Today I finished watching Disney's The Black Hole from 1979 maybe for the first time. I was nine years old when it was first released, and I remember hearing about it of course, and I even seem to remember a coloring book around the house with pictures of the robots in it, but I'm not sure if I ever actually watched it before. Certainly, if I did watch the whole thing, it went completely over my head, because I remembered nothing about the plot at all. I heard recently that Disney is working on a remake (or a reboot, or whatever) a la TRON, and I thought I'd give the old version a spin and see how it holds up after all this time. To my money, the original TRON would probably make much more sense to modern cell phone-carrying, laptop-using audiences than it made to audiences back in the early 80s when it was released. I'm not sure The Black Hole has aged as gracefully; I think there are some flaws there that I hope the new production addresses.
The DVD I watched started out with a long orchestral "overture" for no apparent reason. At least it seemed long... I don't think it was actually more than three minutes long, but it was a weird way to start the movie. Presumably in movie theaters the overture was to be played as moviegoers entered; surely they didn't expect people to just sit through a three-minute overture before they even saw the first space ship. That's a direct opposite of George Lucas' fight to be able to start Star Wars right away, with no opening credits at all, to get the audience right in on the action. It's like they were planning ahead: let's bore the audience into complacency right at the beginning, because it can only go uphill from there.
Well, it doesn't... not really. In the first third or so of the film, there are a lot of admittedly beautiful and impressive, but still quite prolonged effects shots of the ships in space. Some of those shots could have been cut 4-5 seconds to keep the pace going a bit. For the most part, though, the effects are a real strong point of this movie... it really does look like they are running around in a huge ship, or space station, or whatever it is. The spaces are huge, and I never mentally questioned the ship itself. But there were any number of effects that did take me out of the story. The laser effects (and the design of the V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. robots) look very "old Disney" (all of the FX work was done in-house, so that explains that). Much too often for comfort, cables are visible holding up human characters in zero-gee or floating robot characters. I spotted some of them myself, and the brief documentary on the DVD pointed out some that I had missed... I'm sure I would have spotted those, too, on multiple viewings. Of course, in those days you couldn't wipe those out with your computer; computer-aided shots on this film (mostly from motion-controlled cameras) were done using computers with less power than your iPhone, and I doubt it had occurred to anyone to even try to wipe out visible cables using a computer. The zero-gee sequences were surprisingly unconvincing, especially considering that in the earlier movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the weightless sequences look as real as actual footage from space. There's no reason the same degree of suspended belief couldn't have been present here... but instead, those parts play out like an old-fashioned sci-fi B-movie.
And that's not just because of sub-par flying effects; that's because the story itself has some pretty big problems. For one thing, it seems to have trouble deciding whether to be a claustrophobic monster movie in space like Alien, a space-cowboy shoot-em-up like Star Wars, or a cerebral space opera like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly, the incomprehensible ending has a lot in common with the incomprehensible ending of 2001, and I hope for the new version they either come up with something concrete to happen at the end, or if they decide to go all metaphysical on us, at least be metaphysical with a point to make - the last five minutes or so of the film seem to have nothing to say other than that bad guys go to Hell and good guys go to... I don't know, they go through a stained glass window and wind up on the moon or something. I've mentioned the pacing problems in the first half; there also seems to be a romantic attachment of some sort between the captain and the only female crew member, but we never find out why he gets all huggy and kissy later on in the movie when in the first part he treated her just like another crew member. It's not like there is a growing relationship; he just all of a sudden morphs from boss to boyfriend. Most all of the characters come off as sort of wooden; not quite one-dimensional, but not quite all human, either. They're like someone you've met a time or two and liked on first impressions but never really got to know very well; by the end of a movie you're supposed to have a strong visceral attachment to characters. But when, late in the movie, one of the characters is sucked away to certain death in space, it's almost like you feel bad for him, but you know, it's really the captain and his girlfriend that matter anyway so you don't miss him that much.
And how about that vacuum of space? The first time one of the (semi-transparent, pretty unconvincing, and inexplicably flaming) meteors ruptures part of the ship, the air is sucked out into space over the course of oh, I don't know, three or four minutes, and the characters are still breathing the entire time. In reality, this should have been almost instantaneous. Then in the (admittedly visually stunning) "rolling meteor" shot, the air doesn't seem to be being sucked away at all, although clearly the structure has been ruptured. Later, the characters are climbing a tower to an escape ship in total vacuum, but they're not having any trouble breathing at all. Obviously they made it through the part of space where there is no air shortly after that first scene (or else the air from the ship had filled the cosmos: "What do you kids think I'm doing, air-conditioning the entire neighborhood?")
On the positive side, though, if you look at the story itself as a sci-fi story, ignoring the movie translation, it's a story with lots of twists and turns and surprises and action. I think with a better-focused vision (is it Alien, is it Star Wars, is it 2001, or maybe Moby Dick in Space or something totally different?), some good screenwriters who know where and whether to include romance, humor, suspense, or even gore (how did Maximillian manage to drill someone to death with his spinning claws without spilling a single drop of blood?), someone to keep an eye on the science (such as whether people can breathe in a vacuum), and an ending which makes some sort of sense (in the DVD documentary, the son of the effects supervisor even admitted that although it looks really cool, even he has no idea what it means), a remake can improve greatly on the original. In fact, I look forward to it. A story with that much potential deserves a movie that is more than just a special effects bonanza.