When I was younger, one of the most terrifying films I’d ever seen was a late ’70s sci-fi flick, and it was not Alien. Apologies in advance for any spoilers about the 1979 film I’m about to discuss, but seriously guys, this movie is older than I am. If you’re going to watch it, you probably would have done so by now.
Allow me to set the scene: I am 11- or 12-years-old. I have taped Disney’s The Black Hole off of our satellite TV, and am preparing to watch it while recuperating from some sort of stomach bug while my parents are hosting a Christmas party downstairs. I am lying on a folding foam mattress, loosely swaddled in blankets and a fevered state, sitting in front of an old, small tube TV.
The movie intrigued me because it took place on a spaceship manned by scientists and robots exploring the edges of our understanding. Unlike the Enterprise, however, there’s mutiny bubbling just under the surface, and the robots don’t look or act like people exactly. But otherwise, it’s a familiar and comfortable setting.
Until they reach the titular black hole. One of the two chief scientists and his evil robot sidekick has been slowly, calculatedly sabotaging and coercing the ship and its crew toward a black hole, just to see what would happen if they flew through it. Apparently this was filmed years before we knew what “spaghettification” was.
The inevitable happens, the ship is sucked in and can’t escape. They reach the center of the black hole and…
All I remember of the end is one image. Standing on the crest of a hill on a darkened, hellish nightmare scape, the silhouette of the evil robot raises his arms. Then, he raises a human set of arms. There may have been a scream from the throat of the evil scientist, but I’m not going to commit to anything.
What went through my fevered, clammy, and youthfully active imagination was the process that the two beings must have undergone to become one. The fusion of metal with flesh, the crushing of bones with gears. The insertion of circuitry into nerves, all of it involuntary and all of it–I could only assume–excruciating. I felt ill, and my then-devout religious side also pieced together the symbolism of the scene: they were in hell.
I don’t actually recall the ending of the film. Wikipedia informs me there’s a parallel scene where the good guys go to a heavenly place. I do recall having nightmares about that image.
Savvy viewers of the Christopher Reeve canon may recognize where this is going: there is a scene toward the end of Superman II (the goofy one where Richard Pryor explains the existence of half-cents and sets off Office Space), in which a super-computer system designed by Pryor’s character assimilates a female character, also against her will, into its defense system to fight Superman. I remember watching that before and after The Black Hole, and only on the later takes, feeling nauseated by it.
It’s not an everyday risk, which means it tapped into a particularly specific fear, but it’s one that has largely passed with time and with a fascination in Technology. When watching my way through Star Trek: The Next Generation, I did not feel the same sharp nausea when Picard had his run-in with the Borg. I’d watched Doctor Who a couple of summers before and felt a wobble in the guts when the Cybermen came to town. I think this is largely because:
- I have aged and realized that the odds of a robotic assimilation against my will are fairly slim.
- Technology has reached the point where we’re actually doing some of this stuff, and it’s goddamn cool.
- While there are still a lot of ethical questions, this is something Sci-fi writers have been examining for decades, and modern-day scientists are looking at very seriously. So, the hell imagery was probably just one guy’s opinion, really.
- Everybody wants to be the next Kubrick.