Archive for December, 2007

The Black Hole

Posted in Science Fiction on December 31, 2007 by michaelaworrall

The Black Hole
(1979, 2:35, Gary Nelson)
* – Moments of Interest

A strange, confused and ultimately absurd Walt Disney production, “The Black Hole” reworks Disney property “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, telling the same story of a mad captain and the a crew who stumble upon him, this time in outer space rather than at sea. With the seal of Nemo’s Nautilus now replaced by a cute robot and the captain’s crew resembling Jawas and Stormtroopers, the main point of reference and the target audience is that of “Star Wars”, a film whose success Disney hoped it could match.

The late 70’s were a dismal time for the Disney studios, their automated mode of production made every film look like it was directed in 1973 by their in-house workhorse Robert Stevenson, and so the studio set out to make contemporary pictures with an edge(read: rated PG) to prove that it could be a player in the new Hollywood of Lucas and Spielberg. Thus “Escape from Witch Mountain” became “The Watcher in the Woods” (which, ironically, was recut in post-production because Disney feared
that the occult theme was too strong and would scare away their family audience) and “The Cat from Outer Space” morphed into “The Black Hole”, which was heralded as the new beginning of the modern Disney film.

Technically, the film may match or even excel the special effects of “Star Wars” and its imitators but the sequences between these attractions still have the stolid and flat feel of older Disney films, as if the studio were afraid of or reluctant in entirely retooling their production process. Much of the design and lighting of the film retains the look of their Fifties to Seventies live-action pictures, thus almost rendering the film outdated. A sequence taking place within a stunning set of a large control center with the cosmos stretching outside is followed by a dinner scene that looks and plays like it was lifted directly from the 1952 “20,000 Leagues”. The characters are carbon copies of those in any 50’s sci-fi film: while these characters may be a genre convention, they are written and played with no attempt to expand upon or update them from that era (though Ernest Borgnine does say damn a few times, assuring the film would get a PG rating back then). Disney may have wanted to have it both ways, telling young audience members that they could be hip but assuring older generations that they haven’t gone too far out.

The shifting from the shopworn to the latest fad is reflected in a conflict and/or confusion in the film’s style, and the many borrowings of past science fiction films further deter it from having much of an original vision. Yet, there is something oddly compelling about the film. The visual anachronisms do not entirely override the sense of scope and awe in some sequences and while the script is mostly compost, it does have some of the strangest subtext of any Disney film. There is an undercurrent of homoeroticism between the captain of the ship, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (played with effortless pomposity by Maximilian Shell), and one of the captive crew, Dr. Alex Durant (played by, of course, Anthony Perkins). The glances and mutual remarks of recognition between the two doctors, along with the almost drooling admiration of Reinhardt that Perkins imparts in his performance, makes one wonder what the folks at Disney were intending or just oblivious to.

As if the homoerotic aspect of the film is not baffling enough for a Disney film, there is the matter of the ending. While Dr. Reinhardt is hell bent in seeing his large ship travel through the black hole, the remaining captives slip out via an escape pod. It seems the path of the black hole literally ends in heaven or hell, and depending on the characters’ morality, that’s where they end up. So, while the “good guys” find themselves in an atmosphere of bright light reminiscent of the ending of “2001” — with soft focus angels filling in for the Starchild — Dr. Reinhardt and his evil, robot henchman crash-land in hell. In this extraordinary sequence, the camera tracks across a giant miniature of hell complete with burning flames, cavernous mountains and tortured souls, and ends on the doomed villains.

After the financial failure of “The Black Hole”, the teen comedy “Midnight Madness” — which was released under the banner of Buena Vista Distribution because the folks at Disney were embarrassed by the film — and “Tron”, Disney created Touchstone Pictures so it could venture more freely into PG and R-rated features without hurting Uncle Walt’s reputation. It is also worth noting that the release of “The Black Hole” on DVD was spearheaded by the independent company Anchor Bay — who also produced the DVD–indicating how little Disney wanted anything to do with their own production or thought that it had any audience. With its mixture of 50’s science-fiction films, “2001”, “Star Wars” and the generic style of Disney live-action films, “The Black Hole” may be an ill-conceived venture into contemporary filmmaking that some feel should be forgotten, but a Disney film that literally takes the audience to hell is a unique experience.