Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ultimate Knowledge

Things didn’t quite go according to plan the other night when I went to see the double bill of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and THE BLACK HOLE at the New Beverly. Several people cancelled on me, including my longtime friend Mojo who works on the visual effects of the current incarnation and probably knows more about old school GALACTICA than anyone. Well, anyone I know anyway. And then when I started talking to a cute blonde girl dressed in black there to see the movies in front of the theater I got a call from a co-worker that I had to take. He had a valid reason for calling, but did it really have to be the one time in my life that a cute girl asks me a question about FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR? At least I had the double bill to look forward to.

Full disclosure: I’m maybe a few years too young to have any real memories of watching the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA when it originally ran so I don’t have any real sentimental attachment to the show (weirdly, I do remember watching BUCK ROGERS and maintain a fondness for Erin Gray to this day, not that I think it’s any better because of that). What I’m saying is that I can get into the spirit while watching the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA movie, but the fact still remains that it’s not really a movie. It was never meant to be, of course, since it’s just the first few episodes strung together with a few modifications (I guess the theatrical release occurred after the series had run and this has always confused me). Considering it runs two hours and change, it could have used a few more modifications to cut it down to workable length as well. The film is made up of three parts: the setup where the Cylons seek to exterminate humanity, the middle portion where we get to know the characters and the final section which feels like a self-contained adventure roughly the length of an episode. And then it pretty much stops and rolls credits since, naturally, the story doesn’t end at this point. There’s some fun in there in a nostalgic 70s way, but the look of it, obviously meant for television, isn’t very interesting. The costumes don’t magnify to the big screen very well and the design of all the control modules kept making me think of the “lights blinking back and forth” joke in AIRPLANE II. The middle section focusing on the characters goes on for what feels like a long time, and since none of this is going to be resolved in the movie, it makes me wish they had cut a lot of this down. It’s a knockoff of STAR WARS meant for kids and, well, that’s about all I have to say about it. Jane Seymour is very cute, however. Points to the New Beverly for including a vintage Sensurround disclaimer explaining the revolutionary process that would be used in the movie we were about to see. Of course, we didn’t get to actually see GALACTICA in Sensurround, but it was nice to be reminded of it. Even nicer was how beautiful the print was, looking as if it had been struck in 1978, then sealed away until it would be used thirty years later.

It was the second movie on the bill that night which was the real reason I was there, a film that I made sure I was sitting in the front row to see. I can remember desperately wanting to see THE BLACK HOLE when I was a kid, but my parents never took me. Beats me why and it would be pointless to ask my mom about it. But to this day, if I see the poster or the trailer which contains the graphics from the opening credits I’m immediately shot back to when I was a kid. It’s safe to say now that if they had taken me I probably would have been bored or confused by it, the first PG-rated film released by Disney, and the stature the film attained it my head later on would never have happened. This was my first time seeing it in a theater and I couldn’t help feel thrilled when the lights went down and the film began immediately with the playing of John Barry’s majestic overture (this film, along with the concurrently released STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE was the last to ever contain such an overture). The film may have a few issues—hell, it may have a lot of issues--but I’m not really sure if I care.

The plot details the USS Palomino and its discovery of the long lost ship the Cygnus near a black hole. Once onboard, the Palomino’s crew discovers the long lost ship’s commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, alive and well, in charge of a group of robot sentries controlling the ship and fully intent on entering the black hole or, as he puts it, “In…through…and beyond.” What’s interesting about THE BLACK HOLE is that it seems stuck between the basic Disney nature of it (goofy robots, cardboard characters) and the feel that it has genuinely loftier goals which its creators are either being prevented from fulfilling or it’s simply beyond their abilities. One of the biggest problems with the film is that it seems to spend its running time promising something incredible and then doesn’t fulfill it (again, like STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. The two would really make the ideal double bill). The extremely ambitious look of the film easily sets it apart simply being inspired by STAR WARS, making for some incredible imagery.

The leads, including Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux and Joseph Bottoms, seem directed to by as colorless as possible. Anthony Perkins and Ernest Borgnine come off more interesting, maybe because their acting styles don’t allow them to ever come off as so bland. Maximilian Schell as the great Dr. Hans Reinhardt (an intimidating name if there ever was one) truly does seem like an intelligent lunatic and his performance almost comes off as too unhinged for the stagey sets he has to work on. There’s also the added weirdness of the giant robot Maximillian, who Schell calls by name a number of times, giving an added subtext which makes perfect sense in context of Maximillian being some kind of outgrowth of Reinhardt’s personality battling in the mind of its master. Pairing that with the, um, interest Anthony Perkins’ Dr. Durant takes in Reinhardt’s plan (“Shall we discuss that over dinner?” Reinhadt asks Durant). There seems to be subtext all over the place in THE BLACK HOLE—it doesn’t necessarily make it any better but at least provides the film with stuff going on along with the visuals. There’s a moody, dreamlike feel throughout much of the movie that only feels interrupted occasionally by elements like the robots voiced without credit by Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens (but even they are presented in relatively sober fashion), or the goofy rescue scene where Robert Forster attempts to save Yvette Mimieux from a conveyor belt-type device which is scored as heroically as possible by John Barry and almost feels like it could come from that Science Fiction film that Albert Brooks is editing in MODERN ROMANCE. Feeling out of place for a different reason is an infamously violent death scene which, even though nothing is actually shown, is still surprisingly grisly for a Disney film (the shock of the scene is probably one of many reasons for the cult around the film to this day). John Barry’s score ranges from the pomp-and-circumstance feel of the opening march to the moody expanse of the title them to a feel of genuine romance and danger which it feels at times like the movie wouldn’t have otherwise—some of it slightly resembles his work on that year’s Bond film MOONRAKER, another good double bill idea for this one.

And then there’s the ending, which has puzzled people for years and I can’t think of anything to say which would help. I imagine a few Gen-Xers sitting in an old folks’ home, forty years from now, still arguing over what happens and getting nowhere after all that time. Like much of the rest of the film, it’s striking looking but the confusion it provides in no way disguises how much it doesn’t fulfill what’s been promised over the course of the film (again, like STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE).

But even with its problems, I still found myself sitting through THE BLACK HOLE with a goofy grin on my face, enjoying it immensely. Some of it is rather sleepy and it does lack compelling personalities in its characters, but it has a weighty feel it its tone that you don’t get in other post-STAR WARS film from those years. When the credits rolled on that baffling ending, I listened to John Barry’s theme one more time and got up to leave the New Beverly. As I was heading outside, I found myself exiting at the same time as the cute blonde girl dressed in black. She turned to me and asked what I thought. I carefully started to say, “Well, I’m glad I finally saw a print. Sure, it’s a little slow, but it’s also…” Before I could figure out what else to say, she simply stated, “It was fantastic.” To which I immediately responded, “Yes, it was.” Because I realized that the cute blonde girl dressed in black was right. I got to see THE BLACK HOLE in a theater, something I’ve wanted to do for years. In the end, the night was worth it. And it really was fantastic.


Unknown said...

You mention a few double bill possibilities for THE BLACK HOLE, and I would add THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES as a triple bill.

Ahh, the late 70s/early 80s, when Disney was flailing around, trying to find a new kind of film to make -- you know, those Disney movies that feature paranormal activity, people getting drilled to death, or beheaded.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

That sounds like a triple bill I'd definitely see...of course, I'd still pick seeing THE BLACK HOLE over those other two any day.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Galactica sucks and the Black Hole is "fantastic?" Clearly I woke up on the wrong universe this morning.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Hey, I never said GALACTICA sucked. I just didn't like it as much as THE BLACK HOLE which has more to do with sentimental reasons than anything. But all right, I'll go ahead and say that GALACTICA is fantastic.

Not as good as BUCK ROGERS, though.