My monolith: How The Black Hole guided the evolution of a cineaste
Several years ago, a friend of mine asserted that whatever movie is the one that a person credits with turning him- or herself into an authentic film buff is the single most influential film on that person’s aesthetic taste. It may be that a person is unable to cite a specific motion picture — after all, one’s passionate love affair with cinema isn’t usually something that occurs overnight. Real, lasting love grows over time. So arbitrarily picking your current all-time favorite just won’t do for this thought experiment. Nor will selecting an emblematic film that you would really like to stand for your conversion. No, if you can’t recall a specific film, I suggest that the pentecostal movie is the one that you loved most as a child — the one that you could watch over and over again, until the tape broke, or until your parents could not take it anymore, went mad, and were committed to an asylum.1
For me, this would be a toss-up between Mary Poppins and The Black Hole. The latter sprung to mind more readily in the conversation that brought this up, and as it turns out, my gut reaction was eerily precise. The Black Hole, for all intents and purposes, is my own personal Rosetta Stone of aesthetic taste.
Released in 1979, the sci-fi space adventure concerns a crew of American astronauts who encounter a long-lost vessel, the USS Cygnus, perched on the event horizon of a black hole. Investigating the spooky ship, the crew of the USS Palomino discovers that the captain, a brilliant (though quite insane) scientist, has killed his crew and plans to pilot the ship through the black hole in the hopes of discovering the answer to life, the universe, and everything. His attempt to abduct the astronauts along with him in this suicide mission meets with predictable feats of heroic resistance. In their escape attempt, a few of them are killed, and when their ship is destroyed, the survivors are faced with no other choice than to take a pre-programmed pod into the black hole itself. After exposing its inhabitants to a series of visions, courtesy the mystical powers of the swirling, collapsed star, the pod emerges safely on the other side, near an mysterious planet bathed in paradisiacal light.
Historically speaking, The Black Hole is somewhat notable in a few dubious respects. For the first time, a Disney film was awarded a PG rating by the MPAA for the macabre themes and violence, but the film also took home the Oscar for special effects. Visibly dated compared to the relentlessly improving effects work of today’s extravaganzas, there remains a number of impressively striking sequences, including a giant, burning meteor rolling down the central corridor of the ship, the black hole swirling in the background of many shots, and, of course, the chimeric trip through the hole itself. Many of the visual effects are a grab bag whose success depends on the affinity you have for old fashioned f/x work. Many of today’s computer-generated shots are so obviously computer-generated that a comparison between The Black Hole and, say, the Star Wars prequels depends on whether you prefer obviously fake CGI or obviously fake matte work. I find that I tend to extend more slack toward the labor-intensive f/x of yesteryear, as opposed to the algorithmically produced vistas of the present.
As creaky as parts of the film are, it’s a surprisingly sturdy flashback to a bygone age of mainstream filmmaking. The cast is filled with a who’s who of names that would prompt today’s kids to ask, “Who?” Maximilian Schell heads up the roster as Dr. Hans Reinhardt, the strung-out scientist/captain of the Cygnus. Robert Forster and Joseph Bottoms are the cookie-cutter men of action who command the Palomino, Capt. Dan Holland and Lt. Charles Pizer. Ernest Borgnine plays a shifty journalist (is there any other kind?) who talks big and acts small, while Anthony Perkins dusts off his penchant for insatiable curiosity as the resident science guy, Dr. Alex Durant, who attaches himself to Reinhardt’s apron strings a little too willingly. Dr. Kate McCrae, the other requisite science-gal, is played by Yvette Mimieux (onetime Weena of George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of The Time Machine), who suffers the indignities of many-a sci-fi heroine, relegated to playing the damsel and saddled with the ludicrous psychic ability to communicate telepathically with a robot.2
Roddy MacDowell and Slim Pickens turn out to have the most lively characters, as the voices of the robots, VINCENT and BOB respectively. They repeatedly clash with Maximilian, Reinhardt’s red-armored enforcer, and his soldier droids. It’s never made quite clear why Reinhardt needs so many security bots, since there’s no one else on the ship to guard against, nor would any rescue mission pose much of a threat to him or Max. In any case, a rather ghastly backstory emerges about BOB being tortured and beaten by the newer robots when he refuses to capitulate to their fascist programming, prompting VINCENT (a newer model of BOB’s lineage) to commence a sharp rivalry with the robo-bullies.
Once all hell has broken loose near the end of the film and our intrepid heroes are on the run from Reinhardt’s private army, VINCENT and Maximilian finally go head to head. VINCENT’s droll arrogance and good nature versus Maximilian’s cold, brutal, and silent efficiency is probably more tense because it’s the only real interpersonal conflict in the film. The rest is more situation-based, a prison break narrative of sorts. There’s no investment of personal honor or revenge, and the fact that Maximilian isn’t motivated by anything but blind loyalty and a sadistic streak makes him so much more frightening than Reinhardt, who can’t be reasoned with, but who at least has an identifiably human motive for his actions. As it stands, Maximilian is far more impressive as a villain because VINCENT and BOB are set up in a David v. Goliath scenario right from the start. (I’m a sucker for underdog stories.)
As much as I love happy endings, I also tend to gravitate toward darker stories, especially those in which internecine loyalties are tested by circumstance and ideological difference. I’m also inclined to emotionally attach myself to nonhuman characters, especially when they strive to be human. The repartee between Pizer and VINCENT also has echoes in my appreciation for wry, deadpan wit. Forced as it often is, it’s ragged and sincere. “When I volunteered for this mission, I never thought I’d end up playing straight man to a tin can,” laments Pizer at one point. And one of VINCENT’s best lines articulates the degree to which artificial intelligence at this point in science fiction was assumed to have evolved by the future: “I don’t mean to sound superior, but I hate the company of robots.”
When I was young, I would have given anything to have a robot pal like VINCENT.
Singularity and Space
Altogether, the impact of The Black Hole on my taste is probably incalculable, though not total. The broadest possible scope of its domain can probably be summarized as a predilection toward heroic journeys shaken up by modest ambiguity, and the more sci-fi trappings, the better.3
Many young boys are enamored of the fantastic gadgetry and tropes of science fiction narratives. What’s important to note is that I was exposed to The Black Hole prior to Star Wars or Star Trek. Like any red-blooded American boy, I did eventually move into that inevitable Star Wars phase, which dominated my aesthetic preferences for a good fifteen years (a rather truncated period, all things considered), and I’m now incredibly appreciative of the thematic scope of the Star Trek franchise, but The Black Hole paved the way for both of these very different franchises.
The sci-fi tradition since the Space Age has dealt with the astrophysical wonders of the universe and the limits of human experience in relation to these wonders. Modern physics has done much to illuminate our potential understanding of the way the cosmos works, but virtually none of it is firsthand knowledge. We cannot send probes into nebulas and black holes to receive empirical data (at least, not yet); the knowledge we have is on paper, in the form of the mystical, esoteric gnosticism of algebraic equations and quantum mechanics. Consequently, the exploration of space has often served as a metaphor for the expansion of human knowledge, and the terrifying limits of our comprehension. In recent years, science fiction has tended to turn inward, dealing with the strident advances in the relatively young field of genetics, or the possibilities of Earth’s future, with such things as global warming and the rapid integration and evolution of electronic hardware and software taken into account. Space stories still exist, but the exploration of the universe and encounters with the unknown tend to take on a less theological edge, with a few exceptions. Perhaps it is because many filmmakers feel that 2001: A Space Odyssey said all there is to say on the matter, at least as far as SF goes. Perhaps it is because with all the attention modern science focuses on matters of human evolution on this planet, what’s Out There is far more abstract and inaccessible as a storytelling device.
In this regard, The Black Hole stands somewhat at a watershed in cinematic sci-fi. Star Wars pushed the tropes of space opera SF further into the blockbuster territory of speculation and fantasy, and farther from hard sci-fi. The Black Hole stands as a sort of waystation along the path of mainstream sci-fi entertainment, before the 1980s spate of time travel adventures, A.I. nightmares, and cat-and-mouse games with alien killing machines took the reins. The Black Hole took pains to meld science fiction’s longstanding tradition of philosophical rumination with George Lucas’s delusions of grandeur, as set forth by his 1977 opus.
While The Black Hole’s engagement with fundamental themes like the origin of the cosmos, the search for god, the line between scientific pursuit and amoral transgression, and interstellar skeet shooting may be best described as dabbling, even dabbling in these earth-shaking ideas in a way that avoids providing the answers to any of them can be traumatic for a developing mind. I seem to recall that my parents’ general rule of allowing me to see anything with the Disney imprimatur backfired on them with this particular film; having been forced to sit through it several times, it was clear that the film’s agnosticism, coupled with its shameless exploitation of religious iconography in its climax, disturbed them. Or, I should say, I think it disturbed them that I would want to watch this film so often, especially given its dark overtones.
One of the most formative sequences in my childhood was when VINCENT ventures outside the ship to make some repairs as the ship is being inexorably drawn toward the hole. He loses his grip, and fires a magnetic grappling hook into the hull. This was my first exposure to the kind of “dead space” action that is exemplified in the Jupiter sequence in 2001, when HAL murders Poole by severing his lifeline. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but that scene in The Black Hole left a deep impression on me regarding the enormity of the universe, and how the basic assumptions of how things work on the surface of this planet do not apply elsewhere.
Odyssey and Overkill
This returns us directly to 2001: A Space Odyssey (as so many things do). Stanley Kubrick’s film happens to be one of my least favorite, and I realize that this essay may seem to set up a false dichotomy between 2001 and The Black Hole. This is an accident, due to the fact that they are easy reference points because of their similarity. The cold fact of the matter is that The Black Hole is very derivative of 2001: A Space Odyssey in its thematic scope and the denouement in particular. The laser guns and derring-do are possibly derivative of Star Wars, but Star Wars is more derivative of older serials like Flash Gordon.
The timing of The Black Hole’s release — the same year as Alien — suggests something deeper about the direction of sci-fi and the impact of 2001 on film. Two directions in the deep space adventure opened up. One took its cues from the slasher/haunted house formula, a thoroughgoing horror film in which humanist optimism had no place. The other also took its cues from the haunted house formula, though more in the vein of The Haunting than the more bloody, exploitative films of the era. Instead of inverting 2001’s secular theism into a trenchant tale of terror, The Black Hole reasserted the rightful place of Big Ideas in the mainstream astro-venture, aiming specifically at a younger audience, priming it to explore those dark, dangerous, and exhilarating ideas later on when they got older. In theory, The Black Hole primed me to receive 2001 with open arms and open mind. Instead, it supplanted that place in my heart like a cuckoo fledgling.
As a grand statement, 2001 can only succeed if the aesthetic approach of its filmmaker and his perspective on its themes aligns with that of the viewer. It’s not made for everyone; it demands that everyone bend to it, which is an eccentricity that would be partially forgivable if it weren’t so imperious. As predisposed as I am to favor alluring vistas, amazing f/x sequences, sweeping music, contentious spiritualism, action, and ambiguity, the fact is that because I loved The Black Hole first, as a child, there’s just no way that 2001: A Space Odyssey can compete with the ironclad grip of nostalgia. The two films are so similar that if I have to choose just one, it can only be at the expense of the other. If the child is the father of the man, and I banish the child, I wipe away the man as well.4 My complaints about the arrogant scope and precocious delivery of 2001’s ideas are longstanding and, I believe, legitimate. As a fan of science fiction cinema, I have spent far more time discussing 2001 than most movies I genuinely love, and thanks to its astronomical impact on and my own predilection for the genre, my relationship is evolving into one more of the tempestuous, love/hate variety that would make for a great Cassavetes film.
That said, I must disclose my bias against it only because discussing The Black Hole without 2001 as a cornerstone would be disingenuous and stupid. If anything, I’m inclined to tolerate 2001: A Space Odyssey for no other reason than without it, there would have been no Black Hole. And without The Black Hole, I would not love cinema.
God Needs a Starship
The driving force behind films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Black Hole is immediate, tactile knowledge. In each case, the filmmakers ultimately suggest that this kind of knowledge is not admissible to our intelligence as it currently stands. Kubrick rejected religious answers in favor of a secular brand of gnosis that, to me, is indistinguishable from the philosophical backflips of most theology. The intellectual content of The Black Hole is, to say the least, much less rigorous than Kubrick’s attempt to scale Mount Improbable, but it does introduce a lot of unsettling ideas before ignoring them entirely in favor of silly psychological extrapolations and macho pyrotechnics.
The black hole itself serves as a MacGuffin or totem, depending on how generous you’re willing to be to the screenwriters. Thematically, it is an emblem of the possibility that ultimate knowledge can be attained by scientific investigation, perhaps even illuminating the search for God, or at least the creation and order of the cosmos. Most certainly it does not serve this function on a practical level, since everything astrophysicists seem to know about them suggests that even if they are doorways to other dimensions or other parts of the universe, we’ll never know it firsthand, because nothing — nothing — would survive a trip to the center of a black hole, even though it probably would be a pretty trippy way to go.
The Black Hole has neither a firm grasp on the physical mechanics of black holes nor a firm perspective on what they represent. Maximilian Schell rambles nonsensically about a “first cause” or god, or whatever tickles the screenwriters’ fancy for much of his screen time. None of the protagonists seem to care very much what credence to lend to his speculations apart from Anthony Perkins, and he ends up with a hole drilled through his chest. (See what scientific curiosity gets you?) Apparently the climactic journey through the black hole was a subject of much contention among the filmmakers. Nobody knew quite how to end the film, and the sequence as it is waters down the mesmerizing stargate sequence from 2001 with accessible, Judeo-Christian imagery.
Rather than feeding the audience a twenty-minute acid trip that tells them they aren’t evolved enough to understand what the hell is going on, The Black Hole adopts a more psychological approach consistent with the presumptive paradigm of its target audience. Once they’ve zipped through a spinning tunnel of lights that echoes their thoughts, the protagonists are temporarily suspended from the narrative. The music assumes its most ominous stance as we’re treated to a crimson vista of craggy rock bridges, sulfurous haze, and a mountain, atop which is perched the demonic robot, Maximilian, with Dr. Reinhardt trapped inside, presiding over his hellish domain. This part of the sequence cements the notion of his cybernetic goon having been a projection of his worst tendencies (or a Jungian Shadow), and his obsession having condemned his crew to Hell, as well as himself. Following this, an angelic figure appears in a long, gleaming silver corridor, a nebulous reassurance that something better is indeed at the white light at the end of the tunnel.5
Perhaps it’s a reflection of the literature of near-death experiences that proliferated near the end of the 70s and throughout the 80s, or perhaps the filmmakers wished to suggest that the astronauts were deemed worthy of passing from their plane to a better place — that mysterious planet glimpsed at the end of the film. It may not be Heaven in the traditional sense, but it’s surely better than the Hell of the doctor’s own making. It shouldn’t escape our notice, however, that the “less worthy” companions of the crew have already been stripped from the narrative by this point, leaving the most heroic, attractive, and noble ones.
The tableaux of the climax continued to haunt me well into my teens and twenties. Indeed, each time I read The Inferno (once in high school, for fun; once in college, for class), the prevailing images conjured in my mind drew more heavily from The Black Hole than Blake or Michelangelo. For a time, one of my recurring nightmares (and I don’t generally have recurring nightmares) was of being trapped in Maximilian’s shell (even as a youngster, my subconscious was apparently given to conjuring bad visual puns) in hell for eternity.
On a more spiritual level, I think this was the first film my parents had let me see that suggested that religious truths could be discovered through secular means. The possibility that a natural phenomenon — a black hole — could connect this mundane universe with heaven and hell as literal dimensions flew in the face of Lutheran theology, which emphasized a clear separation between this life and the afterlife. Beyond that, the film offered no quarter to assiduously Christian parents looking for an endorsement of the existence of God; heaven and hell, yes, but no God or Devil.
Their young son was disabused of the notion that the planes of spiritual existence aren’t accessible through scientific endeavor, or at least subject to its investigation. That’s quite a weighty matter, and I feel that a lot of the resistance that met my desire to watching the film time and again arose from my folks’ inability to create a consistent reason that I shouldn’t be allowed to watch a film that had already permitted me to see. (How dare a Disney film ask its young viewers to supply their own answers elsewhere!)
Intervening years have certainly done much to drive a wedge between my faith and the dogmas of my upbringing, but I have also developed a keener interest in films that bridge the secular/religious divide in interesting ways. Even dabbling films like Constantine or the secular fable, Jesus of Montreal, enflame my thirst, demanding (and usually receiving) a great deal of critical slack. I tend to appreciate an earnest admission of spiritualism in a film’s content, rather than a vain attempt to secularize religion (see: 2001: A Space Odyssey), or blundering into religious territory without having the courtesy to even address it (see: Twilight). One of my longstanding explorations in film theory is in the intersection of theology and film criticism. I shouldn’t wonder that The Black Hole’s inadequate, assertive probes at this thematic junction directly fueled my curiosity.
For a Disney film of any era, even a little ambiguity is a massive risk. Though adopting a thinly-coded heaven/hell dichotomy, the inconclusive final frames do little to reassure the audience that everything will be okay. Indeed, as a child, I was thoroughly confused as to what the hell those poor astronauts were going to do for food, water, and shelter. If they were stranded far beyond the aid of any other deep-space rescue teams — as I think it’s clear they would be — how long would they be able to survive, even if they could forage for food on their own? Would they try to reproduce and start a new civilization? These questions plagued me each time I saw the film. As deeply unsatisfying as it was, I couldn’t stop plugging that tape into the VCR week after week, because the rest of the film was so edifying. Thus I learned one of my first and most important narrative lessons: an ambiguous ending circumvents the law of diminishing returns.
Black Hole/White Whale
The character of Dr. Reinhardt has probably had a profound, schizoid impact on me as well. As a rule, I tend to despise films about addiction and obsession, perhaps because I regard addiction and obsession as weaknesses that are too often treated with empathy that borders on enabling and encouragement rather than simple, human connection.6 I also tend to associate these traits with villainy (Reinhardt) or sycophantry (Durant). On the other hand, I’m a classic case of psychological projection. It took me a long time to realize that the traits I despise in others — especially fictional characters — tend to be my own that I hold in contempt. I’m all too aware of my own obsessive tendencies, and I’m easily swept up in surges of addiction to various socially acceptable, but emotionally draining mass-produced opiates.
Furthermore, Reinhardt’s blind pursuit of scientific truth supersedes the bounds of common human decency. Another one of the more painful truths of this film is that its villain is not necessarily altogether evil; at least, his motivations have roots in recognizably pure intentions. Some of the greatest evils in history have been committed by men and women who believed they were doing the right thing, and while I may not have known of Ahab at the time, The Black Hole gave me the first inkling of how something momentous and wonderful — such as the accomplishment of the Cygnus itself and Reinhardt’s theory (upheld in the film, if not in real-life computation) that one can survive a trip through a black hole — can be perverted and twisted once ideology transforms pursuit into obsession.
Of course, obsessive people are rarely aware of their obsession, and for a film predicated on the idea of a physical border to the frontier of human knowledge, The Black Hole is sorely lacking in the theme of self-discovery. Few characters grapple with any acute moments of self-awareness of discovery, except perhaps Durant, when he realizes the extent of Reinhardt’s madness. Most of the characters aren’t really sketched with enough depth for this kind of soul-searching or epiphany, but it can’t be coincidental that I love stories in which the protagonists are victims of their own elaborate, entrenched self-deceptions.
The Cineplex at the End of the Universe
On a broader level, The Black Hole illustrates my tendency to prefer mainstream (genre) entertainment with art house pretensions. This is certainly true. A key ingredient to most of my favorite films is accessibility. However ambitious, I need a foothold, otherwise I lose interest in scaling the heights the filmmaker sets as his aesthetic goal. Insularity and esotericism are best left to be appreciated by their originators. Inaccessibility is subjective, of course, but just as a puzzle can only correctly be put together one way, so I think the pieces of a film must fit together. The mystery of the Cygnus is eventually solved, but the finale of the film remains inconclusive. I don’t need to know what’s going on a picture, so long as it fits together. I often feel like a filmmaker is holding back pieces, or that his incompetence has damaged some of the pieces beyond repair, leaving an unfinished portrait.
John Barry’s woozy score, the spectacular special effects, the tension of the film’s first half and the action-packed blowout near the end, coupled with its bizarre, rudimentary metaphysics, and the colorful cast of humans and robots (delivering dramatic monologues and one-liners) had all the ingredients of every film I ever needed to see. More importantly (in retrospect), it carried no auteurist stamp in the sense of a directorial author, but instead rode on the professionalism of the production and the guidance of a studio with a distinct approach to filmmaking. The formula was the auteur. Though designed primarily as sleek entertainment, the serendipitous confluence of a multitude of factors crafted a film that was more than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps it would be too easy to say that The Black Hole took my innocence. That can’t be true. (Sunday school must have done that first.) Dark, bizarre, and slickly produced, though, this film did instill a kind of wide-eyed awe. Awful and awesome, with all the Biblical connotations. To this day, I’ve never seen the film on the big screen, though I do fondly recall the somewhat puffy, white clamshell VHS case, the kind that all Disney films had back in the 80s. In some ways, a lot of contemporary children’s entertainment seems to be overly sanitized; for all the darkness, none of it is really dangerous — not intentionally, anyway. Heroes are usually undermined, children are usually given preternatural maturity or superpowers; threats are usually resolved with nonlethal violence, and trite lessons are learned. In The Black Hole, the heroes are heroes, the villain is tragic, but evil, and surviving the ordeal leaves us with no particularly applicable insight, just the vertigo of humankind’s utter isolation in the universe, alone with our thoughts and our belief-systems in a tiny shell with no direction, destination unknown. A chill still threads its way along my epidermis as I recall that final shot, and the utter lack of comfort it breeds. I’m a grown man, and this largely unremarked artifact of late-70s family entertainment ices my soul as it did when I wore OshKosh B’Gosh.
Please excuse me while my six-year-old self and I have an existential crisis.
Edited by Dan Swensen.
- As a child, I was not permitted to bear witness to movies and television programs that would harm my fragile little soul. This included nearly all primetime shows, Saturday morning cartoons, and any film that was rated PG-13 or R. For many years — at least, a few years beyond the point at which many of my friends and classmates were permitted to watch these things — I could not even see movies that were rated PG. This was the way of life in my household, and as such, the bulk of my movie-watching as a child was comprised of Disney films that were made before I was born. ↩
- I’m sure in 1979, giving the lone female in an all-male cast a stupid superpower seemed very progressive. ↩
- A deep regret of mine as a reader and writer is that I have neither consumed nor produced more SF literature, though my diet as a cinephile includes a heaping portion of the genre. ↩
- This would be a double parricide/infanticide of Shakespearean proportions. ↩
- I couldn’t shake the feeling that if the tunnel had been painted a light green, it could have been identical to the hallway in Oz that Dorothy and her friends take to the Wizard’s chamber. If the parallel is intentional — though I’m sure it is not — there would be no afterlife behind the black hole’s curtain, just another land on the other side of the rainbow, where it’s doubtful that troubles melt like lemon drops. ↩
- A possible reason that I tend to react strongly against tales of obsessives and addicts is that the narrative has a voyeuristic focus on the protagonist’s self-destruction, rather than a humane intimacy with the despair and feelings of inadequacy that accompany these psychological diseases. The more the camera loves the characters, the more it seems to venally exploit them or idolize them in all the wrong ways. Pity the addict; don’t lionize him as a rebel. ↩