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!

Trouble in DKC

I was reminiscing with a friend the other day about our earliest video game experiences. Some of the games I thought about then hadn’t been in my mind for years. Maybe the first video games I remember are SNES titles: Disney games like Beauty and the BeastToy Story, and The Lion King; Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park 2; and Super Mario All-Stars plus Super Mario World. The Mario games are still delightful to play, of course; they’re iconic. The other games…are licensed titles for big franchises. They don’t all hold up as well. Perhaps it may surprise you if you haven’t played it, but I’d say The Lion King was the best of that bunch. It was a frustrating game, a side-scroller requiring repetitious attempts to master platforming movements with a sometimes less-than-precise control scheme, but the graphics were gorgeous for the time. I never got very far as a kid, but it was always a treat to play through the “Can’t Wait to be King” sequence, leaping across the backs of vividly colored animals (an example of someone’s play through that level can be found here).

The most vivid early gaming memory I have involves Donkey Kong Country. Rare would become a favorite developer of mine in the soon-to-follow N64 era. Donkey Kong Country was the first Rare game I encountered, and I loved it. The graphics are still gorgeous, with incredibly vibrant backgrounds and colorfully menacing enemies. The platforming was often challenging, but (except, perhaps, for mine cart levels) it always felt fair–you just had to learn how best to approach any given situation. And the setting was delightfully absurd in the way of the best Nintendo traditions, giving a whole new character and wacky world to a former Mario villain (not to mention a great collection of associates, like Cranky Kong or Diddy, and a ridiculous archenemy in King K. Rool).

Dkc_snes_boxart

The thing is, Donkey Kong Country was decidedly not my game. The Internet tells me that DKC was originally released in 1994. Depending on when, exactly, in 1994 it was, I would have been five or six years old. My parents’ divorce couldn’t have been that long before. My sister and I lived with our mother in Florida, but we were being introduced to the eventually familiar pattern of summers and Christmas holidays in Indiana with my father. My father, a doctor, always had a smorgasbord of toys and games and activities for us when we visited. Hence the collection of SNES games. But my father was also something of a gamer at the time–I don’t think he’d ever call it that, but he’ll admit to having experimented with video games for a while, and I remember what must have been Sega CD discs for Dune and at least one flight sim, games I never was allowed to play. Donkey Kong Country was decidedly my dad’s game.

He and my stepmother (who wasn’t my stepmother yet, if I have the timeline right) had been working through Donkey Kong Country for a while. If memory serves correctly, they were perhaps a level away from the final boss. That’s a feat that, I must admit, I’ve never achieved in the years since. My sister and I were allowed to play in a separate file, though.

We were kids. My sister is a year and a half younger than me, and I was probably six years old in the incident that follows. We were not good at this game, and we did not get very far at all. But even the first levels were so fun and beautiful to look at, and it was a game that supported two players playing at once, so it was something we could play together.

dkc-multiplayer-menu.jpg

It is also true that my sister and I have always been competitive at best, if not outright belligerent towards each other. So one day, after agreeing to play Donkey Kong Country, we almost immediately got into an argument over which of us should be player one, and who should get to pick the game file. Maybe there was more to it, but that level of stupid, nearly incomprehensible, argument sounds about right.

DKC was not child-proof. Given that the game could be expected to be played by kids, it could almost be seen as a critical flaw that both players could control menu options at any time. And that, when two players are both smashing opposite directions and opposing buttons as fast as possible on the controllers, it is easy to cycle not just through game files but to the Erase Game option.

erase-game.png

These possibilities became reality. And in our momentary hatred, we somehow spun through the options and–in a flash of rapid button presses–deleted my dad’s save file.

Gone.

Irrecoverable.

hqdefault

If I had any honor or integrity, I would have gone to my father to apologize. To explain that my sister and I had a foolish argument, and that we had let our tempers get the better of us, and we had deleted the save file.

But I was five.

My memory fails me on the exact details, but I must have rushed to my dad to tell him all about how my sister and I were in an argument, and she started hitting buttons when she wasn’t supposed to, and she alone deleted the save file.

My sister was blamed for the whole incident. And my dad never played Donkey Kong Country again.

It’s become a minor piece of family lore. A few years back, I finally came clean and owned up to my share of the responsibility for the deleted file. To my father, this was an old incident. But to my sister, it was a little bit of vindication–even as I began to recite the actual story, she already knew exactly what incident I was speaking of.

And that’s my first vivid video game memory. Somehow, I’ve kept playing video games ever since.