Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Reeling backward: "The Black Hole"
I saw "The Black Hole" once, when I was nine or 10 years old. I only remembered a handful of things about it. I remembered the big, silent menacing robot, Maximilian. I remembered that Ernest Borgnine turned out to be a turncoat. And I remembered that the black-cloaked robots roaming wordlessly around the huge spaceship were actually the ship's former crew, turned into mechanized zombie cyborgs by the mad scientist Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell).
I had absolutely recollection whatsoever of V.I.N.CENT, the feisty little robot who is the real star of the movie. After seeing "The Black Hole" again recently, I know why I had blocked him from memory.
V.I.N.CENT is an absolutely cringe-worthy creation. Coming out in 1979, two years after "Star Wars," "Black Hole" was obviously a rip-off, and V.I.N.CENT is simply an amalgam of C3-PO and R2D2. With his small, squat body with all sorts of hidden gizmos for fixing stuff, V.I.N.CENT has essentially the same function as R2D2. The pleasant, high-pitched voice (by Roddy McDowell) is a mirror of C3-PO's. Although V.I.N.CENT certainly has more of R2D2's feistiness. As for his two big, square eyes that look like they were made out of Legos, I have no explanation.
V.I.N.CENT floats around with a chip on his non-existent shoulder. He seems determined to prove that his model of robot is the best around. As soon as the crew from the USS Palomino docks aboard the long-lost mammoth ship Cygnus, he sets about trying to upstage the other robots. Of course, there's the big showdown with the red Maximilian, but he also takes time to blast a hole in a black gungslinger robot during a shooting contest.
There's even an older, dented and junked-up version of V.I.N.CENT on the ship, named Old Bob, who he immediately partners up with. "Remember, we're the best," he encourages Bob. Bob is voiced by Slim Pickens with the quaking timbre of an old-timer. Now, think about that. Why would a robot's voice sound older as he gets older? It's not like his parts that produce speech would deteriorate in exactly the sort of way that a human's vocal chords stretch out with age. Weird.
Anyway, the plot is one of those things that a simpleton can figure out in a nanosecond. Reinhardt turned the crew into zombies when they defied him, and he wants to take the Cygnus through the huge black hole it's been sitting next to for the last 20 years. The Palomino crew shows up, spoils his plans, and the mad scientist is done in by his own creations. Blah, blah, blah.
The funny thing is that, despite being made to siphon off some of those "Star Wars" bucks, "The Black Hole" looks at least a decade more primitive in terms of the special effects. The laser blasts are just streams of energy, with none of that great sound or impact of the Star Wars blasters. The spaceships are big, slow-moving models lacking the pizazz and maneuverability of an X-wing.
And I nearly fell over laughing when the commander (Robert Forster) turns to the ship's doctor and tells her to contact V.I.N.CENT "with your ESP." Yes, that's right, the good doctor is psychic. I love how the filmmakers plucked that little bit of pop culture pseudo-science, which was a hot item during the 1970s, and stuck it in there. Although, I guess in that sense Star Wars beat it to the punch, but called it The Force. One question though: If he doctor has ESP, why is it she can only communicate telepathically with V.I.N.CENT and not any of the human crew?
I don't have a clear idea of whether I liked "The Black Hole" or not as a kid, but the fact that so little of it lingered in my mind should have been a good indication of how bad it really is. Not kitschy bad like "Forbidden Planet" -- just bad.