"The Black Hole" represents the Disney Studio's attempt to get a decently shod, if not impeccably stylish, foot in the genre door opened up by "Star Wars." In the process it recalls bits and pieces of not only "Star Wars" but also the James Bond movies, "Battlestar Galactica," "2001," "Fantastic Voyage," "The Island of Dr. Moreau" and the 25-year-old Disney production of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."
Despite its obviously derivative elements and lack of flair in certain areas, notably writing and casting, the movie is at worst an entertaining redundancy, a brisk and diverting pastiche of familiar science-fiction adventure hokum. Moreover, the strictly pictorial aspects of the production reveal a sometimes elegant flair, no doubt reflecting the influence of the great matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, who was coaxed out of retirement to suprevise the production design and special effects, with his son Harrison Ellenshaw, an alumnus of "Star Wars," in charge of the matte painting.
The outer space vistas and the contours and interiors of the spaceships, a compact little research vessel called the Palomino and a vast, awesome supercarrier called Cygnus, are frequently impressive. The circular bridge of the Palomino, which discovers the long-lost Cygnus hovering on the threshold of a black hole, visualized by the Ellenshaws as a swirling vortex of violet gases, seems a much more playable, photogenic workspace than the bridge of the Enterprise in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."
One of the nicest moments in "The Black Hole" is the first blaze of illumination from within the enormous Cygnus, which had appeared to be a ghost ship as the Palomino skimmed it, revealing only fragments of the surface by seachlight. Once inside, the Cygnus keeps revealing fascinating, oddly sinister chambers, in keeping with its identity as a kind of futuristic haunted house or island of lost souls. I particularly like the cathedral-style dormitory that had once housed the ship's phantom crew.
Although there's little of the expository dawdling that seems to prevent "Star Trek" from getting promptly launched -- and none of its gaseous intellectual and pseudo-religious pretension -- the uninspired dialogue keeps "The Black Hole" fundamentally earthbound. The black hole and the Cygnus are sighted and approached within the first few minutes of the film, but the crew of the Palomino -- skipper Robert Forster, ensign Joseph Bottoms, science officer Anthony Perkins, pyschic physician Yvette Mimieux, superfluous journalist Ernest Borgnine and an intrepid, aphoristic robot named Vincent, dubbed by Roddy McDowall -- converses stricly in Banalo.
"My god! Right out of Dante's Inferno," exclaims the journalist after a holograph of the black hole is projected on the bridge.
"Yes, Harry," the science officer pedantically chips in, "the most destructive force in the universe."
Maybe so, but dialogue like that possesses a hilarious destructive force of its own. Upon first encountering the master of the Cygnus, a megalomaniacal scientific genius played by Maximilian Schell, the journalist kicks things off again, announcing, "Hans Reinhardt!"
"It can't be!" someone else gasps in amazement.
The journalist continues: "You always did have a flair for theatrical entrances."
It's evident that the writers lack a comparable flair for theatrical dialogue. Schell, whose brilliant but villainous caricature gives him a little more license for playful acting than his unlucky straight-guy colleagues, takes delightful advantage at one point. Unless my ears deceived me, he muttered the following line, meant to suggest Reinhardt's preoccupation while making abstruse calculations: "E-squared over A-squared side-squared." An undeniable landmark in the history of science-fiction ad-libbing.
The writers seems to be on firmer ground with the robots. The only Meaningful Relationship in the story is the friendship that develops between Vincent and Old Bob, a colleague found dented and abused but still game for action on the Cygnus. Their parting scene, which occurs at the height of the climactic chases, shootouts and catcaclysms (it's a busy cliffhanging climax), is even rather eloquent.
Director Gary Nelson has the fallen Old Bob Roll out of view in the lower part of the frame, echoing Joel McCrea's "exit" in "Ride the High Country." Vincent lingers only a moment before dashing back into the crimson smoke of battle.
Although they look less convincing as machines than R2-D2 and Co-PO and suffer from excessively cute features, like retractable domes that lift to reveal Little Orphan Annie "eyes." Vincent and Old Bob are astutely deployed to provide direct heroic gratification to little kids. Vincent is demonstrably wittier, smarter and braver than the grown-up humans. In addition, he's an exceptional fighter. Equipped to shoot laser blasts, he proves to be the most accurate and productive sharpshooter on board.
The little robots' fighting qualities are enhanced by making them hovercraft. Schnell's robot minions are threatening but ponderous hulks like the Cylons in "Battlestar Galactica." While they clink and clank about on clunky steel feet, the outnumbered but mobile good guys systematically reduce them to junheaps.
The finale is an abbreviated plunge into the black hole, an abstract timebending, visionary "trip" obviously inspired by the prolonged visual finale of "2001." I doubt if admirers of the latter will find the former adequate, but by recent Disney standards it's an unusual and fitfully encouraging brush with symbolic imagery. The movie even fades on a more ambiguous note than one is accustomed to in the Disney octave.
"The Black Hole," the first Disney production rate PG (a function of the combat sequences rather than language), reflects an organizational desire to modernize while still protecting a traditional secure market.
Though scarely a triumph, or a big deal, "The Black Hole" may have more staying power than "Star Trek." It's a quicker, livelier show, calculated to appeal to juveniles.