By the late ‘70s, Star Wars mania was so infectious, it jolted awake the slumbering, science-fiction-loathing Hollywood studios, as they scrambled to put together their own space-fantasy knockoffs or dust off dormant sci-fi IPs. Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind proved that George Lucas’ space epic was no fluke, sating mainstream filmgoers with visual splendor, relatable characters, and sophisticated science-fiction themes. By 1979, most of the studios had their own outer-space flicks and the Walt Disney Company hoped its entry, The Black Hole, would reverse its longstanding misfortunes, a decade of forgettable animated films and uninspired live-action family fare. Shockingly, The Black Hole was Disney’s first “PG” film (its fellow December 1979 box-office competitor, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, was rated “G”), but though it was neither a box-office success nor a critical darling, the film has managed to build a loyal following of fans, many of whom grew up with the plethora of unsold merchandise (I imagine a mountain of Ernest Borgnine action figures sharing the same landfill as Atari’s notorious E.T. the Extra Terrestrial video-game cartridge) and constant cable broadcasts, passing it down to their unsuspecting, malleable children. The blatant theft from Star Wars is obvious, but if one is looking for an entertaining, old-fashioned sci-fi film that’s high on spectacle and low on coherent narrative or scientific accuracy, The Black Hole will do nicely (it won’t put you to sleep like Tron). All that and telepathic robots!
The USS Palomino, a space exploration vessel, encounters the seemingly-abandoned USS Cygnus, an Earth ship classified as lost decades ago. The Palomino crew finds Dr. Hans Reinhardt, the Cygnus’ sole survivor, a platoon of robot sentries, and Maximilian, a menacing, anti-grav robot (and Reinhardt’s main henchman). The Palomino crew discovers Reinhardt plans on taking the Cygnus into the black hole, unraveling the secrets of the universe, and he doesn’t care who gets in his way…
Despite being a tale set in the distant future, much of The Black Hole seems old fashioned, from the use of an in-house stable of technicians to its use of a musical overture at the beginning of the film (it and Star Trek: The Motion Picture were among the last films to employ an overture, usually reserved for Golden Age Hollywood epics and musicals). In 1979, the Walt Disney Company was the last Hollywood studio to have an in-house special effects team, even if they were pressed into action for the likes of the latest Herbie the Love Bug movie or The Apple Dumpling Gang entry; in a 21st century world where outsourcing to visual-effects companies is de rigeur, the idea that a studio would have its own effects team is downright quaint.
Despite having a lot of matte paintings and traditional physical model spaceships, the visual effects succeed in establishing the film’s bleak tone, the titular threat of a mysterious real-life space phenomenon. The Black Hole is essentially a space-bound remake of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, replete with Maximilian Schell’s Hans Reinhardt as a space-age Captain Nemo, substituting a giant squid for a murderous robot, Maximilian (in the most coincidental of coincidences, the robot was named before Schell had even been cast!). The impressive Cygnus spaceship looks not unlike the same Jules Verne aesthetic of glass and steel seen in the Nautilus of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, inspiring a generation of annoying steampunk kids loitering in shopping malls across North America. The ship looks both fragile and foreboding, a haunted house in space sitting at the mouth of a raging, swirling Hell, as the Palomino crew find nobody onboard the cavernous vessel until they reach the bridge. The cloaked-and-masked crew, at first thought to be android drones, are the lobotomized remains of the Cygnus’ original human crew, haunting the ship’s inner chambers, only an echo of humanity remaining.
With a cast that includes Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, Anthony Perkins, Schell, Borgnine, and the voices of Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens, it’s rather disappointing to discover that one of The Black Hole’s weakest elements is its lack of characterization. Though the cast is competent, they’re not given anything meaningful to say or do amid the Cygnus’ epic computer sets, especially when they share scenes with Schell’s maniacal space scientist. Forster is reliably stolid as the heroic lead, but if his character is supposed to be created in the sci-fi stylings of either Han Solo or Captain Kirk, the writers fail him badly. Poor Anthony Perkins continues channeling Norman Bates as nervous space scientist Dr. Alex Durant, albeit in a cozy turtleneck (it is very cold…in space) and he’s only memorable because his character meets a gruesome demise, courtesy of Maximilian’s whirling arm blades (Durant discovers the secret of the Cygnus’ “androids” and Maximilian overreacts in one of the film’s most effective—and scariest–scenes). Borgnine, as journalist Harry Booth, makes little impression, probably quite content to let the robots do all the heavy lifting while he collects a princely paycheck and residuals for all those landfilled action figures.
As a space-age Captain Nemo, Schell’s Reinhardt is mysterious, malevolent, and quite mad. Schell clearly relishes playing the villain, prone to unexpected shouting, eye-bulging, and repetitive dialogue delivery, especially when he’s wearing his bold Nehru-inspired red suit and the Order of Canada medal around his neck (I wonder what he did to receive the country’s second-highest honor?), while entertaining his soon-to-be-lobotomized guests. His relationship with electronic crimson demon Maximilian is fascinating, but isn’t expanded—is he in charge of the Cygnus, or is Maximilian? In the end, the relationship between man and machine merges, quite literally, into something disturbing and grotesque, grasping for 2001: A Space Odyssey pretension, but never coming close.
Besides Schell, only the robots fare well, an uncredited Roddy McDowell, trading in his Planet of the Apes makeup for some cocky robotic attitude and pontificating (“A wolf remains a wolf, even if it has not eaten your sheep,” he tells the Palomino crew) as V.I.N.C.E.N.T. (Vital Information Necessary CENTralized, the world’s worst acronym). V.I.N.C.E.N.T. is an obvious C-3PO analog, designed for the kids in a movie that’s too intense for them! With his big cartoonish eyes and ability to twist and lower his head like a frightened turtle, V.I.N.C.E.N.T. conveys more emotions than the entire Palomino crew, but he does grate on the nerves with his constant recitation of maxims. Slim Pickens is a hoot as Old BO.B (OLD BiO-sanitation Batallion, the world’s second-worst acronym), a wobbly trashcan of a robot, who’s given an Old West cowpoke personality inexplicably, but adds to the film’s charm as a woefully obsolete robot. Old BO.B elicits empathy, as much as a robot can muster, which is decidedly more than the majority of the human cast.
How does a robot have ESP let alone emotions? Why is there a platoon of trigger-happy Stormtr–, er, sentry robots on a ship full of docile, lobotomized crewmembers? Why is the Palomino crew looking for “habitable life”? (and what the hell does that even mean???) What’s the deal with the Heaven and Hell ending? None of it is explained, but The Black Hole isn’t about dimensional characters, sober storytelling, or credible science: it’s all about the visceral experience of laser blasts, goofy robots, and a possible doorway to other dimensions. It’s a 98-minute adrenaline ride that celebrates style over substance, accompanied by a rich, bombastic John Barry score that rivals the scores for sci-fi contemporaries Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The Black Hole was one of the last sci-fi spectacles of the late 1970s, an ambitious attempt by a moribund studio to inject life into its sagging film fortunes. While it’s not a particularly good film, its imaginative art direction, special effects, and high concept prevent it from fading into obscurity. If Tron can get a sequel/reboot from the House of Mouse, it’s only a matter of time before a hungry filmmaker decides to take on the doomed flight of the USS Cygnus once again. I might not get excited as I was when I was six years old, but I’ll buy a movie ticket and hope for an improvement over the original. ★
Want more Warp Factor? Check out this piece exploring Earth vs. The Flying Saucers!