Retrospective: The Black Hole (1979)

One of my friends loves Disney’s 1979 sci-fi adventure, The Black Hole (directed by Gary Nelson, who is probably better remembered for his television work or the original film version of Freaky Friday), and he has encouraged me to watch it for a while now. I was interested by the premise, and with Disney+ making so much of the Disney back catalog available, I had no excuse not to watch it. It is the first of many Disney sci-fi and fantasy films from the seventies and eighties that I hope to watch over the coming months, and it was an interesting first choice indeed.

The premise is initially simple: the crew of a deep-space exploratory vessel discovers a long-lost research station somehow floating just above the event horizon of a black hole. After almost being pulled into the black hole’s gravity, they dock with the seemingly derelict station, and over the remainder of the film, they discover its secrets. But there’s so much weirdness layered on top of and woven between that simple premise. Please keep with me here–I’m going to get into a lot of the dumb and the bad at first, but it has its charms.

The movie starts off weird: the first two minutes and twenty-six seconds play the parade-style score over a black screen. We’re introduced to the (all-white) crew, with one blonde woman among the overwhelmingly male presence. This woman is a doctor, but most people refer to her by her first name, including the enigmatic surviving leader of the space station. She also possesses ESP, a concept that isn’t really developed much at all other than to provide a convenient plot device: she can communicate telepathically with the ship’s robot assistant. How does she possess such a power? Why is it treated as normal? How can you use telepathy with a robot? Why is the only woman, who is a doctor, largely characterized as someone who can feel deeply and sense the emotions of others?

The robot, on the other hand, is a purely Disney droid. He’s absolutely adorable. He’s bold and sassy and speaks in popular sayings and riddles. He acts like a vulnerable puppy at times but he always gets the job done when called on. IMDb informs me that V.I.N.C.E.N.T. is voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall, who does great work providing a warmth, earnestness, self-assurance, and dry wit to the little bot. As much as Vincent seems particularly engineered to be cute and likable, I can’t help but buy in completely. He was, in many ways, the heart and soul of the movie. He was probably the most heroic, and he was easily the most competent, all while poking big ol’ eyes out of his tortoise shell of a torso. And really, this seems exactly how you’d want to design a robot interacting closely with humans in an enclosed environment: overwhelmingly capable, but reassuring and cute, someone you’re bound to like and feel safe around. He’s the anti-HAL.

Much of the rest of the movie doesn’t make as much sense from a design or scientific perspective. The ship designs are cool enough but not especially memorable. The depiction of the black hole (and gravity, and anti-gravity, and exposure to vacuum, and comets, and so on) was wonky and certainly bad science even for the time. The ending in particular seemed to want to have a mind-bendingly bizarre conclusion like that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it falls flat, playing heaven-and-hell tropes far too literally without saying much. That we would have heaven and hell displayed was clear enough early on in the film, when characters would make melodramatic statements about how a black hole looks like hell itself or could contain the very mind of god.

You can feel Disney’s desire to cash in on the sci-fi space adventure genre. Star Wars premiered in 1977. Alien came out earlier in the same year as The Black Hole, and that year also saw a Buck Rogers reboot. Flash Gordon would release a year after Disney’s foray into the craze. Dune would come out in 1984. Sadly, The Black Hole feels like a movie chasing after the greatness of Star Wars and Alien, like the others. Its special effects are impressive for the time–but Star Wars and Alien look better. It has crisp, distinctive sound design, but it often likes to play with dated B-movie sound effects. John Barry’s score is somewhat generic and mundane, like a knock-off of a bombastic John Williams soundtrack or the older sci-fi serials that preceded them all, although when Barry’s score goes for an eerie refrain instead of more pomp and circumstance, it can be effective. At its worst, it makes action scenes feel even flatter than they would be without music, which is really saying something.

That said, I respect writers Jeb Rosebrook, Gerry Day, Bob Barbash, and Richard Landau for at least telling a new story. In a world awash with more Star Wars and Alien films, and plenty of other franchise staples, reboots, sequels, remakes, and adaptations, it’s refreshing to see something different. The story and the production both seem a bit unrefined, but this also gives the film quite a bit of quirkiness. And while the movie released into a post-Star Wars world, it feels more like it was an eighties movie designed to appear like a fifties or sixties scif-fi pulp adventure. It felt more like Lost in Space or Forbidden Planet or the original Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even though the story doesn’t betray the slightest hint of scientific awareness, with plenty of nonsense shoved in, it nonetheless focuses on a small team of characters who must face the unknown with logic, heart, and bravery. They aren’t going to start/end a war or get swept up in a religious crusade. The appearance of the costumes and set designs felt more of that earlier sci-fi era, as well.

It also did something I loved, something I believe I’ve talked about on this site in other contexts before: it mixed a big space sci-fi story with the intimate creepiness of a Gothic horror tale. That’s an element of the plot that I haven’t even really touched upon. But the secrets of this eccentric and isolated science station leader, his missing crew, and the robotic army he’s assembled slowly unravel through unescorted detours to observe hidden proceedings in remote rooms down abandoned halls, or in melodramatic yet polite conversations in an ornately appointed dining room. You can guess the abominable scheming of the villain in advance, especially if you recognize the tropes. That element of the film’s plot was almost as engaging as Vincent’s storyline, and more interesting. But I actually don’t want to get into further details here, because if you haven’t seen this movie yet, even decades after it came out, I think it will be more fun to find out on viewing it.

I don’t have much to say about the cast; the acting was serviceable, but I wouldn’t point to a stand-out performance, aside from Vincent and his charming older-model counterpart, B.O.B. (and wow, that’s apparently an uncredited Slim Pickens–no wonder I liked him). Other than that, whether an otherwise star actor or obscure talent, none of the performances were stellar (get it? space joke). Maximilian Schell portrays a megalomaniacal, amoral, and charismatic villain who veers toward desperation as his plans deteriorate. Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, and Yvette Mimieux are forgettable as the ship’s crew (yes, Anthony Perkins is forgettable here), but their scoundrel of a journalist attache, Harry Booth, is played with self-important bluster and a layer of sweaty sleaziness by Ernest Borgnine. No one’s acting is ever really bad–it’s just lackluster. But I suppose they did what they could with the script, which generally lacks much emotion or nuance and makes sometimes arbitrary character choices.

I discussed a lot of the weirdness and faults of the movie above, but I hope I also highlighted its charms and eccentricities. It was a fun family space adventure. It’s definitely a product of its era, and yet it reached back to pull themes and ideas from times that preceded it. It’s serious and goofy and engaging. It wants to be metaphysically intriguing, though it doesn’t have much to say. I never got bored with it.

To my friend who recommended it: thank you for the suggestion; even though I didn’t love it like you do, I did have a fun time!

Alien’s 40th

Alien released in theaters to American audiences on May 25, 1979. The franchise keeps slithering forward in myriad directions, and this year marks its fortieth anniversary. It is clear that 20th Century Fox plans to celebrate that, starting with a series of short films produced in partnership with Tongal and released on IGN. The six titles–“Containment,” “Specimen,” “Night Shift,” “Ore,” “Harvest,” and “Alone”–serve as an excellent representation of the larger constellation of films, novels, comics, and games: rough, uneven, curious, often fascinating and genuinely terrifying, and occasionally just plain disturbing. Additionally, Sam and I are both intrigued by the recently announced Alien tabletop RPG, which sounds quite promising to me. I can’t wait to be an underpaid, disgruntled space mechanic who gets swiftly killed by an alien!

One of the most unusual fandoms that my wife and I share is that of the Alien movies. Neither of us are fans of horror, but we both watch Alien with dread fascination at least every Halloween season, and we delight in the high-octane adventure of Aliens. More than the horror, and even more than the scary and very cool creature, set, and prop design, I really like the characters and burnt-out, working-class setting. I like the idea of a larger, drab, hyper-corporate galactic society. And I like that the xenomorph, for all its terror, represents one very horrible but isolated threat in a small, out-of-the-way part of that galaxy. The feel of the films is like Star Wars without hope (and with even more banged-up, retro-futuristic technology), except that instead of focusing on a great hero, we’re following the space trucker who’d refuel Tosche Station.

Because of that, I’ve lost interest in the franchise’s more recent shift toward increasing gore and body horror (though I’m not kidding anyone: from the very first film, that’s been an important part of the visual storytelling, tone, and even the themes of the film, so I’m not opposed to it on principle). I also could care less about the positioning of the xenomorph in the context of some greater mythos, some half-baked reconstitution of Chariots of the Gods with biological warfare. And sometimes, even when I really like what an Alien title is doing, it’s still just too scary and intense for me to press on with (I’m looking at you, Alien: Isolation).

These short films were, thankfully, very much my cup of tea, even though I didn’t love them all. They’re all small vignettes about working-class people trying to survive one very shitty situation after another. The basic premise is shared from film to film: xenomorph shows up, people die. But each film explores a different little corner of a much larger universe.

That said, I’d like to share my thoughts on those short films, in no particular order.

“Alone” is a fascinating premise–what would happen if a facehugger and an android are left alone together? The execution isn’t perfect, but it goes in some weird and interesting directions.

“Harvest” is a rather blunt story. Alien couldn’t be more obviously about sex, sexual violence, and pregnancy as body horror, and yet “Harvest” makes the implicit subtext explicit with the presence of a pregnant woman, with the title, and with the theme of procreation and preservation (at least through the eyes of the android). The title made the “twist” ending expected, and the flat acting and illogical actions of the party leader make it clear what she actually is all too soon.

“Specimen” is a creepy, intense survival horror set in a locked-off greenhouse. It kept me on edge throughout, the ending was satisfying, and it also introduced the idea of non-human androids. This was a cool episode and, I thought, had one of the better performances from its lead.

“Containment” is forgettable. Alien runs amok in closed quarters. Nothing we haven’t seen before. The title alludes to the crew’s efforts to keep the infestation contained when salvagers recover their escape pod. That’s…more or less the whole story right there. Much of the nuance, such as there is, comes in how the survivors react to their impending doom.

“Night Shift” is kind of fun, and the ending–with our protagonist momentarily victorious and momentarily secure in her locked-down storeroom even while a full-on alien infestation breaks out in the larger colony–is dark and fatalistic.

Finally, “Ore” is fucking amazing. The lead is an awesome, sympathetic, blue-collar hero. Tensions between management and mine workers are escalated not only by the alien but by the fact that management is actually an android company plant. The characters and their working conditions and lives are pretty central to the story being told. And the final scene, with the miners rallying together in the face of the alien threat, is incredible. If you only watch one, I’d pick this.

All told, as a series of fan films, I was impressed by the production and acting quality and the variety of stories told, even though I didn’t love every single one.

I can’t handle Alien: Isolation

My wife and I are fans of the Alien movies, even though she’s never cared to watch beyond Aliens, and I sort of wish I hadn’t. The movies have only gotten dumber and gorier. But we both looked forward to Alien: Isolation; all advance details really indicated a game that faithfully recreated the look and feel of the original film, that accurately captured the sheer frightfulness of the lethal killer alien. After many games that revolved around mowing down dozens of aliens, and many disappointing films, this game looked promising.

The reviews seemed positive but mixed when the game released; we held off on a purchase until it went on sale. And we were impressed. It looked and felt like a direct sequel and spiritual successor to Alien. Small details were perfect: the dank, dim, narrow corridors aboard the ships; the sheen of sweat on the brows of the overworked characters; the working-class space trucker vibe imbued in both the characters and set pieces; the tiny props and magazines. We were engaged with the story, and the alien was terrifyingly unpredictable, unstoppable, and seemingly omnipresent.

I played the game while my wife watched. Playing the game could be unnerving and discomforting for us, as neither of us favors survival horror titles (and, outside of a select few films and books, we largely dislike the horror genre). But we loved the palpable sense of tension, the build-up to the reveal of the xenomorph, and the use of music and lighting and ambient sound and intense stealth-based gameplay to really amp up the tension and terror.

Then we got to the medbay level. The medbay level, I have since learned, is a common place for players to burn out on the game; it is apparently a trial by fire, a drastic upswing in difficulty, and notably more challenging and frustrating than other sections around it. The alien drops down from an overhead shaft, uncoiling in a truly chilling moment, and begins to hunt the halls for prey. You see it before it has seen you, so you have the chance to hide. You can creep through the halls and dip through a central observation room, hoping to evade the creature, but things are made considerably more difficult because you need to be able to get into some back offices through a password-locked door.

I died again and again and again at this point, whereas before I had a few close calls but got through more or less unharmed. And once I got through the naked and exposed corridors and successfully entered the code to get past the locked door, the alien would be drawn to those back offices. Suddenly, where it may have made a cursory inspection before, it would hover near my hiding places. It would investigate a room, leave, and then almost immediately retrace its steps. I couldn’t keep it away long enough to make sufficient progress at all once I got to those back offices. I have since read one frustrated player describing the encounter as feeling like the alien was almost physically tethered to you, and I couldn’t agree more.

Our emotions arced from thrilled terror to mild anxiety to general frustration to delirious amusement to simple boredom and back to frustration. I can’t recall at this point in time what difficulty I had been playing at–I think normal–but I grew so frustrated with the game that I kept lowering difficulty, without notable improvement. Maybe my competence was eroding with the increased frustration, outstripping the benefits of the lower difficulty settings.

On one run, I got so close to my objective, but the alien was approaching. I ducked into a hiding place before it detected me, but it crept closer and closer. Then it was glaring right outside my hidey hole, and suddenly, without any prior exposure to the concept or to the necessity of the feature, the game prompted me to hold my breath! I missed the quick action prompt, the alien ripped the door to my hiding spot off the hinges, and I was dead.

So that was the end of our efforts with the game.

Months passed.

With the ramp-up to Alien: Covenant, the release of the new Prey game, and an incidental reference to the intensity of the A:I experience in a podcast, I found myself holding renewed interest in the game.

I opened Steam and navigated to the game in my library. But I couldn’t quite pull the trigger and click “Play.” As if warming up to the task, I turned to my wife to tell her that I was going to give the game a try again. She seemed excited, at first, but not particularly eager to start at that moment–or at any other specific time in the near future. So I would have to go it alone. I still couldn’t quite get myself to start playing, either. After a few minutes, I realized I’d started pacing. It dawned on me that the idea of playing the game was actually causing some anxiety. I went to social media, vented about my situation, and expected to give up on the whole attempt.

Maybe I just needed a push in the “right” direction. Regardless, a friend of mine replied to my post, suggesting I should just play for a little bit, just for a quick taste of the setting and tone. That did it.

I logged back in–choosing to start a new game rather than continue, because fuck the goddamn med bay, and choosing to play on novice difficulty, because I don’t have the time or energy to struggle with an overly tough game anymore–, plugged in my headphones, and settled in for the attempt.

I played about half an hour that night, and I played half an hour the following night. Maybe less. I’ve been dragging out the experience of the game’s early moments, savoring the environmental storytelling and attention to detail (though as usual, the repetition of graffiti messages is a little immersion-breaking, when I’m not too tensed up so that I can actually reflect on them).

I don’t know how long I’ll keep coming back to the game. But boy, it just nails the environment so well. The world feels so lived-in, so real and tactile and plausible. The retro-futuristic tech looks fabulous and connects so well with the original film. And most impressive of all, even knowing when the alien first appears in the game, even knowing that I am basically “safe” for a good portion of the early part of the game, I am still on edge, easily dipping into fright, jumping at the THUMP of an activated bank of lighting or the distant creaking and groaning of the space station’s innards.

One thing I’ve found interesting to chart in my quiet moments are some of the books that I’ve come across during my brief, quiet explorations. There are lots of posters and magazines, but so far relatively few books.

Here are a couple:

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War in Totality, by Frank Herman.
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This Man, This God, with an undetermined author (perhaps “Alicia Ewald”).

The titles alone reinforce the game’s mood and themes. The space station on which much of the game is set has degenerated into “total war” between human factions and the rogue Working Joe androids. Man’s attempt to create facsimiles of life, in the form of androids and advanced AI, is often a secondary theme in many Alien films and, to my understanding, often serves as an important theme in this game (i.e., man plays god and fails at it). So maybe the book titles are a little on the nose, but they’re clever echoes of the larger themes in the game, even though you can’t interact with the books any further as you can in games like Deus ExDragon Age, or The Elder Scrolls.

Unfortunately, neither of the books or their authors appear to reference anything in the real world. While hardly necessary, simply flagging real-world books that would illustrate similar themes would have been a clever nod, and it is something that has been done in other games (I’d again cite Deus Ex here as an example).

As you can see, I really do admire the attention to detail presented in this game. It’s just such a shame that it becomes too frustrating for me to proceed at some point. Who knows? Maybe I’ll keep playing, at least intermittently, eventually reach the medbay, and clear it this time around with flying colors. More than likely, I’ll give it up yet again, though.

Either way, it’s fascinating that a game that can frustrate me as much as Alien: Isolation can have such a powerful hold over me.

Now, will I see Alien: Covenant? No idea. The reviews are all over the place (Polygon versus io9, for instance). But given that my aversion to gore is only increasing with age, and given that this is supposed to be the goriest movie in the franchise yet, it’s a fair bet that if I do watch the movie, it’ll be at home, during the day, with my remote in hand, ready to mute and look away at any moment.