Hollywood Century, 1979: In which everybody wants to be the new Star Wars
Star Wars made an enormous shit-ton of money in 1977. We've clarified that already, but it's worth bringing it up over and over again, because it was the definitive truth in American filmmaking in the latter half of the 1970s, basically until E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial finally proved that a movie could make an even more enormous shit-ton of money in 1982.
Now, enormous shit-tons of money are the one thing absolutely guaranteed to get everybody's attention in Hollywood, and after Star Wars made one, every other studio immediately started figuring out the best way to leach onto its success with a furious sucking intensity. The most direct and famous example from 1979 - the year that the rip-off machine's efforts began to explode across the screen - was when Paramount realised, "what the heck, we have a preexisting franchise with 'Star' right there in the title", and attempted to copy George Lucas's fluffy, boisterous space adventure with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in which we spend something like six hours watching William Shatner travel in a shuttle pod through space dock. The most openly pathetic has got to be Moonraker, the movie where producer Albert Broccoli double-dog-dared us to believe that James Bond was in space and had a space laser now.
The particular wannabe Star Wars we're here to talk about now, though, is The Black Hole, which does double-duty as being the film where, out of the clear blue sky, the Walt Disney Company abruptly decided "fuck it, we're going to start doing movies for teenagers", after having spent its entire post-WWII existence peddling entertainment for children. And not even real children: increasingly, after around 1962 or so, the kind of sanitised conceptual children that Walt Disney himself believed that all children should be. I do not apologise in my affection for Disney's cinema and theme parks, but oh my, did their live-action films start to get fairly awful and pandering and smarmy there in the desperate years after Walt's 1966 death.
Walt Disney Productions deciding it wanted to be in the business of "edgy" big-budget adventure films (by Disney standards, meaning that The Black Hole probably doesn't make a list of the 100 edgiest wide-release American films of 1979) does not automatically equal Walt Disney Productions knowing what the goddamn hell it was doing when trying to make a film that would appeal to teenagers. Three years later, when the company tried again with TRON, it had figured out how to avoid the most obvious mistakes made in The Black Hole, which rather desperately tries to fuse Disney's characteristic kiddie funtime japery with Star Wars-style action and world-building, and - this is the really fucked-up part - a go-for-broke psychedelic final ten minutes that suggest what they really wanted to make most of all was a laser guns 'n' zombie cyborgs version of 2001: A Space Odyssey for the whole family to enjoy. It is a bizarre grab bag of concepts from all over the place that have been stuffed firmly into one by director Gary Nelson, a TV veteran who, to his immense credit, at least manages to massage The Black Hole into something that feels more or less contiguous, no matter how badly it lurches from tone to tone.
That said, Nelson wasn't very much equipped to make a big effects extravaganza; indeed, it's characteristic of the gibbering insanity that was Disney under the management of Ron Miller, Walt Disney's son-in-law who tried to mimic that man's hands-on producing style without having much of a sense for how movies work, that The Black Hole would include among its creatives almost nobody with any business making a concept-driven sciience fiction adventure: between the director, the producer himself, and the four men credited with cobbling together the story and screenplay from spare parts culled from '50s genre films, only scenarist Richard H. Landau (who, a lifetime earlier, co-wrote The Quatermass Xperiment for Hammer Film in the UK) had any kind of experience in this style of storytelling, which might have been a useful prerequisite for anyone asked to take on the job of shepherding the studio's big bid to take a seat at the grown-up table with one of those big space pictures of its own. And Miller had to work to assemble that shallow bench of talent: I had always assumed, without checking, that The Black Hole was put together by the usual roster of Disney contractors who cranked out all the studio's other live-action pictures, but in fact, there aren't really any meaningful Disney connections in any of those writers' filmographies. The crew heads are a different story: from editorial to sound to VFX to costume to set design, the actual work of putting the movie together was handled by a consortium of Disney lifers.
And perhaps that fact explains why, for all its unquestionable failures as a sci-fi adventure, or as any kind of self-contained work of dramatic fiction whatsoever, really, The Black Hole is impossible for me to actually write off. Not for the first time nor, I am sure, for the last, I find myself writing a review for a movie where all the script problems in the world can't disguise how unbelievably gorgeously the thing has been designed: everything else could have gone wrong (and only some of it does), but production designer Peter Ellenshaw, art directors John B. Mansbridge, Robert T. McCall, & Al Roelofs, and set decorators Frank R. McKelvy & Roger M. Shook would still have created one of the most perfect visual settings for any genre film in the immediate post-Star Wars era. And the several different visual effects teams - animators, matte painters, model builders, and so on, making up a solid half of the end credits - executed the realisation of the most fanciful, extreme elements of the film's design with great aplomb. Oh, you can see the seams pretty easily in some isolated cases (the titular black hole, for example, which always appears to be in a box separate from the rest of the universe), but usually the sheer magnitude of the effects overcomes the handful of places where it's 2014 at the time of this writing, and the movie came out in 1979 and there's an awful lot of evolution in the art form that went on between those points in history. Granting that, it's still not the state of the art: in the class of '79, Star Trek certainly had more accomplished VFX, and Alien presented a far more plausible, lived-in, functional world. But if I had to pick the one that I just wanted to look at, I honestly suppose it might be The Black Hole. For if it is not a very satisfying Disney film in any other way, it presents marvelous, fantastical vistas to gawk at.
I could go on and on about that, but at a certain point, it does to at least nod in the direction of the film's plot, if just for a moment (much like the filmmakers themselves). Sometime in The Future, an American spacecraft, the USS Palomino, is wrapping up a deep-space exploration mission, her population consisting of four actual crewmembers - Capt. Dan Holland (Robert Forster), Lt. Charles Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), science officer Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), and Token Woman Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux) - and one tagalong journalist, Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine). And, we must certainly not forget, one robot, V.I.N.CENT. whose name improbably stands for "Vital Information Necessary Centralized", voiced by Roddy McDowall. He's - it's? - kind of the only important entity on the ship, either to its operation or to the film's plot; he's also the thin pretext for Dr. McCrae's presence, since she communicates with him telepathically. Not, you might think, the kind of skill that could conceivably be necessary, but that's why you didn't get to write The Black Hole, isn't it?
V.I.N.CENT. is, anyway, the most aggressively Disneyish and awful part of the whole movie: he's a round floating grey thing with a huge red drum for a face with great big googly eyes on it, an obvious attempt to make an even more kiddie-friendly R2-D2, for those audiences who managed to walk out of Star Wars somehow feeling that the biggest problem with the droids was that they didn't supply enough goofy comic relief. I will say this: the technique used to create the robot is gorgeous: at no point did I ever stop to notice that he was not, in fact, floating of his own power and fluttering around, and while I loathe with burning hate the design details that make him look so broad and cartoon-soft, there's no way to deny that his big, open, stupid fucking face is tremendously fully of personality. Which personality I also loathe, FYI. Anyway, the film lives and breathes V.I.N.CENT. While the rest of the crew spends the middle of the film with their thumbs up their collective asses, he's the character primarily driving the plot forward, and his pissy little quips, delivered in the most exasperated voice McDowall can dredge up (so imagine how very exasperated it is), are the sole source of merriment in a film that otherwise mostly consists of people discussing astrophysics in serious tones. If the goal was truly to appeal to a wider audience than just the kids that were Disney's bread and butter in the preceding decade especially, V.I.N.CENT. was a drastic miscalculation: he's the quintessence of a distressingly cutesy side character who ends up sucking all of the film's attention and energy while providing absolutely nothing of value for a viewer whose age runs to the double digits. And before the film is over, he encounters a beaten-up older model version of his line, B.O.B., voiced with equally one-note comic frippery by Slim Pickens, proving that the only thing more disgustingly cute than a round robot with enormous googly eyes is the same robot but all smooshed in and crushed with carefully harmless comic pathos.
Back to the story, which finds the Palomino encountering the long-thought-lost Cygnus, an enormous research vessel that disappeared 20 years prior, holding impossibly steady just inside the event horizon of a local black hole. Though it should be pointed out that "event horizon" is a phrase much too scientifically precise for a script with the intensely ponderous fake science words The Black Hole trots out. This physical impossibility is thanks to the genius of Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), the only human left alive on the Cygnus (which, when it went missing, also included McCrae's father among its crew, a fact that does not end up informing any element of her character arc, nor Mimieux's blank performance); he's described by a conveniently knowledgeable Booth in terms that make him sound ideally suited to be a long-lost genius mad scientist, immediately piquing Durant's icily scientific interest. And so, of course, when the Palomino crew runs into Reinhardt, he immediately starts playing the part assigned to him, he and his army of robots and especially the enormous, crimson-red knife-wielding thing he familiarly calls "Maximilian".
In every conceivable respect, The Black Hole plays like a '50s science fiction movie, from the tiny detail that the modern nations of Earth remain unchanged centuries into the future, to the frank anti-science bent of making Reinhardt's quest for knowledge indistinguishable from his psychotic disregard to human life, and making Durant the hapless apologist for the psychopath on the grounds that, "but... but learning!" Mixing wheezy old narrative tropes with modern filmmaking technique is about as classically Disneyesque as it gets, of course, and Star Wars itself openly pilfered from the '30s pulp rulebook in filling out its script. The difference is that Star Wars understands itself to be a throwback, while The Black Hole is obviously trying to do new, challenging things - if there was any reason to believe that the filmmakers or the company had anything near that much creativity, I'd be willing to call it a deliberate attempt to recapitulate the entire history of science fiction in cinema from the early '50s to 1968, beginning with the dry "let's talk science!" tone of Destination Moon, moving into the horror/sci-fi hybridisation of the later '50s, and ending up with its odd, explicitly Christian riff on the metaphysics of 2001's finale. But it's probably safer just to all it a dog's breakfast of lazy stortyelling crutches all serving to justify, however feebly, the extraordinary effects work that was meant to make The Black Hole stand tall among the glut of amazingly awesome future epics.
Oh, how it wants to be an amazing epic! It even opens with two and a half minutes of overture, a very brassy move for a picture that runs less than 98 minutes with that overture. It helps that the music, composed by John Barry, is just plain terrific: especially the main credits theme (which is totally different from the overture), a slightly threatening, insinuating piece of jagged spacey music that suggests both mystery and exciting danger, sounding precisely like the James Bond composer trying to do a Jerry Goldsmith impression, but ending up sharing the best of those dissimilar worlds. It feels like the music for a grand epic, just like the sprawling visuals look like they came from an epic, with their gloriously complex spaceships and dramatic lighting and enormous, rich starfields. And for all that, The Black Hole just can't carry it off. The story is convoluted and yet embarrassingly thin at the same time, the characters range from reedy stereotypes to aggravating comic robots, with the single, striking exception of Schell, who doesn't care at all what kind of movie he's in, and plays Reinhardt with frazzled mad-prophet edginess, glaring with a real sense of inhumanity in his enormous eyes. He's great, the film looks great, and it's a terrific technical accomplishment by every measure, but the lax directing and storytelling don't do anything with that: it's not "boring", but it goes absolutely no place, the kind of movie for which reading its "The Art of" coffee table book would be precisely as enjoyable, and for precisely the same reasons, as watching it.
Elsewhere in American cinema in 1979
-Francis Ford Coppola releases the insane, enormous beast of Apocalypse Now, the last New Hollywood film generally agreed to be great
-Robert Altman releases the insane, not so enormous Quintet, a coke-fueled odyssey that absolutely not one goddamn person agrees to be great
-Woody Allen makes the gorgeous widescreen valentine to New York, classicism, and having sex with teenagers, Manhattan
Elsewhere in world cinema in 1979
-Having fought through a bitter, messy divorce, Canadian David Cronenberg overreacts a tiny bit in his "the female body is a pit of Lovecraftian horrors" flick The Brood
-Well-regarded Japanese animator Miyazako Hayao has the chance to direct his first feature film, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro
-Insane director Werner Herzog and psychotic movie star Klaus Kinski start making Woyzeck literally the week after completing the arduous shoot of Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht