespassing has the ominous effect of a single light coming on in the upstairs window of a remote battlement. Welp, they know we’re here….

In recent years, I’ve seen almost nothing good written about this movie. Perennial joykiller Neil DeGrasse-Tyson famously ripped into its scientific inaccuracies, and aside from my friend John Kenneth Muir’s thoughtful review, I’ve been kind of amazed at the almost universal ridicule this movie seems to elicit (much as I was baffled at the general dislike of Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, a consensus that has thankfully been mainly rescinded in the past ten years).

I did a recent rewatch and felt compelled to resurrect my long comatose blog feature solely to add my voice to John’s in championing it.

As an adult and with only a little fog of nostalgia, I think this is a hell of a cool movie. The relentless, nightmarish opening theme by John Barry playing over the wheeling gridlines as they form the wire-diagram of an inescapable funnel against a cavernous star field sets the stage for the mystery and madness to come, giving one the sense of hurtling through the endless void with a broken tether.

The movie boasts a nearly all-star cast, with the late great Robert Forster captaining the Palomino, Roddy McDowall as an erudite R2D2, Anthony Perkins as a breathlessly optimistic scientist, Ernest Borgnine playing a self-centered journalist, and Slim Pickens as a winsome, folksy older model bot. I’m not too familiar with Yvette Mimieux (wait – she was Weena in The Time Machine!), but she does a fine turn as a telepathic scientist who unfortunately delivers one of the movies’ oft-mocked lines about “discovering habitable life in outer space” – I swear in forty years of rewatching this movie I never noticed that. That’s how science-minded I am I guess. Joseph Bottoms is admittedly a bit bland as Lt. Pizer, but with Forster’s Captain Holland there, he’s a little redundant.

Maximillian Schell is arresting as the megalomaniacal, Nemo-esque Dr. Reinhardt, a Kurtz-like psychopath who has not only refused his recall orders in dogged pursuit of his own ends, but technologically cannibalized his mutinous crew, literally lashing them to the controls of his derelict Flying Dutchman with the help of his crowning robotic achievement, Maximillian.

There is so much going on between the lines of this movie, that it appalls me how many people casually dismiss it as hokey or boring.

The Black Hole (1979) Directed by Gary Nelson Shown: Maximilian Schell

Why is Dr. McCrae able to telepathically communicate with V.I.N.C.E.N.T? Is he really a robot or some kind of cyborg? He claims to hate the company of robots, yet B.O.B. alludes to the two of them being a ‘series’ so are they post-singularity, conscious A.I.? V.I.N.C.E.N.T.’s thoughts can be heard among the rest of the crew when they pass through the black hole at the end. Even S.T.A.R. (incidentally, portrayed by Tom McLoughlin, who went on to direct my favorite Friday The 13th entry, Part 6: Jason Lives) seems to be really emotional for a ‘bot too, displaying pride, frustration, and jealousy.

And for that matter, what is going on with the red mystery monster Maximillian? Is Reinhardt in control of the Cygnus, or is he? Schell portrays him with a furtive distractedness. Is he never quite there in the moment because he’s preoccupied with his grand purpose, or because Maximilian is influencing him? I personally get the sense he is not fully the master of events. At one point, Reinhardt pleads to Kate, “Protect me from Maximillian!” What?! Wow!  Although this line was purportedly ad-libbed by Schell, one gets the sense that Reinhardt’s genius creations have gotten away from him. Maybe he built Maximilian as an enforcer to lead the Vader-bots against the mutinous crew….or maybe some strange cosmic force from within the black hole (or the black hole itself!) is at work in the big red ‘bot (and in Reinhardt’s miraculous energy source ‘cygnum’ which somehow allows the ship to resist the pull of the black hole), considering it not only physically subsumes Reinhardt in the weird confines of the hole at the end, but also appears to stand and rule over some hellscape within. Did an ineffable alien intelligence call to Reinhardt from the hole, urge him to kill his crew and build Maximilian and then join it? Consider that all of the other robots are generally humanoid in appearance, whereas Maximilian seems like some kind of alien form, possessing neither a face, nor hands and feet, as if he was concieved not by Reinhardt, but by something with only an approximate understanding of human anatomy. “Some cause must have created all this….,” Reinhardt muses, when confronted by his macabre crimes, “but what caused the cause?” The use of the color red in these later scenes appears to signify something. Schell dons a red suit in his final scenes, Maximilian is red, and in the wake of the meteor storm the Cygnus and the hole are cast in the same blood red tones, as though the hole as an entity has been influencing events and is now manifest.

I understand the tendency of less patient viewers to roll their eyes at the sometimes dated FX and action, and I accept the reticence of modern audiences to embrace the quasi-religious ending, where the good and the bad are quite literally separated into infernal and celestial cosmic experiences, though I don’t personally agree. Has everyone died at the end? Dr. Kate muses early on that black holes could possibly one day consume the universe – again, I don’t speak to the scientific accuracy of that, but it makes for a great death metaphor. Putting aside its bizarre ending, what you have in The Black Hole, Disney’s first PG film, is a neat little sci-fi horror movie with an excellent sense of building dread, some gorgeous sets and FX (the meteor storm sequence is fantastic, as is the running laser battle through the greenhouse as it’s occurring), and some interesting subtext worth reconsidering.

Best Dialogue/Line:

“It’s about time that people learned about their failures and my successes.”

Best Scene:

I can’t stress enough what a killer reveal it is when Anthony Perkins finally lifts the mirror-face shell off one of the purportedly robot crew to discover the slack, black-eyed human face beneath. It’s genuinely chilling and a well-earned payoff after Forster’s exploration of the abandoned crew quarters, the limping gardener, the robot funeral, and the explanation of what actually went down by B.O.B.

“He would be dead by now. They all would be dead. This was the only way to keep them alive – one of my greatest achievements,” says Reinhardt. In his mind, did he save the crew? And from what?

The scene ends with Perkins’ Durant memorably holding up his book of scientific notes and calculations against the whirring blades of Maximillian to no avail. Learning is scrambled in the face of Reinhardt/Maximilian/The Hole’s madness. Great stuff.

Would I Buy It Again?

Yes. A classic, and as what might have been my first live action viewing experience, personally seminal.

Merkabah Rider Tales Of A High Planes Drifter……Adios

Howdy ‘lil boychicks and maidels,

My contract with the publisher of Merkabah Rider: Tales Of A High Planes Drifter, the first in the Merkabah Rider series (read all about that here), has ridden off into the sunset, so all those that are out there in the ether (and there are a lot) and the used paperback copies putzing around on Amazon, bookfinder, and ebay are all there will be for the foreseeable future.

I do have a limited number of hard copies on hand which fifteen bucks American (via Paypal) will part me with. Just email me at emerdelac(at)gmail.com if you want to work that out. That’s fifteen bucks shipping included, and I’ll sign it for you as well.

Books two, three, and four remain numberless, but in the next two years as their respective contracts expire, they’ll be going into a Disney-like moratorium as well, so grab ’em while they’re red hot.



In other news, it looks like in addition to my forthcoming short story appearances (I’m counting four right now), I’ve got two new releases scheduled for August, a new novel, Andersonville, and a novella collection, With Sword And Pistol.

More on those later.

Published in: on January 7, 2015 at 9:51 am  Comments (3)  
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DT Moviehouse Review: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I take a look at Disney’s underrated animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

(2001) Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

Written by Tab Murphy with Story credits including Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale, Joss Whedon, Bryce and Jackie Zabel, and David Reynolds.

Tagline: Atlantis Is Waiting…

What it’s about:

In 1914, underappreciated scholar Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) seeks to carry on his deceased grandfather Thaddeus’ quest for the legendary lost city of Atlantis. He keeps getting dismissed as a fringe academician until he is contacted by an old colleague of his grandfather’s, wealthy eccentric Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney), who recruits Milo to advise a fully funded and outfitted submarine expedition to find Atlantis. The expedition is led by a motley team of mercenaries including Commander Rourke (James Garner), his femme fatale second in command Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian), dynamite expert Vinny (Don ‘Fr. Guido Sarducci’ Novello), Doc Sweet (Phil Morris), plucky engineer Audrey Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors), geologist Mole Molierre (Corey Burton), sardonic communications expert Wilhemina Packard (Florence Stanley), and irascible cook Cookie Farnsworth (Jim Varney, in his last major performance), as well as a virtual army of gun toting red shirts. After their sub is wrecked by a mechanical submarinal guardian, Milo and the mercs find themselves in the highly advanced society of Atlantis, led by King Nedakah (Leonard Nimoy) and his daughter Princess Kida (Cree Summer). However, when Rourke comes face to face with the priceless secret energy source that had preserved Atlantis for 8,000 years, he shows his true colors and attempts to seize it for himself. It’s up to Milo and friends to stop him.

Why I bought it:

In 2001, this was the best animated movie I had seen since 1999’s sublime The Iron Giant.

It’s a 50’s style sci-fi adventure movie in the vein of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Journey To The Center Of The Earth, beautifully animated in top shelf Disney style, with fascinating, almost geometrical designs (notice the fingernails of all the characters are like diamond wedges) and conceptual work by Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame (particularly noticeable in the look of the gigantic Atlantean guardians).

While it doesn’t have the emotional impact of The Iron Giant, it’s exciting and nostalgic in the same way, and there’s not a musical number in sight (but a great evocative age of discovery score), something refreshing in animated movies at the time, and a daring if sadly unsuccessful experiment by Disney.

The voice work is all top notch too. The character animations perfectly compliment the actors’ styles, mimicking even their body mannerisms at times (particularly in the case of Milo/Michael J. Fox). Aside from the stars and the swan song performances of the always great Jim Varney and Florence Stanley, the minor characters are diverse and interesting to watch.

As a history buff, I was particularly impressed by all the cool background stuff casually dropped in the character of the African American Dr. Strongbear Sweet, who mentions growing up on an Indian reservation with a father in the famous 10th Cavalry (The original Buffalo Soldiers) and being present with the Rough Riders at the charge up San Juan Hill (the 10th was also at San Juan Hill). “I’ve got a sheepskin from Howard U and a bearskin from Old Iron Cloud.”

How cool is that?

Every frame of this movie displays an obvious love of craftsmanship and design. The movie is packed with period detail and seamlessly mixes real technology with fantastic steampunk-y inventions. Besides the Nautilus-esque submarine, I particularly liked the truck with a catapult that launched the motorized one man gliders.

In addition, the Atlantean stuff is superbly well realized, from the architecture and the retro-tech flying machines based off the sleek designs of sea creatures, right down to the invented language (there’s a neat little short on the development of that on the DVD special features).

Rourke is like Gaston’s abusive father.

I’ve heard complaints about the story and single dimensionality of the characters. I didn’t see it personally. It’s a fun movie, action packed. The good guys are likable and relatable and the bad guys (particularly James Garner, who even pitches his beautiful lieutenant off a balloon to her death to lighten the load) are suitably ruthless. There are even a number of permanent deaths (including a whole slew of gas mask wearing red shirts) which really surprised me at the time.

As in all good adventure movies, the stakes are necessarily high.

Best bit of dialogue:

Most of Jim Varney’s dialogue cracks me up. He reminds me of a John Ford stock character. The one I keep thinking of is after an attack on the camp by fireflies (literally giant flaming flies). Cookie gets singed in the backside and drops trou, declaring;

“Dang lightning-bugs done bit me on my sit-upon! Somebody’s gonna have to suck out this poison. Don’t everybody jump up at once.”

Best scene:

Actually the entire climactic sequence takes the cake for me.

After Princess Kida melds with the power source of Atlantis (alternately described as living and sentient and as the collective will of all Atlanteans, but definitely containing the spirits of members of the royal family it has previously merged with) and is transmogrified into some kind of brilliant blue water elemental being, Rourke and Helga (and an army of red shirts) decide to take her to the surface and sell her to highest bidder (the Kaiser is alluded to).

Milo uses the Atlantean power crystals to get the flying machines running and takes off in pursuit with a contingent of Atlantean warriors and the rest of the mercenaries, whose consciences get the better of them after Rourke murders King Nedakah.

What follows is a thrilling subterranean aerial battle between the Atlantean craft and Rourke’s mechanical gliders, full of plasma blasts and chattering Maxim machineguns, and ending with an explosion that immolates the paralyzed Helga and sends a crystallized Rourke (he is transformed horribly by a scratch from one of the power crystals) smashing into the fan of a crashing balloon.

The explosion also triggers a dormant underwater volcano which threatens to envelop Atlantis, until Princess Kida calls on the power source to activate a series of gigantic mystic stone automatons which rise from their 8,000 year slumber to erect a protective energy shell over the city against the avalanche of magma.

It’s a sweeping, exciting sequence in the tradition of the best kind of pulpy adventure.

Would I buy it again? Yes. Also of note, Disney intended to produce an ongoing television series involving Milo and Kida (and the good mercenaries) searching the globe for Atlantean artifacts. After the movie flopped at the box office, these plans were abandoned, and the three produced episodes were put together and released as Atlantis 2: Milo’s Return. It’s too bad the show didn’t go through, because the three episodes are enjoyable excursions to different parts of the globe and delve into different mythologies (native American and Norse). The first episode involves a seaside town that makes a bargain with a sea monster – it’s EXTREMELY Lovecraftian in tone, an obvious homage, particularly when you consider the excised end postscript scene (which is still viewable on the DVD special features), which features a woman asking her unseen baby for a hug and having a wormy tentacle emerge from the bunting!

NEXT IN THE QUEUE: Attack The Block