Monday, July 27, 2020

The Black Hole Sinks into Itself

In the wake of the massive success of Star Wars (1977), Walt Disney Productions mounted its own science fiction adventure in 1979 with The Black Hole. The concept must have looked promising on paper: A 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea set in outer space for a new generation of young people. However, The Black Hole teeters on the brink of a total disaster with its uneven mixture of seriousness and silliness.

It opens with the crew of the the spaceship Palomino discovering a black hole and a nearby ship capable of defying its gravitational pull. The mysterious spaceship turns out to be the Cygnus, which was assumed to have been destroyed 20 years earlier. After getting too close to the black hole and suffering damage, the Palomino docks inside the much larger Cygnus. The latter ship turns out to still be functional and occupied by its commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, and a crew of robots.

Maximilian Schell as Reinhardt.
Reinhardt claims that meteors disabled the Cygnus, causing him to evacuate almost the entire crew. He assumed that their escape ship had reached Earth. Reinhardt remained behind with a handful of others--all now dead--and repaired the spaceship with the goal of entering into the black hole.

While some of the Palomino crew believe Reinhardt, others remain skeptical. Their suspicions are reinforced by an unusual robot funeral, a robot that limps, and a garden much larger than required for one human. Could it be that Reinhardt's silent "robots" are actually what's left of his human crew?

As evidenced from above, The Black Hole is not a sci fi romp along the lines of Star Wars. It's a picture devoid of any fun and lacking any action until its final half-hour. The only character with any heft is Reinhardt, who is played with passion and menace by Maximilian Schell. Good actors like Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine flail about trying to make sense of their parts. Borgnine eventually resorts to playing the stereotypical crew member concerned most with self-preservation--but at least he becomes relevant.

Vincent the robot, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine.
Apparently because this is a Disney film, the writers plop two cute robots into the proceedings. They don't belong in the movie and it's awkward when one of the robots banters with Timothy Bottoms when the crew should be focusing on avoiding its demise. Still, the robots are voiced by Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens, which makes it almost impossible to criticize them.

The Black Hole was Disney's most expensive production to date and most of the budget went toward the special effects. Instead of farming out the effects (which is now the norm), Disney relied on its in-house technicians. The results are sometimes spectacular and sometimes surprisingly shoddy. The entrance into Reinhardt's control room and a sequence with a meteor hurling toward our heroes are jaw-dropping. On the other hand, you can see wires attached to the actors in some of the scenes where they're supposed to be in zero gravity. And some of the matte shots don't match, so it looks like live actors were placed into a cartoon.
The massive control room inside the Cygnus.
In my opinion, John Barry is one of the all-time great film composers. However, his score for The Black Hole rates as one of his weakest efforts. The opening theme is simply disturbing--perhaps indicative of the screenwriters' confusion over whether The Black Hole should be a sci fi adventure or a watered-down version of 2001. Even worse, the background music seems incongruent with the action scenes in the climax.

To be sure, there are some interesting ideas in The Black Hole, such as one character's ability to communicate with a robot through ESP. However, the film is mostly just a jumbled mess. I'm still not sure what to make of the scenes inside the black hole which show what appears to be hell and includes an angel  floating swiftly through the air. Maybe Stanley Kubrick could have made some sense of it.


  1. Schell talked to the director about the "pos". When he'd seen a tv mini Washingron: Behind closed Doors. Hole's director, Gary Nelson, said "I directed that!"

    Think this and Star Trek I were the last of the Hollywood films with overtures. Both films are also similar in their non Geo Lucas approach.

  2. A movie about a black hole with little adventure or fun? No thanks. However, I enjoyed your review very much.

  3. The robot villain (Maximillian?), however, was excellent: truly terrifying.