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Pulp Culture
Disney's 'The Black Hole'
is an interesting failure


April 15, 1999
By Franklin Harris

Disney has a habit of dropping its embarrassments down the deepest holes it can find, hoping they'll never again see daylight.

Disney's one attempt at a reasonably mature animated feature, "The Black Cauldron," languished in a vault from 1985 until last year, when, after a change of heart, the Mouse Factory finally released it on video with all the usual fanfare.

Meanwhile, "Song of the South," Disney's 1946 mixture of live action and animation, based on Joel Chandler Harris' "Tales of Uncle Remus," is available only as imported bootlegs. Political correctness prevents Disney from releasing an American version.

It's little surprise, then, that when "The Black Hole" finally reappeared on video, after a long period out of print, it wasn't on a Disney label.

Fortunately, Anchor Bay Entertainment's new "Black Hole" video and DVD releases give film its due, for the most part.

"The Black Hole" premiered in 1979, an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of "Star Wars." But it met with harsh reviews from critics and audiences alike, largely because the film didn't know what it wanted to be.

Sporting a first-rate cast, which includes Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux and Ernest Borgnine, "The Black Hole" is, first and foremost, a science fiction thriller. In it, the crew of the explorer ship Palomino discovers a lost spacecraft, the Cygnus, and its arrogant commander, Hans Reinhardt (Schell).

Twenty years before, Reinhardt ignored recall instruction from Earth, deciding instead to fulfill his own ambitions, with the assistance of his robotic and "humanoid" crewmembers, led by the silent, devilish robot Maximilian.

Now, having perfected his own gravity-manipulating devices, he stands ready to enter the most powerful force in the universe, a black hole, which Reinhardt believes may lead him into the mind of God.

But, in addition to his mad dreams, Reinhardt has several dark secrets, including the fate of the Cygnus' original, human crew.

"The Black Hole" starts as a promising film, one that pays some attention to scientific accuracy and has impressive visual effects. The opening scenes of the Palomino surveying the seemingly abandoned Cygnus are particularly impressive, as are the zero-gravity effects -- although, with the pristine film print used for the DVD release, you can see the wires if you look closely.

The film is, in many ways, the theological counterpart to "2001: A Space Odyssey." Both "The Black Hole" and "2001" end with symbolic, evolutionary journeys. But whereas "2001's" psychedelic trip into the infinite and beyond is a strictly secular event, "The Black Hole's" climax is a tour of Heaven and Hell, the payoff for the film's numerous allusions to Dante's "Inferno."

Unfortunately, "The Black Hole" is a Disney production, and it's laced with Disney's trademark cuteness.

The two main robot characters, VINCENT and BOB, voiced by Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens, respectively, might as well be out of some Disney cartoon.

Both are cursed with huge, cartoon-character eyes. And they and Reinhardt's robot guards waste screen time with a pointless sharp-shooting contest, designed to appeal only to children.

As the movie progresses, it starts to break down in other ways as well. The scientific realism of the film's first half disappears in its second, as meteors crash into the Cygnus without causing explosive decompression and people float into empty space and live to tell the tale.

Of course, it may be that the progressive breakdown the laws of physics is the producer's intent. The black hole of "The Black Hole" isn't a natural space phenomenon, but a mystical one.

As Reinhardt says, inside the black hole, the rules of space and time no longer apply.

"The Black Hole's" jarring juxtaposition of SF thriller and children's movie only confused audiences. The Disney name and cute robots told parents it was a safe film for children.

But the movie's dark subject matter is too intense for the young, especially given some character's grisly-but-bloodless deaths and Reinhardt's decent into madness.

In the final analysis, "The Black Hole" is an interesting failure. It is a potentially great movie betrayed by the old habits of its studio. Yet still it is a better film than most critics give it credit for being.

There are some parts of the movie that still stand out.

The score, by the James Bond films' usual composer, John Barry, effectively conveys a threatening sense of awe. And the special effects compare well with those seen in many recent films.

If "The Black Hole" were re-made today, the only major technical improvement would be to use computers to digitally erase those pesky wires.

My regular readers know I've praised Anchor Bay in the past, especially for it's fabulous Hammer Horror film releases. Their "Black Hole" release is equally praiseworthy, at least on video.

But you may want to wait if you're thinking of purchasing "The Black Hole" on DVD. It has a problem with its Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, and corrected versions will not be available until later this month.

You can find the details regarding the DVD sound flaw at Anchor Bay's Web site, www.anchorbayentertainment.com.

If you've already purchased one of the defective "Black Hole" DVDs, see your retailer for a refund or replacement.

It's a shame "The Black Hole's" triumphant return couldn't have been smoother. After all the film has endured, it deserves better.

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