So I grew up in a strange time. And yeah, a lot of you are gonna think, “What, the 60’s?” No. I’ll grant you that was weird. But that was weird in a different way. That was just a generation suddenly finding it within their power to throw off all the anal retentive crap my grandparents’ generation expected of them. But the 80’s were a stranger time. Think about it. This is when they were all coming off the high and realizing, “Oh shit, I’m 30, I need to buy my own food! Aw, man! All I’ve got is a bong, about twenty 35 mm film cans with pot seeds in them, and a polyester disco suit.” “Who the hell is KC and the Sunshine Band? Holy shit, I have kids?? What is this disco crap? What have I been doing with my life?”
And this was pretty much the whole mindset for my parents’ generation around the time I was 8 or 9 years old. And you wanna talk about weird... All you have to do is look at the Walt Disney company and see where that mindset was. They had a WEIRD period. I mean back in the 60’s and early 70’s? You had The Shakiest Gun in the West. The Shaggy D.A. That Darn Cat. Escape to Witch Mountain. You had fun movies you could plonk a kid down in front of, SECURE in the knowledge that you weren’t going to have huge therapy bills to cover later on.
As America lost its innocence, and then got done with its wild teenage party years, the country and Disney did what ya do. We’re adults now. We don’t have to do all this kiddie stuff. We’ve got things like Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica! Let’s get in on this sci-fi thing and make some money! Except... well Disney was still being run by all these guys that made Herbie Goes Bananas. Or The Snowball Express. (Or pretty much anything with Dean Jones in it.) This was a company whose idea of science fiction was “AMERICANS! SPREADING DEMOCRACY THROUGHOUT THE TRACKLESS WASTES OF SPACE! HURT-LE-ING INTO THE VOID FOR THRILLS AND ADVENTURE!”
So of course it went wrong. I mean, does anyone remember THE BLACK HOLE? Awwwww, you want to talk about an awkward in-between period. This was the last of the great Americans! IN! SPAAACE! movies and it literally goes down in flames.
Now two things. I’mma spoil the hell out of this movie here. And the other thing? It’s not a BAD movie. But it’s an awesome thing cos it’s a portrait of a full-on media juggernaut sitting astride the mightiest country in the world and throwing bankfulls of money at a project where they had NO idea what they were supposed to be doing or who they were trying to appeal to. And it wasn’t entirely their fault. But like Tyson says... “come with me...” Here’s the trailer:
And bear in mind, this was marketed as a Disney movie. There were action figure lines of the cute robots. Model kits of the two most pre-eminent robots and the USS Cygnus. There were coloring books and activity books for kids. I used to hang out in a bookstore at the age of 8 and wish I had the money to get one where you popped out all the bits and made paper models of the Cygnus and the Palomino. This was supposed to be a fun adventure for the entire family.
We start off with what we used to get back in the day. Americans cruising through a cool shadowy bit of space. They’re done seeking out new worlds and come up pretty much empty. You figure they have some kind of FTL to have gotten this far out, but that’s not important right now. COS LOOK AT THE BIG BLACK HOLE OVER THERE!! And let’s talk about casting here a moment.
Right off the bat, as our heroes float about in wire-fu zero gravity and look on in horror at the cool hologram of ‘The most destructive force in the universe.’... We’re introduced to their morbidly fascinated science officer. Played by Anthony Perkins. That’s right. 3 minutes in, and my parents are being stared down by Norman Freaking Bates through the eye of a black hole.
We’ve also got Ernest Borgnine as a typically salty old press representative sent along for reasons. A lot of times it was hard for me in my adulthood look at him and not start shouting “McHALE!”. Ay, I’m a movie-riffer and good as it is, it’s also really riff-worthy. In the Lost In Space tradition, there’s a couple of guys. The Captain and the Pilot. The Older Dad Figure and the Hunk. To this day, I don’t know any of their names. They were more stereotypes than people at times. They did a good job being those types. But they also had the honor of playing these types in the last movie of its kind. Where all the old Rocket Rangers for Democracy are about to be put into a macabre Kobayashi Maru test of their own. Or for those non-trekkers among us, a no-win scenario.
We also have Yvette Mimieux. She’s our ingenue and sometimes damsel in distress of the series. She’s in full on adulthood nowadays in 1979. Savvy folk among you will remember her as Weena the Eloi girl in the old George Pal version of The Time Machine in 1960. Only now she’s the onboard psychic who’s linked with the ship’s onboard droid. Cos I’m guessing AI once formed has a psychic field a telepath can communicate with? Or the Droid is actually a biomachine inside its chassis? I dunno. The reason is almost certainly cos it was cool to have psychics in mental communication with robots! SCI-FI! FUN FOR THE ENTIRE FAMILY!
And last but not least, we have V.I.N.CENT. (short for Vital Information Necessary CENTralized) This is a sort of all around technical assistant and interactive database. Pretty much in the present day succeeded by the likes of those big ambulatory brick bots you saw in Interstellar. But besides being one of the more intelligent and useful members of the crew, you kind of get the idea his primary function is- AW LOOKADA CUTE BIG EYED ROBOT!!!
Vince, as I came to call him, is really kind of subverted by his own appearance and sums up the whole of the soul of the film. There’s a very much adult-themes mindset underneath the kid-friendly seeming exterior. Ably voiced by the late great Roddy McDowell in an uncredited performance, here is a steadfast genius who cares deeply for his humans. Tried and true, the best of the best and proud of it. The character could honestly carry the movie by himself, in my own opinion. This is the character you always can count on.
So, our heroes find something just on the event horizon but not falling INTO the singularity. Which is of course, impossible. Just ask the Doctor when he found a planet doing the same thing. Yeah. Doctor Who gave a shoutout to this film in the Tennant / Piper year. How awesome is that? So... the thing not falling into the black hole is identified as the USS Cygnus. United States Science Probe 001. Presumed lost with all hands, and where Yvette SuperScrabbleHand’s father was posted before he was ‘lost at sea’. So they go to have a bit of a closer look.
Yeah. I know, right? With all the wisdom of Steve Irwin, these stalwart adventurers decide to nudge around the edge of a black hole’s event horizon in a ship no bigger than my apartment building. And the entire time last night when I was watching this with my wife, who hadn’t seen it, I’m thinking in Mike Nelson’s voice, “Now see, this was all just entirely avoidable.” Well, it was. Right up til about 5 or 6 minutes into the film, we hear the fearful edge in our captain’s voice, “My god, I think it’s got us.” Geez. Too bad they didn’t listen to the smart robot and pass by here on the other side.
They do manage to limp their way back to where the Cygnus is just hanging impossibly in space, after a tense you were not prepared for this crap sequence of the USS Palomino stripping its gears and blowing its hatches under the g-forces. And here’s where you’re really being given the idea that what you bought tickets for is not what you’re gonna get. You expected spaceships! But the USS Cygnus is not a spaceship. it is a goddamned haunted cathedral in space, complete with orange-yellow halloween jack-o-lantern light pouring out of it when it lights up. And you’re somehow going, “Wait... this is wrong somehow. What the hell?”
We get aboard and the place is a maze of reinforced mausoleum like hallways. The doors don’t slide up, the slide down. They’re immediately disarmed and made helpless by automated guns when they come aboard. (Savvy listeners will recognize this movie as the source of all the gunshot noises ineffectively traded between GI Joe and Cobra in afternoon cartoons later on that decade.) They get to the bridge... but the turbolift is in the middle where you’d expect any surviving crew to be. Everything on board here is backward and inverted to some degree. All angles and crossed lines and grillwork. You see this bridge, and you can just see the people working on the Star Wars movies going, “Now THERE’S an evil Imperial Throne room! We gotta remember this!”
And then we come to the two monsters of the film. You thought it was the black hole? Wrong. First you are confronted by this big bastard. Get used to him, folks. You’ll be seeing him in your nightmares. I surely did.
And now, if the haunted house superstructure of this space cathedral hasn’t got you creeped out yet, now you’re actively alarmed. Or maybe your parents are, if they’ve taken you a theater to see this like mine did. This is not cute. This isn’t cute at all. This is a demon colored floating armorsuit with a single glowing red eye. It does not say hi. It does not like you. You know it does not like you cos the first thing it does is extend two arms with whirling blender attachments on the end of them at you.
You’re pretty sure it wants to kill you. You can feel its hatred of you boiling out of it with a high pitched treble whine that sets your teeth on edge. You think about the kinds of nightmares Darth Vader may have had, and you can easily see this guy starring in them. And when he’s called off by the Frankenstein that made this monster, it only obeys grudgingly. He’s doing you a favor not killing you now. He’ll do it later. You’re lucky his human is here. Cos if he’d found you in the hall by yourself, you’d be bloody gobbets on the floor. You are certain of this. Becuse looking at him, there is no doubt in your mind, heart or bowels that he is the one that will punch your ticket.
But the real villain of our piece is no other than Hammer Horror movie alumnus, Maximilian Schell. Here’s a guy you normally expect to be in charge of a coven of vampires or the undead or satan worshippers. But instead, he’s the genius who’s had 20 years of absolute authority over the denizens of the Cygnus as he’s relentlessly pursued his dreams. Creating a static anti-gravity field and power source capable of withstanding the infinite forces of a singularity.
My gods, you think. They’re even eye-lighting him like freaking Morticia Addams or Vincent Price pretty much the whole time. Schell, or as he’s called, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, has a plan. He wastes no time in telling them how his immense intellect and all the marvels he’s created out here among the stars are all toward the one purpose. To take the Cygnus and go into the Black Hole with it, and discover what happens when you go out the theoretical other side. Naturally, our Stalwart Americans proclaim with some self-righteous confidence that he’s crazier than a box of frogs and kittens on PCP.
And they mean to get the hell out of dodge before this nutty nut can spaghetti-extrude them in a subatomic stream over the event horizon... but they make the classic Scooby Doo error. They split the party up to go and get the stuff they need to fix the Palomino and get the hell outta here. And naturally they see all sorts of things that don’t seem to make sense to them, but it adds up pretty quickly to anyone with more than a few brain cells to rub together in the audience. A huge hydroponics center with more food than one guy ever needs. Robots that trudge around in dementor robes. One with a mysterious limp. Empty yet fastidiously maintained crew quarters. And a robot funeral where the mysterious robed figures eject one into the hole.
Later, over an uncomfortable dinner with Reinhart, we can see that Anthony Norman Perkins Bates is entirely fanboying over Reinhart, and means to stay and see the mad experiment through. Even while the others mean to go. But elsewhere, Vince has found an old sanitation robot much like an older model of himself. Here we’ve another strange juxtaposition. Anyone who has seen or heard Slim Pickens is pretty much going to get an image of his character from Steven Spielberg’s infamous comedy bomb, 1941. A kind of bellicose redneck who fairly screams hillbilly logic and ‘charm’. But here, B.O.B. is about as far from that as it gets. Only Pickens’ uncredited country accent is used here. And to the effect of an old warhorse of a robot terrorized into PTSD by Reinhart, Max and their legion of automated security drones. And even then, LOOKADA CUTE ROBOT! is in full effect. And honestly, who thought to craft the poor thing with sad eyes? I’d have been pissed and requested an upgrade!
Bob gives the skinny to Vince. Reinhart killed Yvette Soduku’s dad. He did worse to the crew. They didn’t eject and try to make their way back to earth. He effectively lobotomized them, half mechanized them, and the scraps that were left are the hooded robots that have been lurking unobtrusively all around us through the first half of the movie! We’ve been surrounded by walking dead pretty much the entire time! FUN FAMILY MOVIE FOLKS!! Some parents are starting to reach for their car keys at this point. They’re actively considering getting their 5 year olds-out of here. This is not what they signed on for. And they’re fidgeting in their seats.
Vince tells everyone but Yvette and Norman Bates, who are absent cos DON’T YOU KNOW YOU NEVER SPLIT THE PARTY? And they almost decide that they can’t leave all these poor devils behind when B.O.B. tells them that the damage done to them is irreversable. So they reverse on that pretty quick and decide to go now, but they need to get the rest of the party. Captain Dad tells vince to E.S.P. the skinny up to Yvette Meowmeowkitty. This is easily her best scene where she has to suddenly be aware that captain Headvampire Schell killed her dad, and she’s surrounded by zombies, and she needs to get norman bates out of here without giving the game away. She whispers it to him.
Now, given that there’s a big killer red robot up there who wants... nay LUSTS with every erg in its components to murder you, despite what Dr. Hans the Hands of Fate says? The wrong way for Norman Bates to respond would be, “Well that’s just crazy. This guy up here with an ego bigger than the black hole out there and the force of will and an army of killer robots to back up that red murdermaster 9000 over there? How can you think he killed the crew?” with his outside voice. But he does manage to do something worse. He walks right over to one of the undead drones and yanks the faceplate off the poor begger to see it blankly starring through him.
Max, the Big Red Robot pops his claws and wordlessly cries, “IT’S SNIKT-EDDY SNIKT TIME! YOU DONE FUCKED UP NOW!” and goes immediately for Bates, who ineffectually holds up a book full of Reinhart’s research to defend himself. Science was his armor. His rationalization for all he sees and wants to learn. And it’s all ripped away from him in a spray of paper as Maximilian’s dual overhead mixmaster attachments tear through the books and liquefies the contents of his chest cavity.
“Where’s the arterial spray?” my wife very sensibly asks me in the shower the next morning. “It’s a Disney movie.” I tell her. “If they’d had gouts of blood, someone likely would have been arrested.” Someone probably would have. And yet... the spray of all Reinhart’s research, ineffectually flying everywhere as Perkins jerks and gargles in confused and piteous horror is far worse, somehow. His science and good intentions didn’t save him. And that’s horrible.
Schell-head has his robot goons haul Dr. Kate-Yvette off to ‘The Hospital’ where he means to have her lobotomized into one of the walking dead drones. And then the movie starts what is a 20 to 30 minutes of running around and shooting at things. There’s stuff happening between the shooting to keep us abreast of the plot. Captain Dad saves Dr. Yvette Momo-Chan. But Ernest Borgnine has had enough of waiting to save anyone and hijacks the Palomino to save his own skin. Well, Dr. Reinhart was fine with that actually. He wanted them to get in the ship and get clear so he should shoot them down and be done with em. A prolonged fight on board was more of a risk to his plans anyway.
Except McHale’s Navy here loses control of the Palomino, and Reinhart has to shoot him down before he flies into the Cygnus. Which he unceremoniously does anyway. So much for the coward amongst our heroes. And now they’re stranded aboard a wounded Cygnus. One that Reinhart means to take into the singularity anyway. Nothing’s going to stop him now... nothing! NOTHING! AAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHA!!!
Except that tried and true decimator of all Stalwart Americans in Space movies. The one thing that always happens when every brave adventurer from King Dinosaur, to Rocketship X-M, to The Phantom Planet, to 12 to the Moon, to First Spaceship on Venus, to what-the-hell-ever old Rocket Ranger movie bravely sallies forth into the unknown. They get hit with one bitch of a meteor storm.
Well, the meteors do one hell of a job wrecking the everliving pojees out of the Cygnus. Leaving it adrift and spinning out of control as it tumbles toward the singularity. Our haunted house now reduced to a smoking hulk, Our heroes and villains decide about the same time to go get the probe ship.
RIIGHT! There’s a probe ship that Dr. Schell-head has been sending INTO and recalling OUT OF the black hole this whole time. It’s got the anti-gravity tech to go in by itself or escape the singularity altogether. It’s just a matter of who gets there first. But it’s not gonna be Dr. Reinhart. He gets flattened by a hanging 1000 inch TV on the bridge JUST after he sends Maximilian to prep the probe rocket for launch.
There’s a lot more running and shooting then. Schell’s killer robots are still all over the ship, armed with over and under blasters. And in a scene worthy of Bond squaring off with the ‘Jaws’ character in any 007 movie, we get the boss fight between Vince and Max. Max immediately mortally damages BOB. Vince covers his humans’ escape, but he’s clearly outmatched and is sacrificing himself as a delaying action and to avenge his brother unit, BOB.
And in defeating this Monster Machine, we get what might be the scariest moment of all when it comes to Max. Cornered, Vince deploys a boring drill and punches through Max’ armor plate to destroy him in a way that calls back to how Max killed Norman Bates. And Max... SCREAMS. It screams in this garbled hateful growl. And in my own headcanon, it’s not because Max was in pain or anything so pedestrian. Max screams cos he’s furious he can’t finish the job of murdering Vince. It’s the robot equivalent of WE HATES IT!! HAAAATES IT!! FOREVER!!!!
We’re treated to a sad little scene of BOB’s functions finally shutting down for the last time and Vince having to leave him behind. Which by how has every kid below the age of 7 in the theater weeping openly. Maybe some adults too. And the movie winds up into its finale. Our heroes finally escape into the probe rocket and launch safely away from the Cygnus.... only to find that its course has been pre-programmed. On Reinhart’s course. INTO the black hole.
After 90 minutes already, when Pilot Hunk looks incredulously and says, “You mean we’re going INTO the Black Hole?” I’m ready to yell in his headstrong face, “YES! YES YOU ARE! YOU’VE BEEN GOING TO GO INTO THIS SINCE YOUR DUMB CAPTAIN STEERED YOU TOWARD IT 3 MINUTES IN! EVERYTHING ELSE HAS BEEN WINDOW DRESSING FOR THIS! BUCKLE UP, BUTTERCUP! YOU’RE IN FOR A BUMPY RIDE!”
And here’s where things get nuts.
As our heroes tumble toward a kind of fisheye lensed spaghettification, we see in the minds eye of psychic Dr. Kate Yvette Mimieux a vision of what happened to Reinhart. She sees him adrift amongst the flotsam and wreckage, with what looks like a bad case of Grizzled Old Prospector syndrome. (See: His hair.) When he runs into Max, also adrift out there. The bot lowers himself down onto Reinhart, in what is uncomfortably an almost sensuous moment with John Barry’s soundtrack playing behind it.
And then we see the trapped and terrified doctor looking OUT of the prison of Maximilian’s headpiece. Doomed to be the unfeeling murderous robot for eternity in the center of a singularity. Only it’s not the black hole anymore. He’s standing on a mountaintop in HELL. Not some kind of newer figurative hell either. This is a full-on dante’s inferno hellscape. With the doomed lobotomized crew wandering its stony walkways over the flaming conflagration below. Complete with a viking slave ship BOOM-BOOM BOOM-BOOM theme behind it.
And then for no reason, we’re floating down some mirrored hallway, in a shot reminiscent of spock travelling the corridors of V-Ger’s memory stores. And treated momentarily to an angel flying off into the distance ahead of us toward some spinning vortex as all fades to white.
Now this whole sequence was left out of the film for several years. I told people about it who’d only seen it on cable or VHS. It would seem that bit was removed for a good long time til directors’ cuts restored it on DVD. But when we kinda zoomed in on Dr. Yvette’s eyes in the cut for cable version, it jumps to the moment after the heavenly hallway where our heroes pop out of a white hole on the other end of what reinhart described as an Einstein-Rosen bridge. (!!!) They’re now in what looks like a star system, headed for a planet in the distance. After all they’ve been through, they’ve finally found a habitable (they hope) planet. Which was their mission to start with.
And you’re sitting there just kind of stunned going, “What the hell did I just watch? It was GOOD. BUT WHAT THE HELL WAS IT?” And that’s what I mean. This was the most outrageous example of Disney’s weird late 70’s early 80’s period. A period that gave us other classics like Something Wicked This Way Comes, TRON, and Dragonslayer (Which technically wasn’t Disney, but it was sure as hell Buena Vista productions. In other words, you guys aren’t fooling anyone.) They didn’t have their more adult Touchstone pictures imprint yet. And they were pretty much doomed to have to try to overcome their kid friendly image.
They didn’t know what they wanted to be or how to be it yet. They wanted to make movies for teens and grownups, but couldn’t get past the idea that their stuff needed to be safe for 5 year olds. It started as a G movie, but the moment Max put the blades to Norman, it was PG whether they had a gout of blood or not. They wanted cute robots, but put in killer robots as well. They wanted to make an old studio system rocket jockey movie, but filmmakers nowadays were also making stuff like Star Wars and Alien. Sci Fi was growing up in ways that the grandfathers in charge, and the ones that were brought out of retirement didn’t quite get. And it got weird.
Much like the time I grew up in. We were all growing up. And I have to say, the hell at the end of this movie was the awkwardness between childhood and maturity.
Random observation about the music. John Barry, the oscar-winning composer for scores like Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves scored this one. Oddly enough, he’d just got done slumming and scoring an italian sci fi exploitation film called Starcrash, which even odder still had a robot with a country accent in it. Which also may lend to the feeling of Bond fighting with Jaws in the climax fight between Vince and Max.
Edward WinterRose watches way too much geeky movies and TV, and offers himself as an example of what can happen to you when you do that.