27 July 2010

The Black Hole

Everything about this film feels dated, from another era -- even wistful and naive. The effects don't quite hold up, the acting is hit-and-miss, the dialogue less than nuanced, and the science... well, it's important to remember this film was made nine years before Stephen Hawking starting releasing books. They do (quite casually) use terms like "event horizon," which shows that they did their research, so that's something. Anyway, my point with all this isn't that The Black Hole sucks. I was actually trying to build up to saying, everything about this film feels dated, and yet it's pretty damn spectacular if you can overlook that. The plot is thoughtful and epic in scope and (if you disregard some unmotivated shifts in personality) very character-driven -- and it's darker than anything else I think Disney's ever done. It's brutal, Nietzschean dark, one part 20,000 Leagues and one part Heart of Darkness with Reinhardt playing the Übermensch/Nemo/Kurtz who has stared long and hard into that abyss (black hole) and found it staring back. The things he has done are fairly horrific, even by today's standards of dramatic villainy, and the portrayal of him as a man (as literally as ever) on the edge of an infinite madness is rich and frightening.

Plus, the look of it: The Black Hole's special effects don't hold up, but the art direction holds up wonderfully. The look of the shots, costumes, robot and ship designs, even the look of asteroids and black holes, as unscientific as they are -- the style of this film is fucking beautiful. The end includes a twisted 2001-esque journey through a wormhole into heaven and hell, and a somberly paced bit of mind-fucking visual poetry as Reinholdt and his nightmarish second-in-command robot Maximillian embrace in a fiery whorl of zero-gravity, only to merge into a single being that's last seen standing atop a mountain, as though victorious, overlooking the fiery landscape of hell, while a small army of mirror-faced zombie-drone-monk-bots are gathered at the foot of the mountain. And even that, the lingering image of this hybrid-creature's closeup reveals Reinholdt's eyes inside Maximillian's visor are furtive, almost panicky -- a man trapped inside a monstrous machine? That's a lot to ingest when you're a kid, and that shit sticks with you. And it's not something a movie would do with its last act now.

Every time I put this on, which is about once every three or so years, I begin with mild embarrassment and curiosity because of the odd balance of what holds up and what doesn't, and by the end I am again unnerved and invigorated by the sheer tenacity of the story and its characters and world. TRON may have the bigger following, but there's a reason that for years I've been arguing that these two films showed a bolder, more intelligent side of Disney and of science fiction cinema, than much of anything that's come since. In both these films, there are so many layers of metaphor and meaning to be found in its seeming pulpy simplicity, and both feel daring and original in their way. I keep using the word, but I really think it applies here: The Black Hole is visual poetry, and I totally love it.

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