The (Un)necessary Remake Dept: ‘The Black Hole’

As far as remakes go, there are few films that would benefit from it as much as Disney’s 1979 sci-fi epic, “The Black Hole.”  The good news is that, while Disney is working on a remake, they have been doing so since 2009.  The first draft was written by Travis Beecham (“Pacific Rim”) then rewritten sometime in 2013 by Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus,” “The Darkest Hour”).

The last I heard Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy,” “Prometheus”) was going to direct.

It’s an ideal property for reboot because the science revolving around black holes has grown since the film originally was produced.  Then there’s the fact that the original film lacked focus.  It was a bit too intense for children, yet sometimes too silly for adults (though it was one of the first Disney films produced with an older audience in mind).

V.I.N.cent design by Robert T McCall

V.I.N.CENT design by Robert T McCall

“The Black Hole,” originally known as “Space Probe One,” was not the only aspect of the production that went through different iterations, the robots did as well. While the version of V.I.N.CENT (Vital Information Necessary CENTralized) we’re most familiar with is perhaps a bit too cute–due to the influence of R2D2 from “Star Wars,” (despite the fact that “The Black Hole” was in production before that film came out) it’s significantly better than an alternative design proposed by Robert T. McCall.  His V.I.N.CENT is too off-putting and ungainly, and in my view would not have worked.

Director Gary Nelson applying V.I.N.cent's original Ferranti-Packard disk, which had to be abandoned because of technical difficulties

Director Gary Nelson applying V.I.N.CENT’s original Ferranti-Packard disk, which had to be abandoned because of technical difficulties

While better, the McGinnis interpretation of the robot was not without controversy.  Despite the cartoonish design seen in the final film, V.I.N.CENT’s eyes were originally supposed to be capable of so much more that just being cute.  Originally the plan was that the oversized pupils would be composed of Ferranti-Packard disks, otherwise known as a flip-disk display, which is a electromechanical dot-matrix technology used in things like electronic scoreboards.

This would have enabled his eyes to display all sorts of shapes, letters and numbers which would reflect the robot’s many moods.  There’s an attempt to do what the flip-disk technology would have done in the film (I suspect) when V.I.N.CENT is communicating with Kate McCrae via the ESP link she shared with the robot (The reasons and motivations behind McCrae’s ESP with V.I.N.CENT, while mentioned a few times, for the most part goes unexplained or explored).

Unfortunately,on the first day of shooting, the technology failed.  Since all the actors were on set and waiting, director Gary Nelson abandoned the idea, and instead went with black buttons.

You can understand why Nelson did what he did, but if he had perhaps been a bit more patient…

Image courtesy of Starlog magazine.

Image courtesy of Starlog magazine.

Another problem that a sequel would hopeful address were the Sentry robots.  In the movie they moved haltingly–except in the moments when they were required to do otherwise–and aimed almost as badly as the Cylons, from “Battlestar Galactica,” that inspired them.

The concept that McGinnis proposed (to the left) wouldn’t have had men in them at at all, though looking at the design, I am unsure how they would have moved.

But George McGinnis swore that he could have gotten them to work, and I would really have liked to at least have seen an attempt made to make them work.

Robert McGinnis original concept of Maximillian

George McGinnis original concept of Maximillian

In fact, few of McGinnis’ original designs actually appear in the movie, beyond V.I.N.CENT, which is a pity.

He also designed a version of Maximillian (to the right), and originally the menacing robot wasn’t human-shaped at all, which because, unlike the Sentry robots, Maximllian was never designed to hold a person.

In the end, the filmmakers thought that the design wouldn’t work, so they went with what they knew.

But creative problems were something that filmmakers could work with, though no one expected that Disney’s first sci-fi epic would be released at the same time as Paramount’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” which ignited the Star Trek franchise and, financially speaking, doomed “The Black Hole.”

Joseph Kosinski said in an interview that his approach to the movie would be based more on hard science, though he said that he thought that the design of the USS Cygnus was a detail that he thought that he would keep, and well he should considering that the design was so beautiful that for a time it was actually featured in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

USS Cygnus

Another thing that the filmmakers will hopefully do away with is what I call the ‘shooting gallery’ scene.  It’s where V.I.N.CENT goes early in the film and is challenged by S.T.A.R.,(Special Troops and Arms Regiment) the prototype for the Sentry robot.  The problem with the scene, while interesting, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  We’re talking about robots.  Why would they need to practice shooting?  Unless they have changed drastically from robots that are being developed today, it doesn’t make any sense.

One thing that needs to stay is the ending, which for a Disney film–Heck, for any film, really–is quite possibly one of the most hallucinatory ever (and speaking of hallucinatory, if Marvel Studios’ upcoming “Doctor Strange” doesn’t use this sequence as a template for the mystical realms they’re attempting to bring to life, they would have missed an remarkable opportunity).

Hopefully, some variation will remain because it’s not only sremarkable for a Disney film, it’s remarkable for any movie (though vaguely reminiscent “Night on Bald Mountain” from “Fantasia” thematically).  It goes without saying that the Cygnus would be redesigned, though Joseph Kosinski said that he though it was a great design, so perhaps there’s hope that it’ll carry over.

Thanks to the WordPress site “Deep Space From The Deep South,” without who’s resources I would not have been able to write this piece.

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