Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Star Trek mission with Star Wars robots

Hollywood has always operated on the core principle of finding a successful formula and trying to repeat it, and rarely has that seemed more evident than in The Black Hole.

In fact, I'm sure the reason my parents took me to see it back in 1979 -- making it one of the first five to ten movies I'd ever seen -- was because it had that kind of Star Wars, Star Trek feel to it.

Boy does it ever.

I watched the movie for the first time since then on Friday night, having still retained some images from it all these years later, but having no real idea what to expect. I knew it was fairly cheesy and nowhere in the same category as either of the sci-fi enterprises whose coattails it was trying to ride, but I also remembered that there were some things that had disturbed the six-year-old me. I wanted to see how objectively disturbing they actually were.

Answer: somewhat objectively disturbing.

But first, about the comparisons to the two Stars.

The most obvious influence is probably Star Wars, a huge hit from only two years earlier, and mostly in terms of the design of the robots. Yeah, there are laser battles, but as they look so much worse than those in Star Wars, it hardly feels worth dwelling on them. No, it's really the robots in particular -- and one robot in even more particular -- that feel like trying to recreate the Star Wars formula.

I'm thinking specifically of this robot, called Vincent:

There's more than a little R2-D2 in this little guy.

You wouldn't call him an R2-D2 clone, of course. They've taken pains to differentiate him. Vincent speaks English and he can fly, which is something R2-D2 did later but definitely could not do at the time. But R2-D2 was certainly an inspiration. Then again, George Lucas stole the basic design of R2-D2 from Silent Running, so it's not like there's every anything new under the sun.

Then there's this guy on the left:

He's called S.T.A.R. (oh yeah, Vincent is really called V.I.N.C.E.N.T.) and he's kind of a cross between a stormtrooper and those guys who control the Death Star's giant laser. If he reminds you a little of Darth Vader, it's probably not a coincidence.

But the real Darth Vader character in this movie is probably this guy:

He doesn't actually remind me of anyone in the Star Wars universe directly, though funnily enough, his character design is a bit mirrored in the emperor's royal guards from Return of the Jedi, which wouldn't come along for another four years. If anything he probably resembles the Silon Raiders from Battlestar Galactica (one year earlier), the Daleks from Dr. Who (more than 15 years earlier) or even that robot from Lost in Space (from around the same time as Dr. Who). If I'm going down this road I might as well also compare him to Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). And again we get into that everything-influences-everything-else territory. Sinister robots are frequently sinister in similar ways. (And all the robots I've listed here are not sinister, but I digress.)

The funny thing about Maximilian is that he shares a name with the actor who plays his master, Maximilian Schell. That's a chicken-or-the-egg scenario right there, if ever there was one.

I had at least V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and probably also Maximilian as toys when I was a kid. In retrospect, it seems unlikely that The Black Hole would have been popular enough for a toy line, but again, that's following in the Star Wars mold of merchandising. The way these toys moved was pretty cool, as I recall. Vincent (it's easier to just type his name that way) had a head that popped in an out of his body, turtle style, and I believe also had legs that could extend or not. I don't think Maximilian came equipped with whirring propeller blades, but I could be wrong.

So that's the Star Wars part. The Star Trek part comes entirely in terms of the plot.

Stop me if this sounds like an episode of Star Trek, or a Star Trek movie, or a half-dozen of each you've seen before: A seemingly deserted ship floats on the edge of some sort of space singularity, and to approach it may endanger our intrepid crew. But there could be survivors on board, and they have to figure out the mystery of what happened on that ship. When they do board the ship, they indeed find that it is occupied, most likely with a one-time alley who is no longer quite what he seems. And other ... sinister stuff. Before long, our intrepid crew is involved in an adventure with possibly cataclysmic repercussions.

Yeah, that's a Star Trek mission if ever there was one. In fact, even the most recent Star Trek movie from just this year has basically this same setup.

Of course, Star Trek *movies* were not a particular source of inspiration for The Black Hole. Only one of them existed at the time, and it had come out only months earlier. But the TV show had of course been in existence for some time, and it surely helped inspire this story.

But wait, we're not done.

The most unlikely influence on this film is 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's not unlikely because that movie is not good -- it's incredible, of course -- but because it's not commercial. Or not what we thought of as commercial in the post-Star Wars era.

The thing those two movies have in common are their endings. The entry into the black hole (spoiler!) is very similar to the Star Gate sequence that ends 2001, in that both are trying to visualize some interstellar phenomenon that is fundamentally unknowable ... and do that by producing visuals that almost certainly would not accompany such an event. 2001 of course has the whole surreal part about the old man in the bed, and The Black Hole's equivalent thereof is a cathedral-like crystal tunnel and a garish vision of hell in which Maximilian gets fused with his master while hooded figures look on. Both films end on what looks like the rise of a new planet, or could be interpreted that way anyway.

Okay, so on to what might or might not have disturbed me.

I was definitely disturbed at the time by the death of the character I now know was played by Anthony Perkins. Maximilian drills into him with his propeller blades (bloodlessly) and he falls down into a chasm in the ship and dies. I'm quite sure I found that too intense at the time. What I don't specifically remember, but probably horrified me, was the unmasking of one of the drones that are being passed off as robots, but are actually hypnotized/lobotomized humans. That was some pretty scary shit.

Overall, though, this is a pretty silly movie that has a lot more talk than action, and the action there is -- especially the laser shootouts -- is pretty cornball. Also, Neil deGrasse Tyson was right to criticize it as "the least scientifically accurate film of all time." There are parts where human beings are just floating in space without space suits and not dying. Yeah, it makes no sense.

Glad to have watched it again, though. There are few films I can say I haven't seen since the 1970s; now there is one fewer.