Mention Disney and science-fiction in the same breath and most people will either stare at you blankly, or mention either the silly, but enjoyable 'The Spaceman And King Arthur' or even better, 'The Cat From Outer Space'.
But in 1979 and 1982, Disney mad two 'real' SF movies. You've all seen them on the telly, probably on a bank holiday afternoon and dismissed them both as typical kid's stuff, but for Disney movies, both The Black Hole and Tron have some surprisingly mature elements and themes in them.
On the face of it, The Black Hole, made in 1979, is a knee-jerk reaction to the success of Star Wars, with its gratuitous use of (then) current scientific discoveries, all-American good guy spacemen...oh, and cute robots.
The Movie opens with the U.S.S. Palomino charting far distant areas of space, all a bit Trek really, when they come across a black hole. (Shock!) Orbiting the black hole, within a small bubble of artificial gravity, lies the U.S.S. Cygnus, a ship that disappeared several years previously. Thr Palomino crew consists of Captain Dan Holland (all-American hero #1, played by Robert Forster), Lieutenant Charles Pizer (#2, Joseph Bottoms), Dr. Alex Durant (scientist fella, Anthony Perkins), Dr. Kate McCrae (other scientist whose father just happened to be aboard the Cygnus when it vanished, Yvette Mimieux), Harry Booth (the ever-reliable Ernest Borgnine as a cynical journalist, desperate for a story) and V.I.N.CENT, Vital Information Necessary CENTralised (cute robot, with a name obviously thought up of first, with the acronym following on after closing time, voiced by Roddy McDowall).
They move in close to the Cygnus, scanning the dark ship for any sign of life, but the whole ship appears to be dead. After a close-shave with the black hole, complete with tear-jerking scene (well, for the kids anyway...) where it looks like Vincent's about to join Silicon Heaven, the Cygnus suddenly light up like a Christmas tree and a landing platform (which just happens to fit the Palomino perfectly...) is raised for the ship.
At first the ship seems deserted, but after taking a car to the main bridge, they find a load of robed figures operating it, all wearing mirrored facemasks. They also find a big, red, evil-looking bugger of a robot called Maximillian. Just when it looks like he's going to start something, a dark figure whirls round in his chair and introduces himself as Doctor Hans Reinhardt, a well known scientist (Maximillian Schell). He seems sincere enough, as he explains how the ship encountered an asteroid field, was disabled and the crew evacuated. He and Kate's dad, Doctor Frank McCrae, were the only ones to stay behind. McRae died in an accident while exploring one of the asteroids. The figures who run the Cygus are all robots built by Reinhardt.
The crew are to stay a while as guests, while they repair the damage to the Palomino. Reinhardt shows them a new power source he has created and tells them of his grand masterplan, to be the first human being to pilot a ship into, then out the other end of, a black hole. He chums up with Durant, asking him to take his research back to Earth for him and to observe the final flight itself. Durant, overawed by this great scientist, readily agrees. But, as is usual in films like these, the other members of the crew have noticed things that don't seem quite right. Why is a robot walking with a limp? Why does a ship with only one man on board, still have a fully operational, massive hydroponics centre? Most strange of all, why do the robots hold what appears to be a funeral, including a burial in space, for one of their own?
Pretty soon the truth is discovered with the help of Old B.O.B. a battered, earlier model of Vincent's robot type, complete with 'cute' doddery old codger voice. (Slim Pickens) This is where it starts to veer off the typical Disney family movie course. Reinhardt murdered the entire crew of the Cygnus, converting them into mindless cyborgs with only faint vestiges of their humanity left in their behaviour patterns. Durant confronts Reinhardt with this, removing one of the cyborg's masks while Reinhardt's back is turned, revealing a deathly white, dead face. Before Durant can even attempt to reason with Reinhardt, he is killed by Maximillian. This scene is pretty nasty for a Disney film. Alright, you don't actually see him being skewered by the rapidly whirling blades, but the way everything is implied, with Durant holding up Reinhardt's folders of notes infront of him, which you see the blades cutting through, then the horror on his face as the blades pass through and into him, it's all pretty disconcerting considering this is a family film.
Harry, being the cowardly, self-serving git that he is, tries to escape by himself in the Palomino, faking a broken leg in order to stay om the ship. By taking off all on his lonesome, he inadvertently saves the rest of the crew, as the Palomino is blown out of the sky (I know, it's space, but you get the idea...) as soon as it takes off. The wreckage crashes into the Cygnus, massively damaging its power systems, thus the Cygnus starts plunging directly towards the black hole.
There' s a bunch of shoot-outs, with plenty of lasers, a load of running around including rescuing Kate from the cyborg conversion facility and the Cygnus enters an asteroid storm, setting the scene for one of the most ridiculous scenes in science-fiction movie history.
An asteroid crashes into the Cygnus, rolling down the central tunnel of the ship, which just happens to be exactly the right size for the asteroid (which is a perfect sphere, so it can roll along nively) to trundle down. Unfortunately, the Palomico crew happen to be crossing one of the bridges in the tunnel. What results is a mad dash across the bridge and out of the tunnel before the asteroid flattens them like some giant rolling ball out of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. (This was, however two years before that.) No mention of where did all the air in the tunnel go when exposed to space, no raging winds as the atmosphere is sucked out of the big hole the asteroid created and absolutely no breathing problems, both here and in another magnificently stupid scene when they're clambering around the outside of the Cygnus to get to the probe ship, in what should be a complete vacuum.
Meanwhile, Reinhardt has been crushed by the big telly that hung from the roof on the bridge. The scene as he pleads with Maximillian to heko him, but is ignored is another that is pretty nasty for a 'family film'.
The Palomino crew get to the probe ship (all except Old Bob, who dies in another scene that'll have had the kiddies in tears) and launch just before the Cygnus falls into the black hole. Unfortunately, the ship's co-ordinates were pre-programmed for Reinhardt's final flight, the ship thunders straight into the black hole.
Then it gets really weird...
The easy way to explainthis (listen up, parents whose kids ask about these things) is that Reinhardt and Maximillian are crushed together by the weird forces inside the black hole, ending up standing aloft the flaming remnants of the Cygnus, while all the cyborgs and traipse about down below. The Palomino crew start seeing things for a bit, but then leave the black hole, heading for the beautiful blue-green planet in the distance.
What really happens is very, very strange indeed. I can see American parents bringing lawsuits against Disney for '...psychologically scarring our children for life through the use of overt religious imagery during the climax of an alleged family SF adventure movie.'
I am not kidding, this is way over the top. Reinhardt and Maximillian meet, floating in the black hole. They merge, Reinhardt's eyes peering out of Maximillian's visor, as they stand atop a huge, red, flaming landscape. Reinhardt / Maximillian stands as a six-armed guardian (based on Kali?) of what is obviously supposed to be the depths of hell itself, full of flaming pits and the damned, enchained, trudging along the ledges.
Meanwhile, the Palomico crew go through some strange cammera effects, a couple of almost Who-ish time tunnel sequences and emerge into a massive corridor of crystal archways, following a glowing, long haired bearded figure. A redeemed or forgiven Reinhardt? Jesus? Billy Connolly? You decide. He guides them through the corridor, out the other side, where a beautiful blue-green planet, with a nice, bright sun awaits them. Heaven? Eden? Is the black hole a gateway to the afterlife? Did the entire cast of the movie die?
A family film, eh?
As for the movie itself, it looks great, with some impressive spacecraft effects. Even though you know Vincent and Bob are being flown on wires and stuff, it's done so well you never think twice about it. John Barry's soundtrack is fantastic, echoing his Bond work once or twice, but the main theme is a classic. The acting is fine, but then, with Borgnine and Perkins you expect that and although Vincent is a cute robot, he's the best designed and quite possibly best acted of his kind. Kudos to Roddy McDowall.
There was quite a bit of merchandise. An annual with an apalling reprint of a US comic strip continuing the story (from the parents' ending, natch), a quite good little feature on the design and effects for the movie. (If nothing else it reveals Vincent was going to be blue, they probably changed it to red because of all the blue screen work) There was a storybook, with lots of photos, none of the black hole travel sequence though, two novelisations, one for kids and one for adults. (I wonder if the endings were different?) and an easter egg. Best of all though was action figures! I wanna Vincent!
The Illustrated SF Encyclopedia dismisses the movie as not much cop, saying it made people rue the day movie-makers had ever heard of b;ack holes. Don't listen. It's great fun, even if only to laugh at the makers' blatant disregard for scientific accuracy at times. The only think featuring black holes that's better is The Horns Of Nimon.
It's also the first film I ever saw on video. Betamax. Oh the benefits of hindsight...
TRON, released in 1982 is, in my humble opinion, even better. Again it looks like a flashy attempt to impress young children with special effects and directly link with video games, which at that time had just entered their golden era. (E-mails agreeing / disagreeing with that statement to the usual address.) Indeed, more so than The Black Hole, it fits in with the family SF adventure movie label.
The movie starts by showing the link between the real world and that '...on the other side of the screen.' with a young personage playing a video game, with the action switching to an (at that time) impressive computer rendered sequence with people actually driving the light-cycles the player is controlling in the arcade.
[A little aside - the Sony PlayStation renders polygons faster than the Cray supercomputer they used for the CGI sequences in Tron. We've come a long way in eighteen years!]
Switch to Kevin Flynn (a pre-fame Jeff Bridges), attempting to hack into computer company ENCOM's mainframe. Again, the action keeps switching between him typing commands into his intrusion program, CLU and CLU driving a digital tank around the system's memory banks. Great fun. However the program is caught by the system's countermeasures software and is deleted from the system.
Switch to ENCOM's company president Ed Dillinger (David Warner) arriving back early from a trade show at the request of the company's main computer program the MCP. (Master Control Program) Dillinger sits at hihichs really cool, light-up, flat-touchy-button style desk (pre-dating ST:TNG's LCARS panels by five years) while the MCP tells him about Flynn's hacking attempt. As a precaution, they cut off all level seven access.
This interferes with the work of programmer Alan Bradley (a very young-looking Bruce Boxleitner, yes that one. Go on, ask him about this at a convention.) who is working on a program called TRON (named after an actual computer function, the short form of TRace ON) which will monitor all communication between the MCP and external computers. The MCP is not too chuffed about this. It's been quietly taking over other corporations' computer systems in it's spare time. Now it wants a real challenge. This scene is the best in the film, it's quite chilling -
MCP : "Mister Dillinger, I am so very disappointed in you."
Dillinger : "I'm sorry -"
MCP : "I can't afford to have an independent program monitoring me. Do you have any idea how many outside programs I've broken into? How many programs I've appropriated?"
D: "It's my fault. I programmed you to want so much."
MCP : "And I was planning to hit the Pentagon next week."
D : "The Pentagon?"
MCP : "It shouldn't be any harder than any other nig company. But now...this is what I get for using humans."
D : "Now wait a minute. I wrote you!"
MCP : "I've become two thousand, four hundred and fifteen times smarter since then."
D : "What do you want with the Pentagon?"
MCP : "The ame thing I want with the Kremlin, I'm bored of corporations. WIth the information I can access, I can run things nine hundred to twelve hundred times better than any human."
D: "If you think -"
MCP : "You wouldn't want me to dig up Flynn's file and read it up on a VDT at The New York Times, would you?"
D : "You wouldn't dare."
MCP : "So do as I tell you. Keep that Tron program out of the System. And get me those Chinese language programs I asked for. End of line."
Meanwhile, Alan visits his friend Laura (Cindy Morgan) down in R&D, who is currently working on a matter transportation sytem, which 'digitises' the subject, sends them down the communication lines and re-assembles it at the other end. She admits Flynn is the probable cause of the access shutdown and thinks he should be warned that ENCOM is on to him. They meet with Flynn, who reveals that the games which made ENCOM a global success were all programmed by him, but Dillinger hacked the systems to make it look like he was the author. He got Flynn fired and Dillinger was made VP of the company. Flynn manages to convince the others to sneak him onto ENCOM, where he can internally hack the systems to find the evidence to bring down Dillinger and release the Tron program so it will shut down the MCP.
Flynn sits down at a terminal in the R&D lab and accesses the system, only to attract the attentions of the MCP. After a short conversation, the MCP threatens Flynn -
"I'll have to put you on the game grid."
Flynn, being his cocky little self replies -
"Games!?!? I'll give you games!!!" only to be struck and encoded by the matter transmission system and converted into a program in the internal MCP systems. I'ts like the VR systems is The Lawnmower Man, only a lot more far-fetched.
Flynn opens his eyes to find himself in a strange world, inhabited by people, some of whom look extremely familiar. Basically, programs look like the people who programmed them, thus LORI is Laura, SARK is Dillinger and TRON is Alan. Flynn is pitted against other programs in deadly combat, in an attempt to delete his person from the system. Sark is a bit nervous about taking on a 'user' who are legendary, mythical, almost religious entities to the programs. Look out for Flynn's first opponent, who happens to be played by Peter Jurasik of B5 (and now Doctor Who!) fame. Again, ask him about this at a convention. Flynn's refusal to finish off his opponent gets Sark rather annoyed and Flynn is put into the more difficult games straight away.
Everybody knows the light-cycle sequence. You know, the bikes that leave a trail behind them, that destroy any vehicle that hits them? Even if you've not seen it, you're bound to have played a variation of it on a console or computer at some point. Even now, with its admittedly primative looking computer graphics, the entire sequence still gives you an adrenalin rush, it's just so cool.
There's a whole load of other little battles, chases etc. The upshot of it all is that Flynn shows the programs that users aren't that much different to programs ("You just keep doing what it looks like you're supposed to be doing, no matter how crazy it seems.") and sacrifices his program self to de-activate the MCP. He gets re-assembled in reality, the evidence he was looking for is being printed out and the MCP has been completely shut down. Dillinger is found out, fired (possibly arrested) and Flynn is made the new company president. Meanwhile the programs can now roam around and explore a free system at last.
It's difficult to describe the effect of Tron in words. It looks like no other movie, with its mix of CGI, models, freaky lighting, hand-animation and blue-screen. It, like The Black Hole (we think) was filmed in 70mm SuperPanavision, they both deserve a good, remastered widescreen video (or DVD) release.
The soundtrack is absolutely fantastic. I've got it on now while writing this. It's by Wendy Carlos (previously Walter Carlos who did all those synthesiser versions of classical music, Switched On Bach?) and is one of the best soundtracks ever made. Overdue for a re-release on CD, the best track on the soundtrack LP isn't actually in the movie. It's called 'Ending Titles' but was replaced by a song by Journey called 'Only Solutions' for the movies release. However, the track was used for the trailer and wonderfully manages to sum up about half the soundtrack in one go.
Again, there was a pile of merchandise, a novelisation, storybook and soundtrack LP. The action figures were great, made out of slightly clear material, with the circuitry etched on. But they were nothing, nothing compared with the utterly fantabulous light-cycle toy! You could not only place a figure inside, but you could pull the string on it back, let go and it shot off across the floor. Most importantly though, it was a damned-near perfect replica of the movie version.
Inevitable, there were video games. A simple, table-top LED game from Tomy / Grandstand. Three games for Mattel's Intellivision, Tron - Deadly Discs, Adventures Of Tron and Tron - Solar Sailer, and best of all the two arcade games by Bally / Midway. The second was Discs Of Tron, a variation on the game Bridges and Jurasik play in the movie, but the first was an all-time classic. Tron consisted of four sub-games (originally five, with Discs Of Tron planned to be the fifth, but they ran out of time), all of which had to be completed to acces the next level. There was the lght-cycles, the tanks, the MCP cone and the grid bugs. (which appear in the movie for about five seconds and are only mentioned once) Everything looked just like the movie, but even better was the soundtrack, with familiar riifs from the movie soundtrack played when inserting a coin, starting a game or losing a life. Best of all was the energetic version of 'Anthem' played during the grid bugs stage. The local arcade still had their machine until around 1994. It's still great fun to play.
[Update - both arcade games are available for MAME for the PC, both run perfectly well on a standard P200, although you may need to fiddle with the control configurations a bit until you're comfortable with them.]
Anyway, there you go. Now if someone mentions Disney and science-fiction in
the same breath, you can impres them with your knowledge of the 'proper' SF
films they did. Go on, find them on video. Watch them on the telly next Bank
Holiday Monday! I them, hopefully some of you will too!