Cinema: Space Opera

  • Share
  • Read Later


Directed by Gary Nelson Screenplay by Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day

"Movies are binary," George Lucas, who directed Star Wars, once said. "They either work or they don't." He meant that even if some elements fall below standard, that may not affect our overall feeling for a picture if something about it grabs hold of our consciousness. Lucas comes to mind because so much of the Disney studio's The Black Hole—an overpowering score, squads of menacing heavies and, especially, two adorable robots—are straight Star Wars steals, and because, despite all this sincere flattery and a script and performances that are merely adequate, the fool thing works.

The story has an American rocket ship encountering two curious phenomena in outer space. One is the entrance to the biggest black hole anyone aboard has seen, the other is a large, rather charmingly antique-looking space vehicle parked near it with its lights out. The men of the former craft are absolutely basic: one stalwart captain, one joky copilot, one overdedicated scientist, one slightly shifty civilian and one pretty lady whose function is to be placed in jeopardy. The sole proprietor of the ship they run into is Maximilian Schell, a great long-lost scientist whose ego trips are as monumental as his space voyages and who is, indeed, quite round the bend. His crew are all robots, though some of them were human before he started doing these terrible things to them. Of course, he cannot afford to let his visitors return to earth with news of his malefactions, and besides he's about to pop down the black hole and doesn't really believe in car pools.

Though all this takes much time to set up, the talk is at least drivel-free in a way the pompous Star Trek is not, and interest is sustained by Peter Ellenshaw's marvelous effects and designs, particularly of Schell's ship; in its amusing mixture of the plush and the technological, it recalls Captain Nemo's submarine in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But it is when the visitors have to start fighting their way out of Schell's clutches that the picture begins to take off.

This long sequence is a blend of smartly staged action and mechanical and photographic effects as spectacular as anyone has achieved. It simply blows one away. The trip into the black hole that follows owes too much to 2001, but there are some amusing visual references to Fantasia, which partly compensate. It is good to see the Disney craftsmen doing what they do best on such a grand and risky scale. If one has time for only one space opera this season, this is the one to choose. — Richard Schickel