I've been an admirer of Robert Forster since I first saw him in Banyon, an early 70s TV series about a Depression Era private eye, a formula almost calculated to fail with the viewing public (it got clobbered in the ratings by Love America Style), but likewise guaranteed to tickle my peculiar, age-inappropriate interests. I remember being impressed by his intense, but low-key demeanor and his cool naturalism, and from then on Forster's presence in a film could make me sit through just about anything.
Even this thing.
The Black Hole (1979)
Directed by Gary Nelson
Written by Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day
Tagline: A journey that begins where everything else ends!
Starting with your patience.
The Black Hole gets a lot of crap for being just another Star Wars rip-off, which I consider unfair, since it’s actually a rip-off of Disney’s own 1954 picture, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but with two crucial differences: this version is set in space rather than at sea, and instead of Nemo being a tortured genius using ruthless means to achieve a noble end, he’s just an asshole.
Another criticism of the film is that nearly every performance is lifeless or just plain bad. No surprise with that talking wig-stand, Yvette Mimieux, but even normally fine actors like Anthony Perkins and Robert Forster sound like they’ve been roofied, possibly because they were forced to go back and re-record all their dialogue, something unusual for a studio film shot on a stage. But in all fairness, if I’d been working on the that movie, I’d have been drinking too.
It’s the Year 2130. NASA has launched the spaceship Palomino (which, as my friend Jeff points out, looks like a butt-plug on a camcorder tripod) and sent it on a mission to boldly go and wander around for a while. It’s a harsh task, because the Palomino is no Enterprise; it’s cramped, filled with fey robots, and has a zero-gravity environment which is tough on the wardrobe. Fortunately, it’s the future, so everybody’s double-knit leisure suits have memory. Also helpful is the fact that the crew is aggressively middle-aged, and prone to simulate weightlessness by standing on an off-camera plank while sweaty Teamsters pump it up and down like a teeter-totter. The exception is Joseph Bottoms, who really throws himself into the zero-g effect, joyfully and repeatedly dangling from wires in his tight jumpsuit with his pert, shapely buttocks aloft, and which has inspired me to invent a drinking game. Every time he does it, yell “Bottom’s up!” and take a shot.
Anyway, we join the Palomino as it executes an unscheduled course correction, which makes the entire crew irritable, because now they’re going to be late for work. They demand an explanation from their GPS device, V.I.N.CENT, a highly sophisticated Coors Party Ball with the voice of Roddy McDowell and the eyes of that Kit-Cat Clock, but less expressive. He explains that the ship has encountered a black hole, “a rip in the very fabric of space and time,” so they’re going to have to take an alternate route.
Anthony Perkins, the ship’s astrophysicist, stares at the black hole (which is depicted as a constant swirl of fluid blue energy that kind of looks like a toilet in mid-flush) and pronounces it, with attempted awe, “the most destructive force in the universe,” although he sounds so bored he might as well be declaring it, “the most disappointing cheesesteak I ever ate in Philadelphia.”
Surprisingly, there’s a ship parked in the Black Hole’s driveway, a massive experimental craft called The Cygnus (the first time I saw this movie I thought they were calling it “the Sickness,” and an hour and 38 minutes later, I realized I should have taken the hint and snuck into an adjoining theater to see one of the many other, better films that came out that year, including H.O.T.S., C.H.O.M.P.S., Roller Boogie, or Caligula).
By an amazing coincidence, Yvette’s father was on The Sickness, which she tells us was sent out some years ago to find “habitable life.” Personally, I’d be satisfied with a habitable planet, but I guess the first step in space exploration is to find aliens big enough that we can live inside them like maggots, or immature marsupials. (Frankly, if this movie had been about the search for an intelligent race of giant space kangaroos, I probably wouldn’t have left in the middle to go buy Junior Mints.)
Newspaper reporter Ernest Borgnine, who’s embedded with the crew, tells them that The Sickness was commanded by mad scientist Maximillian Schell, who “talked the Space Appropriations Committee into the costliest fiasco of all time – and refused to admit failure,” a technique he learned from the cryogenically preserved head of Dick Cheney.
The Palomino trips and plunges headfirst into the Most Destructive Force in the Universe, which causes their muffler to fall off, so Captain Robert Forster orders Joseph Bottoms to land on the Sickness, which Joseph takes as a cue to stick his butt in the air.
The Sickness abruptly turns on the porch light, and we get the full sense of her size and majesty. A mile-long rectangle of glass and steel, it looks as if NASA just decided to launch the West Edmonton Mall into deep space. The crew takes the jetway and emerges into what looks like a Frontier airlines terminal – lots of uncomfortable plastic chairs, but no passengers -- and Robert tells Joseph to stay with the ship. Joseph responds by pouting, then pulling out his ray gun, sticking out his butt, and posing like the silhouette from the opening credits of Charlie’s Angels.
The Palomino crew arrives at CNN Center in Atlanta, where they discover the ship is being operated by “robots” dressed in Mylar hockey masks and roomy space muumuus. Suddenly, the mad-eyed Maximilian Schell, whose shaggy beard and unbelievable bouffant makes Lon Chaney’s Wolfman look like Pluto from The Hills Have Eyes, pops up to announce that Yvette’s dad is dead and to backfill the back-story. Like every spacecraft in virtually every space movie ever made, The Sickness had the crap kicked out of it by a meteor shower, so Max ordered the crew to abandon ship. Meanwhile, he stayed behind, and has spent the last twenty years alone, building robot companions and making fun of bad movies.
For some reason, the incredibly secretive and paranoid Max lets the Away Team wander freely around his ship, collecting spare parts to repair their butt-plug. They snoop in closets, admire the matte paintings, and desperately try to avoid stunts or action. At one point, Ernest Borgnine’s suspicions are aroused by a robot with a bad limp, and he gives chase, but he’s on a slightly raised platform that looks a little slippery, and he runs so gingerly, with his arms flailing to maintain his footing, that you can almost hear him chanting, “Don’t break a hip, don’t break a hip…!”
Mad Max and Anthony Perkins get flirty, and Max invites them to dinner in his wood paneled formal dining room, lavishly appointed with chandeliers and candelabras, making The Sickness the only faster-than-light, interstellar space craft to be decorated by Liberace.
Meanwhile, VINCENT makes friends with B.O.B., a levitating beer keg with the voice of Slim Pickens, and we get to watch the robots play a video arcade game. It’s a slow sequence, and sadly, putting your quarter on the machine doesn’t speed things up any.
Let’s cut back to the dinner party, because what action-packed space adventure is complete without a leisurely soup course? Max announces that he’ll be flying The Sickness straight into the Black Hole, confident he can open a portal to another universe, one which is sorely in need of a Camp Snoopy and a Wet Seal.
After dinner, the crew is served mints and exposition, when B.O.B. reveals that all the robots are really the former crew of The Sickness, whom Max lobotomized, using a special automated lobotomizing assembly line. It seems unlikely NASA included this feature as factory standard equipment, so Max would have had to get the crew to build and install it for him, and frankly I would’ve loved to have been at the staff meeting where he assigned Action Items to Team Automatic Lobotomizer.
Captain Robert snaps into action and decides to take over The Sickness! Or maybe just leave. It’s kind of unclear. Then he reads ahead in the script and sees that he’ll be spending the last twenty-two minutes of the film running from blue screens and matte paintings, so he decides he’d better conserve his energy and just do nothing. Maybe have a Gatorade and a Power Bar. Anthony Perkins, however, announces that he has decided to stay aboard The Sickness with Max, because he finds that he really enjoys being only the second most creepy person in a movie.
Unfortunately, Max’s senior robot, Maximilian, a recycled Cylon that somebody painted the color of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, gets jealous or something and uses his juicing attachment on Anthony’s lower intestines. Then Mad Max decides to lobotomize Yvette, because it’s not like anyone would notice.
Meanwhile, Robert and the Party Balls sneak around the mall some more. Since the movie was released in December, I can only assume they’re looking for Santa. Instead, they find Yvette, who has been stuffed into a quilted, full-body oven mitt and had her head covered with aluminum foil. Seriously, her scalp is wrapped up like a rump roast; apparently, this is the exact point where the Special Effects department said, “Fuck it,” and cracked open the Harvey’s Bristol Cream.
Anyway, Max’s man-bots are using Lasik surgery to burn their initials into Yvette’s pre-frontal lobe, but Robert shoots the machine with his plastic laser horseshoe. Was he in time to save her from being lobotomized? There’s no way to tell from her performance, so we’re just going to have to wait and see if her insurance company sends her a bill.
You know what? We could really use a big action sequence right about now. What we get are repetitive shots of our heroes as they squat behind those big pastel colored pipes that kids crawl around in at Chuck E. Cheese, and take pot shots at a row of immobile robots who appear to have all malfunctioned in mid Conga Line.
Robert, Yvette, and the Party Balls are pinned down by hostile fire. Joseph, who’s been sitting in the butt-plug the whole movie, runs to save them. Ernest tags along, then decides, “aw, screw it,” and fakes a leg injury like an Italian soccer player. Then he steals the Palomino and blasts off, leaving the others behind. Immediately, however, he loses control of the ship when he starts sweating, grimacing, and needlessly crouching; in other words – and I’m just going by his performance here – he has a suddenly attack of diarrhea, and crashes into The Sickness, taking out the Fashion Bug and a Cinnabon.
Our heroes decide to escape in “the probe ship.” Yeah, whatever. Meanwhile, as promised, the next 22 minutes consist of B-list actors jogging in front of cheap sets and back projection, interspersed with SFX shots as The Sickness is slowly – let me rephrase that: SLOWLY! – pulled into the Black Hole. On the bright side, we learn that V.I.N.CENT ’s large, telescoping testicles can be used as offensive weapons (try that, Jackie Chan!), when the Party Ball deploys his party balls to coldcock Mad Max’s garage sale Cylon.
Now let’s rip off the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with five minutes of half-assed psychedelic effects as the probe ship penetrates the Black Hole, played at this performance by five gallons of strawberry Jell-O flushed down a john.
But what about Max? Well, he’s just floating in the vacuum of space without a pressure suit, apparently none the worse for wear, although his hair is extremely staticky and tangled from the event horizon, and in need of a good cream rinse. He bumps into his burgundy Cylon which – spoiler alert – is filled with the brain and guts of Yvette’s lobotomized Dad. They do a touching Bro Hug, then suddenly Max is inside the robot himself! Because, irony! He looks confused, a feeling we immediately share when the camera pulls out and we see that he’s standing atop the Matterhorn ride in Disneyland.
Wait. No. Pull out a little farther, and…Oh! Hey. We’re in Hell. Flames, demons, and dozens of skull-faced penitents in black hooded robes. Okay, thanks, Disney.
Cut back to our heroes as they pass through the Black Hole and emerge in another universe, ready to begin life anew and populate a virgin world, like the story of Genesis. Except it’s Robert Forster, Yvette Mimeaux, and the dewy, fresh-faced Joseph Bottoms, so it’s like Adam and Eve and the twink hustler they picked up for a threesome on Sunset Boulevard.