There is little more disappointing tome than a bad movie in which you can see the seeds of a better one. Especially when it has a quality cast. Disney has been going back and forth for years about a remake of this one, and it really does fit my ideal remake fodder requirement—there is something you can do in order to make it distinctly different, and probably even better. It’s not too iconic. The special effects could stand updating. And some of the things that mark it as clearly of a specific time would be jettisoned to make for a cleaner story.
The USS Palomino is returning to Earth from exploring Deep Space. They encounter a black hole; hanging motionless nearby is a ship they identify as the USS Cygnus, a massive vessel once sent on the same mission of exploration. It was ordered to return to Earth and was never heard from again. So far as the crew of the Palomino knows, the only survivor of the Cygnus is Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), an arrogant but brilliant scientist, who has created scads of robots to serve the ship. He has now invented a technology that he believes will let him explore the black hole. It quickly becomes clear he is more than a little mad.
I mean, at least it’s a personality. The crew of the Palomino is incredibly bland, except the annoying V.I.N.CENT (Roddy McDowall),their robot, and I feel that there’s some sci-fi rule that says that,when the robot has the most personality, you’ve badly written your human cast. To be sure, that personality is tedious and platitude-quoting in place of wisdom, but it’s something. The main way I could tell them apart is that, if you can’t tell Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, and Joseph Bottoms apart, you’ve probably got that condition where you can’t distinguish human faces. Probably not even then. Especially Yvette Mimieux.
So you have the tedious V.I.N.CENT, the mad Dr. Reinhardt, the bland crew,the voiceless robots. And then, on the Cygnus,there is also the decrepit B.O.B., voiced by Slim Pickens. So apparently, whoever created those robots back on Earth thought they all needed incredibly distinct regional dialects and obnoxious personalities; no wonder none of Reinhardt’s robots talk. And even he shows signs of Trying Too Hard Syndrome when it comes to naming his; aside from Maximilian (named that before Schell was cast; only the spelling was changed), he has Captain S.T.A.R., which stands for Special Troops/Arms Regiment.
Because Reinhardt has created an army of robots who all play target-shooting games, only the warehouse robot is skilled enough to beat them and infuriate Captain S.T.A.R., and who thought any of this made any sense? Obviously, this is intended to cash in on the popularity of Star Wars, so obviously you need robots with personalities, but while the droids of Star Wars don’t entirely make sense, at least they have more narrow function. R2isn’t a translator; 3PO doesn’t shoot a gun. (Certainly he would never twirl one before putting it in the holster!) There’s no reason for a warehouse robot to talk, much less shoot.
I guess they try to give the humans a little personality. Forster as Dan Holland, the pilot, is supposed to be competent and wary, I think. Borgnine as journalist Harry Booth is, well, Ernest Borgnine-y, full of stories and crust and bravado. Bottoms as Charlie Pizer is young and inexperienced. Perkins as Dr. Alex Durant is intelligent but too trusting. And Mimieux as Dr. Kate McCrae is,um, a woman?
No, that’s not fair. But the two traits they give her are, for one, both about how she relates to others. Her father turns out to have been on the Cygnus. She is also supposedly telepathically linked to V.I.N.CENT. Worse, though,neither are really explored. When she finds out the truth of what happened to the Cygnus crew, she never seems to connect that it therefore happened to her father as well. And aside from a convenient way of passing a message or two, you could miss the telepathic link thing entirely. Which is just as well, because it doesn’t make any sense anyway.
Okay,so where, you’re asking, are the seeds of a better movie? A madman who will either doom them all or holds the key to one of the greatest discoveries in human history—one of the greatest discoveries possible. The nature of humanity—how human do the robots have to be to be people? Because of course the human-shaped robots are given less personality than the trashcan-shaped ones. The fear of what lurks on the edges of space. Heck, the fact that, so far as we can tell, space is completely empty. For all they try to make V.I.N.CENT profound, it is B.O.B. who delivers the line about the value of intelligent life.
Obviously,this is not the best space movie of 1979. Actually, four of that year’s Visual Effects nominees were at least partly set in space. (Moonraker, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the category’s winner, of course, Alien.) In some places, the special effects are quite good; the iconic run across the giant rolling fireball is visually impressive even though it’s scientific nonsense. And I’m glad they decided against trying to set the whole thing in zero G, because boy would that have failed. Even with today’s technology, you can’t do that successfully. But for every good effect in the movie, there are at least five bad ones, several of which would have been bad at the time.
So you remake it, with better special effects and more attention to plot and characterization, and you’d have easily the best remake Disney’s done, in years if not ever. There’s some concern that it’s too dark for Disney, and I suppose I can see that. In fact, this was the first Disney movie in history not to get a G rating. I do, though,think that it might be a little less dark if you change the trippy ending they’ve given to the villains, which let’s be honest doesn’t make a lick of sense anyway.
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