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A Word For Science Fiction: The Black Hole

1 September 2010

Disney’s 1979 attempt at space opera boasts some great visuals, but the science is hit-and-miss.

The original movie poster for The Black Hole depicts cutting-edge (for the time) computer graphics.

The Black Hole is not a good movie. The plot is predictable, the acting is mostly poor, and the robots are an affront to cybernetic dignity. As blogger SquareMans points out, this movie probably would have looked bad even if it hadn’t been released the same year as Alien. There are some aspects of The Black Hole that really shine, however, and others that are useful fodder for thinking about portrayals of science in the popular media.

It would be difficult to discuss The Black Hole without referencing Star Wars: A New Hope, which was released earlier that year and set the bar for all sci-fi epics to come. Similarities abound: there’s a plucky crew of space adventurers, a robot companion that marries the competent cuteness of R2-D2 with the haughty pedantry of C-3PO, an epic plot pitting good against evil, and plenty of lasers. But The Black Hole owes at least an equal debt to 2001: A Space Odyssey for the way it renders both space and time in luscious, epic detail.

The Black Hole is set against a luminous backdrop of stars, provided by dozens of enormous matte paintings. During filming, the mattes were backlit so the spaceships would appear as silhouettes against the glow. This technique realizes a fact often ignored in sci-fi cinema: in deep space, the light of distant stars is too faint to illuminate a spaceship’s hull.

The ships themselves feel superbly massive. The production models were quite large, and the camera often floats past them at an achingly Kubrickian pace. But the ships’ bulk is demonstrated best by their subservience to classical physics. Unlike the snubfighters of Star Wars, which wheel about like airplanes even in the vacuum of space, the craft of The Black Hole are lumbering inertial behemoths. To slow down, they must spin around and fire their engines opposite their direction of motion. Newton would be proud.

Respect for the laws of physics is evidenced within the ships, too, at least near the beginning of the film. In a memorable scene, the principal characters assemble on the bridge in zero g. One may forgive the occasional faint appearance of a wire as crew members float gently into view from all directions.

Unfortunately, The Black Hole quickly collapses into mindless Hollywood drivel. Our plucky adventurers encounter a long-lost exploratory vessel whose crew has perished. The only survivor is a brilliant physicist who has created a robot army/replacement crew — from what materials and with what equipment, one can only guess — and continued his research into the mystery of the black hole itself.

Gorgeous backgrounds such as this appear throughout The Black Hole. Sadly, most of the action that takes place in front of them isn't nearly as compelling.

You can probably write the rest of the film from here. The scientist is mad, of course, and the prospect of traveling through the black hole has gripped him with a suicidal — nay, homicidal determination. Some of the robots are in fact mostly-deceased crew members, kept alive as mindless cyborgs by the doctor’s ingenuity. The only proper scientist among the adventurers is taken in by the grandiose scheme to visit alternate dimensions, and his curiosity takes him the way of the cat. Meanwhile, the rest of the protagonists shoot their way free of the doctor’s clutches, but still get to enjoy the thrill ride of being sucked through a wormhole.

I am frustrated and disturbed by how predictable this all is (except for the psychedelically bizarre ending, which is equal parts heavy-handed religious overtone and faux-Kubrickian abstraction, and is totally disjointed from the rest of the film). A brilliant scientist? He must be mad. Research at the cutting edge of science? It must involve heinous experiments. An attempt to answer the fundamental questions of the universe? Such presumption must be punished.

This stereotype appears time and time again, and seems to dominate the image of scientists in Hollywood culture. The implicit message is that scientists are untrustworthy, perhaps downright evil, and that anyone attempting to investigate the world through reason and observation is doomed to a painful and much-deserved end.

Moreover, the legitimacy of all science is called into doubt. When the “good” scientist is mauled to death by a robot, he tries to defend himself with a notebook full of the “evil” scientist’s research. Although it contains, among other things, information that could solve Earth’s energy crisis, the destruction of the notebook is presented as fitting poetic justice — as though knowledge obtained by scientific (read: “immoral”) means is not worth preserving under any circumstances.

It’s a real shame, because in this film there were some fascinating metaphysical issues being raised by the scientific content, and the film’s structure and setting could have lent incredible explanatory and metaphorical power to those ideas. Black holes represent the tattered edges of the known universe, the current limits of human knowledge. This is territory that can be explored in nuanced and powerful ways that do justice to the inspiring potential of science. (See Contact, for example — or better yet, read the book.)

But here, all we get is some dumbed-down moralizing: the scientist is “playing god;” the fundamental nature of the universe is “not for us to know.” Those who use the gift of reason to seek truth are struck down, while those who react unquestioningly to their fate are miraculously “saved” and ushered safely into “the mysteries beyond our comprehension.” Science is bad; resist science and be rewarded with real “truth.”

It’s just so mindbogglingly backward.

People tend to end these rants with a phrase like, “For once, I’d like to see the scientist get to save the world through careful reasoning and methodical experimentation,” but I don’t want to see that movie, either. Science isn’t about saving the world, it’s about asking and answering questions, and then asking and answering new questions. And if scientists are going to be depicted properly, I want it to happen routinely — not just once.

The poor treatment of science in the Black Hole’s plot and character development stood out to me because it was so clear that many people working on the production side of the movie had a very firm grip on the relevant sciences. But then again, I probably shouldn’t have expected too much scientific rigor out of a movie that, 5 minutes in, introduces a character who can communicate with robots via ESP.

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