Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Black Hole (1979)


I know a lot of movie snobs that blame Star Wars for all the bad movies after 1977. I love that movie too much to join them. However, we can certainly blame George Lucas’ space opera for the sudden attack of science fiction adventures that flooded the cinemas in the late 70s and early 80s. 20th Century Fox was raking in the cash and all the other big studios wanted in on the action. Disney was no exception. It would be decades before they brought Star Wars under the power of the mouse, but before that happened, we were treated to this film.

The starship Palomino is exploring deep space when it comes upon a black hole of enormous size. Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) and his crew are excited about the scientific discoveries they can make. Then they find something even more interesting, a long lost ship, the Cygnus, just hovering at the very edge of the black hole and seemingly unaffected by the tremendous gravity.

The Palomino attempts contact with the Cygnus but it is almost destroyed by the black hole. They land on the ghost ship and discover that only one man remains alive on board, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell). He is a genius scientist who created the field that holds the Cygnus in place. He is surrounded by a crew of robots that run the ship and maintain order. But as the crew of the Palomino start to find out more about Reinhardt and the Cygnus the more they realize that they are in terrible danger. Reinhardt is preparing for his ultimate experiment and none of them may escape the destructive power of The Black Hole.

Good Points:
  • Some gorgeous and unique production design
  • Solid acting by the entire cast
  • An impressive score by John Barry

Bad Points:
  • Cute robot antics may rub some viewers the wrong way
  • The derivative nature of the story or characters may be too familiar
  • Anyone looking for hard science fiction should look elsewhere 


This is one of those movies that almost works but never quite gels into a complete entertainment package. So many elements are solid or even excellent. But when taken together you get a movie that feels messy and unrefined. The film looks and sounds spectacular considering its age and Schell gives a performance that steals the show. Those who remember this fondly will probably find plenty to enjoy but new viewers may find it lacking.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  4

In Depth Review

He can't stop watching The Black Hole either.
When I was a kid I used to torment my sister by watching The Black Hole and Tron over and over again. My goal wasn’t to torment her, I just liked the creativity and adventures in those movies. For me, these two Disney flicks represent some of the amazing risks the studio was taking at the time and also some of the issues they couldn’t seem to avoid. 

The Black Hole is essentially a retelling of Disney’s take on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Maximilian Schell playing the Captain Nemo role that James Mason owned in 1954. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was one of Disney’s most popular and lucrative films in the 1950s. So it makes sense that they wanted to mirror that success with their space adventure. The story acts as the frame The Black Hole is built on. But it is the other influences that end up muddying the clarity of the film.

The black hole or  V'ger's cloud?
Star Wars was a pioneer for visual effects. Things were accomplished in that film using computer controlled cameras and a variety of innovative techniques to create a type of realism that hadn’t been seen in science fiction films since 2001: A Space Odyssey. What makes the Black Hole impressive is that the visuals were accomplished not by ILM or anyone from Lucas’ team, but by Disney’s in-house effects crew. It may be one of the last Hollywood films to actually feature effects by the studio instead of an independent specialized effects house.

Visually the movie forged its own path. A quick look at the space ship, robot and costume design will show you that. The starships in The Black Hole are completely unique. The Palomino is a squat cylinder with extended legs and thrusters. It looks very functional, almost like a 1970s satellite.

"Like a tree on Christmas Morning..."
But the real visual masterpiece is the Cygnus. This is a gorgeous ship. I love the lighting scheme used on it, giving it a warm and yet sinister feel. It exudes mystery and menace in equal measure. During the scene where the crew of the Palomino does a flyover of the Cygnus we are treated to some up close views of this impressive model. Both The Black Hole and Star Trek: The Motion Picture feature this kind of flyover sequence and I find both very effective. Oddly enough, both films came out the same year.

The interiors for the ships follow a similar feel. The Palomino is cramped, utilitarian and mostly grey. Again, it feels like a natural progression from the 1970s space technology. But the Cygnus is all gothic style mystery. It’s filled with struts, supports creating a web of crisscrossing lines. It has a huge scope, one that often feels like it is overwhelming and devouring the cast (thanks to some impressive matte painting work). The Cygnus could very well pass as a futuristic Flying Dutchman – a ship destined to journey into hell and take you with it.

What the drone sees.
Finally there are the robots. The Cygnus has its private army of robot enforcers. These guys serve as your Stormtroopers, with all the same look and movement. I do like their two barreled laser guns (which reappear in Guardiansof the Galaxy as a kind of homage). Those suckers always looked cool. I was always a bit disappointed that S.T.A.R., their leader, got taken out like a punk, but it was to show off how cool V.I.N.CENT. and B.O.B (Slim Pickens) were . But before I talk about them, I have to mention the creepy looking Drones that populate the ship. These robed figures with reflective faces really gave me the chills when I was a kid, and they move around the ship almost like ghosts. We are told early on that they are robots, but the crew of the Palomino discovers a horrible secret about them.

The two hero robots of The Black Hole are V.I.N.CENT. and B.O.B. These two little guys float around, crack wise and at times V.I.N.CENT. is smarter than most of his companions. In many ways these guys are obviously inspired by R2-D2, but actually manage to be different enough to keep Lucasfilm from coming after anyone.

Nothing sinister here.
But the most distinctive robot from The Black Hole is the red devil Maximilian. He is a hulking monstrosity, all angles and sharp points. He hovers over the ground just above all the other characters in the film. His single red eye glows a fearsome red and pulses when he is angry (harkening back to original Cylons form Battlestar Galactica). He also has whirling blade appendages that he uses to cut down anyone he feels like. Reinhardt claims to have created Maximilian, but at times he seems fearful of the giant, and it doesn’t always obey him. Why would you create a robot with whirling death blades if you weren’t interested in butchery? Maximilian is a fearsome and disturbing puzzle, and adds to the feel of dread that the movie attempts to capture.

THE scene from The Black Hole.
One more word about the visual effects. No matter how scientifically inaccurate the movie is (and yeah it really goes off the rails at times), the special effects are visually stunning and impressive. The black hole is a whirling vortex of blues, blacks and greens. It is always spinning outside the Cygnus and looks sinister enough to increase the disquieting feeling of horror. The Black Hole looks evil, something that plays into the themes of the film. But I also have to mention the meteor shower that comes crashing into the Cygus during the finale of the film. Asteroids are a staple of space adventure films from The Phantom Planet to The Empire Strikes Back. But never before have hurtling asteroids looked so diabolical. These suckers are flaming balls of death that come crashing down and destroy everything in their path. If one image has remained from The Black Hole over the years, it is of our heroes crossing a thin bridge in front of the rolling ball of flames.

The sound work does a fine job of supporting the visuals. Dialogue is crisp and clear and never overpowered by the sound design. The audio work for the sci-fi gadgets, ships and robots is unique to the film and helps build the world we see. I especially like how the interiors of the Cygnus sound cavernous and disturbingly quiet further adding to the disquiet the audience and Palomino crew feel.

The music certainly adds to the bizarre finale.
I posted a blog about John Barry’s score to The Black Hole and focused on the main theme, a swirling tune that captures the relentless power of the black hole. But the score has several other elements that work within it. There is a heroic theme for the action scenes, especially when Captain Holland or V.I.N.CENT. are battling the enforcer robots in the final third of the film. It’s a bit brash and maybe even a bit corny, but it works. To me the moments where Barry’s music really takes flight is when he’s building suspense in the first portion of the film. His music captures and enhances the majesty of the Cygnus and scope of the Reinhardt’s ego very well. As the movie continues, he builds this relentlessness of power in the score. The final third is equal parts action music (based on the heroic theme) and driving intensity as the Cygnus attempts to dive into the Black Hole. Barry keeps things slowly but steadily climbing. The crescendo is the finale piece as both crews discover the existential reality within the Black Hole. This piece combines the diabolical and hopeless with the triumphant and angelic. It brings unity to a sequence that would be quite baffling without music. But it is also one of the best tracks in the score. And yes, I have to mention that Barry uses the Blaster Beam in this score, as a part of the baseline. It isn’t as obvious as Goldsmith’s work in Star Trek: The Motion Picture or even it’s use in Rosenman’s Lord of the Rings in 1978, but its synthetic tones add dimension to the score.

A genius or a madman? Can Durant really tell?
The cast for The Black Hole does a fine job with the roles. Maximilian Schell gets all the scene stealing moments, and his performance is a combination of ego and madness. He is a joy to watch, even if he gets a bit theatrical. While his performance overwhelms the rest of the cast at times, you also get a great pair of vocal performances by Roddy McDowall as V.I.N.CENT. and Slim Pickens as B.O.B. Yeah they are scripted a bit too cute, but both men give a lot of humanity to the robot roles and you actually care about the little guys. Robert Forester and Joseph Bottoms as LT. Pizer fit the heroic mold well, and are pretty straight-laced in the film. Bottoms gets a slightly more interesting part, as he’s rash youth that rushes in, and sometimes gets overmatched. Yvette Mimeux as Dr. McCrae is solid in her role, but it is one that doesn’t have a lot to do in the story, other than tie her to the crew of the Cygnus and be the object of rescue late in the film. Ernest Borgnine plays a street-smart reporter Harry Booth, who is out to get a good story, but also not willing to risk his life when things get too dangerous. He does a good job with the part. Anthony Perkins really throws himself into the interesting role of Dr. Durant. His character is seduced by the Cyngus’ power and scientific advancements. He sees a real boon to human knowledge if Reinhardt’s plan is successful. We can see his doubts as things start to get darker, but his struggle is very clear. We like him, and want him to make the right choice, but things turn out a bit differently when the robot Maximilian takes matters into his whirling blades.

Hell is unleashed!
Where The Black Hole falters is in the script and the final execution of the movie. As it is written, the Black Hole is a gothic mystery set in space. Our heroes are investigators who stumble upon a haunted mansion inhabited by a mad man. As they explore the mansion they realize that their lives and their souls are in danger and try to escape. But like any good horror story, several characters are unable to leave the fall of the house of Reinhardt. The madman and his servants are destroyed and consigned to hell. While our heroes remain pure and retain their souls, leaving darkness behind them.

Yeah I simplified it, but that is the basic structure of the story. This is Disney trying to make a horror film a few years before TheWatcher in the Woods.

Damnation eternal?
It is actually fascinating to dig into the script and identify all the little nods to gothic horror. I’d hazard that the characters name drop hell, the devil and evil more than any scientific concepts. Reinhardt is a the classic crazed noble, who literally sacrifices the souls of his people to obtain more and more arcane knowledge. He crafts a monster of his own design, the hulking red Maximilian, and grows to fear that creation. His fascination with the Black Hole is like a man fascinated with seeing into hell or perhaps sharing more with Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark who is convinced the Ark can be used to speak with God. What we come to understand is that Reinhardt is the Dr. Frankenstein of this tale. He destroys nature and the pure souls around him to aspire to meet God, and in doing so, damns himself.

Kate fights fire with lasers!
We have the makings of an interesting film, something along the lines of Event Horizon actually. But Disney never commits to the horror concept. Instead we have too many cute robot moments that break the tension, but in a way that is distracting instead of entertaining. The laser battles are all fun and exciting, but they seem shoehorned into a film that attempts to plumb into the depths of a mad man’s quest for God. When The Black Hole works best it is when it embraces its core of gothic horror. The crew of Palomino being pursued by Reinhardts robots, attempting to escape before the Cygnus is destroyed by flaming asteroids and then ripped apart by the spinning eye of a demon should have provided enough thrills for everyone. But this half and half approach ends up diluting the film as a whole, and confusing some viewers who came into the film expecting Star Wars or Star Trek and instead got a twisted take on Poe's Fall of the House of Usher.

Nothing sinister here either.
While I see some folks complain about scientific accuracy in The Black Hole I think they are missing the main theme of the story. It is not about the black hole at all. It is about one man’s drive to become more than human and how he destroys everything, including himself, to do it. Heavy stuff for a Disney movie. I end up appreciating the film’s many merits and its attempt at something greater. But I always wish that Disney had stuck to their core script and went for gothic horror in space. Combined with Alien also released in 1979, we could have had one hell of a terrifying combo of horror from beyond our stars.

The functional Palomino comes in for a landing.
The robot enforcers move in for the kill.

The massive control room for the Cygnus.

"You can trust me, my eyes are only lit this way for
dramatic effect.

Harry's nose for news tells him something is up.

V.I.N.CENT. and B.O.B. discuss Tigerbot magazine.

You know, Reinhardt spoiled Maximilian when he was
a little robot, and now he can't control him!

The red eye of doom in the center of the Black Hole.


  1. The cutesy robots – and Maximilian – did make me groan a little. I realize Disney at the time was still trying to find its way to more adult oriented productions without destroying their family-friendly brand. In the 80s they hit on the simple solution of creating a separate label (Touchstone Pictures) for adult films, but until then they made some uneasy compromises on movies such this one. That said, I didn’t hate it.

    I hadn’t thought of the Fall of the House of Usher parallel, but it is there.

    1. Awww, I like Maximilian the robot, and get a kick out of Maximilian the actor. :)

      Yeah I think Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures were a big help to them in that department. They could take more risks and not taint the Disney name.

      Glad you didn't hate it, but I've run into a few folks who really do dislike this film. All the scientific inaccuracies get to them. I tell them to avoid "This Island Earth".

  2. I remember taking a date to see that film, and we both left the cinema a little baffled. It wasn't a horrible movie, but yes, it did have its cheesy parts. But the effects were pretty good and the story was a little trippy. For space opera, it wasn't too bad if you're a fan of that genre, I have a DVD of it today. I'd never thought of it being similar to 20,000 Leagues, but that comparison makes sense.

    Generally speaking I don't watch SF or space opera for scientific inaccuracies. If they're written well and I enjoy the story good enough.

    1. I was surprised how well the effects held up over all these years. And to find out that Disney did them all in house with their own effects team and cameras was pretty impressive. That iconic scene with the bridge and the asteroid is one that I've never forgotten.

      The film is entertaining, but I always wish it had been able to pull off the themes it has buried inside.