In keeping with the Disney theme this week we have for your approval The Black Hole.
I’ll say right off the bat that this is not exactly a classic. There are plot holes and stiff dialogue and the science definitely leans more towards fiction than fact. And there are some questionable robot designs. Despite that I recommend this film. It is a flawed gem.
At the time it was rather groundbreaking in the special effects department. Those effects haven’t aged well but there are some images that have stuck with me since the first time I saw it way back in 1979. If you like to see the evolution of film that’s a reason to see it. In fact the opening sequence was the longest computer-graphics shot that had ever appeared in a film. So that’s cool.
In the post Star Wars age many studios attempted to capitalize on its success. Dozens of sci-fi adventure films were produced with varying results and quality. The Black Hole was Disney Studio’s answer and they threw in a big budget and star power. And it came out…interesting.
The one thing that sticks out about this film is its tonal inconsistency. It is as if they are trying to make several different films simultaneously, like the script was written by committee. It wants to be a space opera, an action adventure, a kid’s movie, a psychological thriller and a spiritual metaphor; but doesn’t commit to any one direction. It even throws in some psychic abilities for no real reason at all.
Now that last bit is the real interesting part for me, the spiritual metaphor. I think that if the film had stuck with that one idea and committed to it we would be talking about this film as outright classic and not a flawed curiosity. In that one respect The Black Hole is just “Faust in Space” and that is a really intriguing idea. The metaphysical and religious themes expressed throughout the film are incredibly thought provoking and so tantalizing I just wish the filmmakers had just gone with it. But Disney being Disney they need to put in kid friendly robots with googly eyes. Sigh.
Again, despite all that I still really enjoy this film. I’m not sure how much of it is nostalgia, had I not seen this film upon its initial release would I still be recommending it? The answer is a resounding, maybe.
What It Is
In the year 2130 a deep space exploratory ship, the USS Palomino, discovers a black hole with a long lost ship, the USS Cygnus, hovering just outside its event horizon.
The crew, Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster), First Officer Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), journalist Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine), ESP-sensitive scientist Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), the expedition’s civilian leader Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) and the robot V.I.N.CENT (“Vital Information Necessary CENTralized”), decide to investigate.
Two things to notice here: 1) when going on a deep space mission always bring a journalist and 2) someone was really trying hard to make that robot’s name spell Vincent.
They find the Cygnus held in place by an advanced anti-gravity field and, when boarding the Cygnus, discover that it was created by the ships commander Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), also a brilliant scientist. Reinhardt explains that he has lived all alone on the Cygnus for years after the crew died aided by faceless drones in black robes and sinister robot called Maximilian. He has been studying the Black Hole ever since.
The crew of the Palomino soon grows suspicious of the faceless drones’ human-like behavior when they witness one with a limp and several others seemingly performing a funeral. At the same time V.I.N.CENT meets B.O.B. (BiO-sanitation Battalion – again someone’s trying really hard), a battered early model robot similar to himself, who explains that the faceless drones are in fact the human crew, who mutinied when Reinhardt refused to return to Earth and had been lobotomized and “reprogrammed” by Reinhardt to serve him. V.I.N.CENT tells this to Kate via ESP and the crew attempt to leave.
Durant, who up till now has been defending Reinhardt, is appalled and confronts Reinhardt on the bridge where he is quickly eviscerated by Maximilian ’s spinning blades. Did I mention this was a kid’s movie?
Meanwhile a cowardly Booth attempts to flee on the Palomino without the others but Reinhardt has it shot down and it crashes into the Cygnus destroying the anti-gravity force-field generator. Without the gravity-field the Cygnus moves toward the Black Hole and through a rather convenient meteor shower. The meteor shower causes much picturesque destruction.
Holland, Pizer, McCrae and V.I.N.CENT attempt escape in a probe ship only to discover the controls locked onto a flightpath toward the Black Hole as well.
In a surreal sequence inside the Black Hole an aged Reinhardt becomes merged with Maximilian in a burning, hellish landscape populated by dark robed specters resembling the faceless drones.
Then, a floating, angelic figure with long flowing hair passes through a cathedral-like arched crystal tunnel. The probe ship carrying Holland, Pizer, McCrae and V.I.N.CENT then emerges from a White Hole and floats towards a planet near a bright star.
The end. Did I mention this is a kid’s movie?
FYI: I’ve placed a video of the ending below, even if you don’t watch this movie you should watch that because it’s bizarre.
Why You Must See It
This is a film that is trying really, really hard. There are so many ideas and themes that are running through its hard to keep track at times but it is always interesting. There are some truly striking images, the glowing meteor crashing through the ship and anything Maximilian does just to name a couple. The end sequence, while obviously modeled on 2001: A Space Odyssey, does provide some bizarre visuals and is rather disturbing.
I realize that I’m not gushing with praise like I have with other films on this list and well, that’s because it is not exactly a great film. It is just really interesting. It’s an experiment, one that doesn’t always work but it fails masterfully. And when it does hit it looks great. Personally I’d like to see an interesting failure than a boring by-the-numbers movie. At least the interesting failure is trying.
If nothing else it is a curiosity of the time. Disney at this time was really trying to reinvent itself and this film was a stepping stone to that. It was the first to not have an all ages rating and actually used swear words (damn and hell if you’re curious) and geared its story to mature audiences. Well, for the most part. And this did lead to Disney experimenting with more adult-oriented films while separating out the kid oriented material for specifically kid movies. Because let’s face it, it’s hard to be kid friendly when one of your main characters is eviscerated with swirling blades of an evil robot.
Also I still think the Maximilian robot is awesome, swirling blades and all, and the film should be seen for just him.
Are There Flaws?
Oh my yes. The effects, while ground breaking at the time, do show their age in certain places as I’ve said. There are obvious mat paintings and the actors bodies are clearly standing in front of green screens at times.
And as I said above the script is all over the place. It wants to be all things to all people (and age groups) but doesn’t seem to want to commit to one particular direction.
But the biggest flaw is the robot designs. V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B were meant to appeal to children with their cartoonish eyes and comic “hats” on their heads. It’s odd that given how the Star Wars droids were so well executed that the design team chose to go with an “animated” look. They seem out of place and not right for this film. Given the importance they play in the plot you would think that they would have been better realized.
And let’s talk about the science. There is no science. Neil deGrasse Tyson once called this film “least scientifically accurate movie of all time.” But to be fair I really think the movie was going for metaphor not hard science so I’ll give it a pass.
One curious thing is the psychic ability of Dr. McCrae. There is no reason for it. It doesn’t add anything to the plot except for the crew to keep in contact with V.I.N.CENT and that could have been accomplished with the communicators they were all wearing. Maybe there is some metaphor that I’m missing but it really looks as if someone said, “Hey! Let’s put a psychic in this, psychics are cool!” To be fair becoming psychic is usually short hand for the “future” because obviously humans will evolve greater mental abilities in the “future”, like you know, telepathically communicating with ridiculous robots. I guess.
I saw this film when it first was released and I really liked it. Although even at 10 years old I knew that V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B were daft and borderline stupid. I was after all a fan of R2D2 and C3PO and they were pale imitations. But Maximilian on the other hand was just plain cool. The image of that floating, crimson red robot with the deadly rotating knife hands stuck with me for ages. He was sleek and scary. As were the dead crew members in the black robes and mirror masks. Very cool and very creepy.
And I remember the end just freaking me out. It was nightmare fuel for quite a while.
Basically I guess I have fond memories of this movie. And while it is obviously not a great movie, watching it again to write this piece I was surprised at how much I actually enjoyed it. Yes it’s easy to pick out the flaws but honestly give it look; you may be surprised at how entertaining it is. Just try to ignore the stupid robots.