DT Moviehouse Reviews: The Black Hole

Time to blow the dust off my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. I was previously doing this alphabetically but decided, since I was watching some of these anyway, to review them out of order. Today I take a look at 1979’s very much maligned Disney sci-fi horror movie, THE BLACK HOLE.

Directed by Gary Nelson

Screenplay by Gerry Day and Jeb Rosebrook

Tagline: A Journey That Begins Where Everything Ends

The Black Hole (1979) - IMDb

What It’s About:
The crew of the deep space exploration vessel USS Palomino comes across the largest black hole ever recorded, and discovers a long lost ship, The Cygnus, once commanded by the brilliant Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell), poised impossibly at the rim of it.

Why I Bought It:

Because I’m not entirely sure which year I saw Star Wars, I believe The Black Hole may have been the first live action movie I saw in a theater. 

As a kid I only remember loving the robots V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and B.O.B. and digging the villainous Maximillian, the double-blaster wielding S.T.A.R. and his pseudo-stormtrooper droids (that looked a lot like illegitimate children of Darth Vader). I also vaguely remember a sense of existential Roman Catholic dread at the apocalyptic heaven-and-hell ending when the characters pass through the black hole and experience their just desserts/punishments as warranted.

In my adult years I grew to appreciate the technicality of the sets and models. I adore the design of the Cygnus, essentially a massive haunted house in space. It’s one of my favorite fictional spaceships. It reminds me of Chicago’s Sears Tower (sorry, Willis Tower), a monolithic skyscraper in space, replete with suspension girders and antennae. Totally black and apparently abandoned when first encountered, the lights coming on in response to the diminutive Palomino’s trespassing has the ominous effect of a single light coming on in the upstairs window of a remote battlement. Welp, they know we’re here….

In recent years, I’ve seen almost nothing good written about this movie. Perennial joykiller Neil DeGrasse-Tyson famously ripped into its scientific inaccuracies, and aside from my friend John Kenneth Muir’s thoughtful review, I’ve been kind of amazed at the almost universal ridicule this movie seems to elicit (much as I was baffled at the general dislike of Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, a consensus that has thankfully been mainly rescinded in the past ten years).

I did a recent rewatch and felt compelled to resurrect my long comatose blog feature solely to add my voice to John’s in championing it.

As an adult and with only a little fog of nostalgia, I think this is a hell of a cool movie. The relentless, nightmarish opening theme by John Barry playing over the wheeling gridlines as they form the wire-diagram of an inescapable funnel against a cavernous star field sets the stage for the mystery and madness to come, giving one the sense of hurtling through the endless void with a broken tether.

The movie boasts a nearly all-star cast, with the late great Robert Forster captaining the Palomino, Roddy McDowall as an erudite R2D2, Anthony Perkins as a breathlessly optimistic scientist, Ernest Borgnine playing a self-centered journalist, and Slim Pickens as a winsome, folksy older model bot. I’m not too familiar with Yvette Mimieux (wait – she was Weena in The Time Machine!), but she does a fine turn as a telepathic scientist who unfortunately delivers one of the movies’ oft-mocked lines about “discovering habitable life in outer space” – I swear in forty years of rewatching this movie I never noticed that. That’s how science-minded I am I guess. Joseph Bottoms is admittedly a bit bland as Lt. Pizer, but with Forster’s Captain Holland there, he’s a little redundant.

Maximillian Schell is arresting as the megalomaniacal, Nemo-esque Dr. Reinhardt, a Kurtz-like psychopath who has not only refused his recall orders in dogged pursuit of his own ends, but technologically cannibalized his mutinous crew, literally lashing them to the controls of his derelict Flying Dutchman with the help of his crowning robotic achievement, Maximillian.

There is so much going on between the lines of this movie, that it appalls me how many people casually dismiss it as hokey or boring.

The Black Hole (1979) Directed by Gary Nelson Shown: Maximilian Schell

Why is Dr. McCrae able to telepathically communicate with V.I.N.C.E.N.T? Is he really a robot or some kind of cyborg? He claims to hate the company of robots, yet B.O.B. alludes to the two of them being a ‘series’ so are they post-singularity, conscious A.I.? V.I.N.C.E.N.T.’s thoughts can be heard among the rest of the crew when they pass through the black hole at the end. Even S.T.A.R. (incidentally, portrayed by Tom McLoughlin, who went on to direct my favorite Friday The 13th entry, Part 6: Jason Lives) seems to be really emotional for a ‘bot too, displaying pride, frustration, and jealousy.

And for that matter, what is going on with the red mystery monster Maximillian? Is Reinhardt in control of the Cygnus, or is he? Schell portrays him with a furtive distractedness. Is he never quite there in the moment because he’s preoccupied with his grand purpose, or because Maximilian is influencing him? I personally get the sense he is not fully the master of events. At one point, Reinhardt pleads to Kate, “Protect me from Maximillian!” What?! Wow!  Although this line was purportedly ad-libbed by Schell, one gets the sense that Reinhardt’s genius creations have gotten away from him. Maybe he built Maximilian as an enforcer to lead the Vader-bots against the mutinous crew….or maybe some strange cosmic force from within the black hole (or the black hole itself!) is at work in the big red ‘bot (and in Reinhardt’s miraculous energy source ‘cygnum’ which somehow allows the ship to resist the pull of the black hole), considering it not only physically subsumes Reinhardt in the weird confines of the hole at the end, but also appears to stand and rule over some hellscape within. Did an ineffable alien intelligence call to Reinhardt from the hole, urge him to kill his crew and build Maximilian and then join it? Consider that all of the other robots are generally humanoid in appearance, whereas Maximilian seems like some kind of alien form, possessing neither a face, nor hands and feet, as if he was concieved not by Reinhardt, but by something with only an approximate understanding of human anatomy. “Some cause must have created all this….,” Reinhardt muses, when confronted by his macabre crimes, “but what caused the cause?” The use of the color red in these later scenes appears to signify something. Schell dons a red suit in his final scenes, Maximilian is red, and in the wake of the meteor storm the Cygnus and the hole are cast in the same blood red tones, as though the hole as an entity has been influencing events and is now manifest.

I understand the tendency of less patient viewers to roll their eyes at the sometimes dated FX and action, and I accept the reticence of modern audiences to embrace the quasi-religious ending, where the good and the bad are quite literally separated into infernal and celestial cosmic experiences, though I don’t personally agree. Has everyone died at the end? Dr. Kate muses early on that black holes could possibly one day consume the universe – again, I don’t speak to the scientific accuracy of that, but it makes for a great death metaphor. Putting aside its bizarre ending, what you have in The Black Hole, Disney’s first PG film, is a neat little sci-fi horror movie with an excellent sense of building dread, some gorgeous sets and FX (the meteor storm sequence is fantastic, as is the running laser battle through the greenhouse as it’s occurring), and some interesting subtext worth reconsidering.

Best Dialogue/Line:

“It’s about time that people learned about their failures and my successes.”

Best Scene:

I can’t stress enough what a killer reveal it is when Anthony Perkins finally lifts the mirror-face shell off one of the purportedly robot crew to discover the slack, black-eyed human face beneath. It’s genuinely chilling and a well-earned payoff after Forster’s exploration of the abandoned crew quarters, the limping gardener, the robot funeral, and the explanation of what actually went down by B.O.B.

“He would be dead by now. They all would be dead. This was the only way to keep them alive – one of my greatest achievements,” says Reinhardt. In his mind, did he save the crew? And from what?

The scene ends with Perkins’ Durant memorably holding up his book of scientific notes and calculations against the whirring blades of Maximillian to no avail. Learning is scrambled in the face of Reinhardt/Maximilian/The Hole’s madness. Great stuff.

Would I Buy It Again?

Yes. A classic, and as what might have been my first live action viewing experience, personally seminal.