What an ambitious project, and what a bad movie. But for those of us who were of the 1970’s generation, movies like this can be enjoyed in the present in a sort of amicable blend of romantic nostalgia and camp fun. But even without the childhood-memory-loyalism (the same loyalism that bonds me to Krull and Beastmaster), Disney’s The Black Hole has much to recommend it. While I don’t think that the movie succeeds as a take-it-serious “film” by an adult audience, it can still be experienced and enjoyed on many legitimate levels.
The Black Hole represents Disney’s attempt to capitalize on the Sci-fi momentum of Star Wars which had been released just a few short years before. Though many of the effects shots appear dated (along with visible suspension wires supporting actors and robots in many scenes), Disney Studios did manage to capture a stunning visual language with The Black Hole that was surprisingly original in its look and concept. When you consider the number of effects shots contained in this film (almost every scene it seems), “ambitious” is indeed the word that keeps coming back to me to characterize this endeavor. Extensive use of matte painting delivers some very seamless and dramatic visuals, and while some effects-shots appear obvious, many more will slip by you unnoticed. The unique scaffold-glass design of the main ship is beautiful, and particularly respectful given that the effects team really did manage to achieve a self-defined and original visual style on the heels of so many other sci-fi influences. In terms of pure imagery, some compositions inspire with their rich aesthetics (the glowing meteor rolling down the main corridor towards the bridge) and are worth spending time with this film to experience. And who can deny that Maximilian is one of the most sinister and fear-inspiring robots to come along in a *long* while (at least since Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still). Oh…and did anyone else notice the “hell scene” with Maximilian standing atop the rocky spire and how remarkably similar it is to the scene with Satan standing on a similar spire in South Park Bigger Longer Uncut? Watch and tell me if you think Trey and Parker were drawing a connection.
Well that’s an awful lot of talk about special effects and visual style. That’s because those are the good things about The Black Hole. Despite some well-seasoned names, acting in this film feels over-dramatized and stale, and the screen-play dialog is about as hokey as a junior-high comic strip. Which is a real shame because with a bit of talent and intuition, the script, acting, and direction could have been tweaked just enough to land this film into a nice solid “B” sci-fi category like many other films that didn’t quite make the “A” list, but ended up being good movies none-the-less (Disney’s next similar effort Tron is a good example of a film that may not have brought in the bucks from contemporary audiences, but ultimately ended up being a genuinely good film). The allusion to Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea with the crazed-genius scientist was a bit too obvious, and the “cute” levitating robots still felt like R2D2 rip-offs. Never-the-less…if you’re a sci-fi enthusiast, enjoy camp-classics and playing science-fiction-theater 3000 in your living room, or if you’re just curious as to what all the talk is about with this off-the-radar film, I encourage you to give it a try.
I boycotted the original non-anamorphic DVD version so all my comments are focused on this new transfer since I’m unable to compare (however, there is little doubt in my mind that this new 16x9 version easily supersedes the previous disc, and Peter’s review at dvdfile attests to this as well).
Aside from what looks like a bit too much high-frequency filtering (reducing fine picture detail in mid and far-ground shots), the image of The Black Hole looks mighty good on my 100” screen. I just upgraded to a new “Dalite Hipower” screen and haven’t had a chance to recalibrate my projector yet, but even so the impression of the image of this disc was more-than-watchable and at times breathtaking. Despite all the rather challenging material, black level is solid and grayscale smooth and naturally gradient. Almost all “artifacts” that I can detect (aside from the image softness from filtering) appear to be film-source related. Some of the effects scenes have an inordinate degree of noise from the optical processes of production, but nevertheless compression seems confident and the DVD is merely demonstrating the appearance of the best-quality film-source available to the mastering engineers. Given the grain and optical noise in many of these effects shots, I can understand the engineers’ temptation to apply a bit of liberal HF or DNR filtering, and in this case I won’t come down hard on them for it though I still personally would have preferred a little more mid/far-ground image detail at the expense of image “cleanliness”. Of course, I’m talking about the impression on a 100” screen from about a 1.6:1 viewing distance:screen width ratio (which was still a very pleasant experience); viewers watching on large-screen HDTVs or plasmas from 2+ screen-widths distance will undoubtedly find the image sharp and well defined, and those watching on more traditional direct-view sets will likely find the image to be “reference” given the limitations of the source.
I’d really like to sing the praises of one aspect of this DVD transfer/mastering in particular, and that is color. Colors are vibrant, bold, and saturated. It’s rare to watch a film produced in the 1970’s and see color preserved so richly. Reds are deep and don’t looked “faded orange” like so many other films from this era. Fleshtones appear natural and, especially in close-ups, I found myself amazed at the enormous variation in tone and hue. No artifact like Color-banding is anywhere to be seen to my eyes. And how often have you heard me say this…I noticed no distracting edge enhancement from my 1.6 screen-width viewing distance (some minor ringing on hard edges in certain scenes if you looked for it...but nothing to bring attention to itself).
Yes folks, In between the laughs from the corny dialog and untenable suspension of the laws of physics, the image of The Black Hole on my projection screen garnered quite a few “ooohhhss” and “aaaahhhs”. Excepting the slight image softness for large-screen viewers, this DVD really does deliver.
Picture: 4/ 5
I’m pretty impressed with what Disney has done. Those of you with the current non-16x9 disc are already familiar with this 5.1 mix, but watching and listening to this dvd was my first exposure and it was a pleasant one. Clearly the limitation is with the source material, the most crippling aspect being the very “dubbed” and canned sounding dialogue (fits the quality of the screen-play ). However, that caveat aside, it’s remarkable what the folks responsible for this 5.1 mix have done. Frequency response is wide and the orchestral presentation is smooth and non-fatiguing. Surround use is also employed more prodigiously than I would have imagined with effects scenes filling out the rear channels nicely when appropriate. I don’t have a center-surround set-up so I’m not certain if the rear channels are discrete or paired together in mono…so those of you with center-rear decoding be mindful of this and if you’re surround field collapses into the single rear channel be sure to disable EX decoding.
The most impressive thing of all about this soundtrack is the unexpected deep bass response. I was watching this film late the other night and kept turning down the volume to make sure that the bass wasn’t disturbing the neighbors…a good thing.
Sound: 4/ 5
You got two! Try to stay calm:
- [*][b]Extended Trailer: A trailer on a Disney title…for the DVD title of the same name? Yes folks. Here we see the thrilling and audience-gripping trailer that thrust The Black Hole into becoming the most successful science-fiction/fantasy films of all time. All in glorious 4x3 full-frame. I always enjoy the historical context created by watching these trailers and I’m sure that fans will too.
[*][b]Through The Black Hole Featurette: Hosted by effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw, this 16-minute 4x3 full-frame documentary is a welcome addition to the admittedly slim-bonus features on this disc. The discussion focuses wisely on the technical aspects of special effects production and design choices, which are this movie’s strengths. Despite its relatively short running length, this documentary is solid and really conveys a much deepened sense of respect for the creative process behind this film and the dedication that went into its production. Worth repeated watching. Highly recommended for both casual and serious fans.
Camp classics like The Black Hole should be enjoyed for exactly what they are...misguided efforts that usually started out with a really good idea that managed to get a bit drailed in execution. Those of you, like me, who have a fondness for this film from our childhood exposure can safely grab ahold of Disney's new 16x9 disc without fear...whether upgrading from your non-anamorphic copy or buying for the first time. The rest of you who are curious to learn more about this movie... while I can't recommend The Black Hole as a "film" per-se, I can recommend watching it as an *experience* that you won't forget: Laugh at the campy dialog, cringe as the laws of physics are bent beyond recognition, and sigh as the stunning visuals and creative-concept work remind you of just what an ambitious film this set out to be.