Before watching the movie:
This always seemed a strange choice for Disney, even considering the weird live action movies they made in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The trailer I dimly remember seeing for it on some tape seemed dark and scary and serious, not the kind of fanciful family outing that most Disney live action movies try to be. I’ve heard there are fun comic relief robots for the kids, but this always seemed to be positioned as “Disney does Star Wars” (which took about three and a half decades to actually happen).
The synopses I’ve seen are not much help for shaking this notion. It seems like Alien meets 2001: A Space Odyssey. A deep space mission with a sense of foreboding encounters a mystery that ultimately takes them beyond anything the reality we know prepared them for. You know, for kids!
After watching the movie:
On an interstellar mission seeking habitable planets, the USS Palomino encounters a black hole, but discovers a massive ship keeping station very close to the cosmic phenomenon without any sign of being affected by its immense gravity. Coming in for a closer look, they discover that there’s a neutral-gravity bubble around the craft, the presumed-lost Cygnus. Though it appears deserted, they find that it is fully crewed by robots, all working in service of the obsessive research of Dr. Hans Reinhardt, who, in his 20 years of study of the object, believes it is possible to safely fly through the black hole, thanks to his trajectories and the antigravity generators that keep the ship steady. The robots, he says, he built when the crew left the ship to seek a way home at a time when the ship had been disabled, but there’s something a bit off about them.
The good guys are pretty forgettable. There’s an intrepid captain, a hotheaded first officer, a couple of civilians, one of whom is Ernest Borgnine, and a psychic science officer, as well as a couple of mechanic robots who have big, cartoon-inspired eyes and round friendly bodies, as well as the most significant character arcs. V.I.N.Cent and B.O.B. have painfully forced acronyms for names, but they really do carry a lot of the plot.
This does eventually start to feel like an adventure story, but I definitely wouldn’t have had the patience for the slow start as a kid. The beginning is a little dry for my tastes now, but it’s more interesting to me than the flashy quick-reversal shoot-em-up escape dash it becomes in the last act. There’s a lot of focus on atmosphere, and then that atmosphere quickly unravels as the haunted house becomes a roller coaster.
I think I was pretty accurate in assessing the tone of the movie as Alien meets 2001. It’s tense sci-fi horror, and then eventually there’s a psychedelic end that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Only there’s cute robots, and Space Charybdis is outside all the time. On reflection, it’s not much different than Tron, which I also didn’t exactly get as a kid, but still seems like it’s trying to be for families. I’ll take VINCent over a Bit any day though.