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Weird Old Sci-Fi: “The Black Hole”

Continuing along the post-Star Wars path as last week’s Battle Beyond the Stars, this week’s Weird Old Sci-Fi movie is something that has to be seen to be believed. Everybody wanted to capitalize on the success of Star Wars and by “everybody,” I mean EVERYBODY. Disney certainly did not want to be left in the lurch. The problem is, the only script they had was for a film modeled after 2001: A Space Odyssey and was much more about concepts and pathos than action and adventure. Add to it a strange cast of older actors and some silly-voiced robots and you have one of the weirdest, most uneven, most delightful sci-fi movies in history. I’m speaking, of course, of 1979’s The Black Hole.

Black Hole

The Black Hole is just such a strange film. It takes place in the year 2130 as an Earth research vessel in deep space comes across a black hole – outside of which (and somehow not getting sucked into it) is the Cygnus, a ship belonging to a long-lost scientific expedition. The crew of the ship attempt to make contact and begin to be pulled into the big sucky hole, when they get in the vicinity of the Cygnus and stop. Somehow, the Cygnus is creating a force to counteract the massive gravitational pull of the hole. Once aboard the Cygnus, the crew finds that every member of the scientific voyage is gone, save for Dr. Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), who has been alone for years with only his specially-designed robots to aid in his continued research. His ultimate goal: to fly the Cygnus into the black hole to finally see what’s on the other side.

The crew become skeptical of Reinhardt’s story and eventually find that he killed his original crew when they tried to mutiny and turned them into his drone cyborgs. The crew must then find a way off of the Cygnus without running afoul of Reinhardt’s soldier robots or his massive bodyguard robot, Maximilian, before they all fly through the eponymous dark void.

Black Hole 2

That’s a pretty dark premise, for sure, but this is a Disney movie, so it can’t be too dark, right? Incorrect, friends.

The Black Hole has the distinction of being the very first Disney movie rated PG, and likely would be rated PG-13 if it were released a few years later.  To say nothing of the prevailing ominous tone, there are some downright shocking images. For example, when it is finally revealed that the drones are the former Cygnus crew, one of the drones’ silver face plate is removed to reveal a semi-dead zombie face with black eyes. There’s also a scene where Maximilian, the floating, red enforcer bot, eviscerates a person, though there’s no onscreen blood. Characters die in Star Wars, but not from getting their guts torn out by spinning robo-blades. And, of course, there’s the ending where the characters go into the black hole and the baddies end up in a sort of robot hell.

Black Hole 3

The cast of the film doesn’t really spell comfort for young, impressionable children. Where Star Wars had heroic young people like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, The Black Hole had Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Perkins, and Yvette Mimieux. One of the heroes was Norman frigging Bates! The action hero in the film is Robert Forster, who does a pretty good job, but always seems like he ought to be driving a fast car in New York rather than flying a spaceship in a sci-fi movie. Maximilian Schell, with his wild hair and uni-bomber beard, makes for a truly terrifying villain. And, not for nothin’, but German accents are 12 times more frightening than James Earl Jones’ heavy breathing.

Black Hole 5

So, it’s dark. We get it. But, Disney must have felt that to effectively capitalize on Star Wars, they needed some kind of good robots to model toys after for the kids to buy. Enter what is clearly supposed to be R2-D2 and C-3PO rolled into one: V.I.N.CENT, voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowell.  V.I.N.CENT (or Vital Information Necessary CENTralized) floats around helping with various ship activities, but has these big, cartoonish eyes designed solely for cuteness purposes.  He apparently has the ability to communicate with Mimieux’s character via ESP. Isn’t that convenient? Aboard the Cygnus, V.I.N.CENT finds a wrecked and disused yet still functional robot of an older design than he. This robot is called “Old B.O.B,” which evidently stands for “BiO-sanitation Battalion.” Way to try with that one, makers of the film. He’s voiced by an uncredited Slim Pickens. Why in the name of Isaac Asimov’s asshole would they make a robot sound like an old-west-type cowboy? It makes absolutely no sense. McDowell is one thing, as he has a suitably snippy yet refined timbre, but Pickens is completely ridiculous. Between all the robots and the wanton murder of people, this movie cannot decide on a tone.

Black Hole 4

So the script is kind of a mess, though the story is interesting, and the characters and actors are a bit off. But there are definitely reasons to love this movie, namely the special effects, production design, and score. All are fantastic.  There’s a great deal of model work and matte paintings to give the space effect, and they’re truly some of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s no wonder The Black Hole was nominated for Best Special Effects at the Oscars, in the same year as Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the eventual winner, Alien. This movie also contains the very first instance of CGI in film history, in the form of a green grid during the opening credits, but it most certainly led to the work done on Disney’s 1982 film, TRON, which used computer graphics extensively.

Black Hole 7

The production design is immense and intricate. Both the main ships have very distinct styles and looks, with the crew’s main ship, the Palomino, being much homier and welcoming than the Cygnus, which has enormously tall ceilings and dark, ominous corridors.  The score by five-time Oscar winning composer John Barry is haunting yet majestic. It’s also noteworthy that Barry did the music for twelve James Bond films, including Moonraker, which came out the same year, and Italy’s answer to Star Wars, Starcrash, which I will be talking about at some point, rest assured.

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The Black Hole has a great many problems, but also a large amount of things to admire.  It’s one of the most atypical movies you’d ever hope to see, with just about everything about it causing some form of confusion. There’s been talk about remaking this for a number of years, but with Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars, that might not be in the cards anymore. Still, I keep holding out hope that a special edition Blu-ray will come out in the near future so I can own it and watch it all the time. I mean, it’s a kids’ movie that ends in hell. That’s pretty much the coolest thing there is.

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16 comments

  • I saw this movie twice in the theater when it came out. Both times I had to cover my eyes when Maximilian shoves those spinning blades into poor Norman. That was one of the most horrific deaths I remembered in movies as a young person. They don’t show a single drop of blood, but the sound of the blades and the noises that Norman makes burned images in my imagination gorier than anything they could have shown on screen.

  • I had seen it as a kid and it it had profound effect on me. Tried to watch it again in my 20s and couldn’t get into it, found it boring. Got stoned and watched it again in my 30s. Fucking loved it.

  • I loved this movie as a child. As an adult I still strongly defend it’s place in cinema history. This was a movie of many firsts technologically. Some of the techniques learned on this film are still employed today!

    The A.C.E.S. and matte-scan camera system that was created for this film made many Industrial Light and Magic processes obsolete overnight.

    The music score was recorded digitally, a process that had never been done before in film. There would have been no real benefit to do this in 1979 since most if not all movie houses were using analog optical sound. I’m sure it was done so they could learn and improve digital audio in future films. For those of us who love the film and experience it on DVD, this is why the score sounds so great compared to other films of the time.

    You can also tell that great attention was paid to the foley (sound-effects) work in this film. While it does have alot of dated synths, I would argue that it has the best sounding laser fire even compared to some modern day films.

    To those who say this film was a waste of time, I say they have no idea what this film did for cinema. It surely has many, many faults, but a true milestone for cinema research and development.

  • Hey THE BLACK HOLE Collectors!

    You’re going to want to hunt down the Novelization (you know? back in the day when Films had a softcover book released simultaneously to market it?) by ALAN DEAN FOSTER for his interpretation of “the ending” [has ALAN DEAN FOSTER been interviewed by Nerdist dot com? Yes? No? Why the fuck not? He's a significant part of our childhood reading the novelization of various Sci Fi Films!]

    You’re going to want to hunt down the Comic Book Adaptation (Whitman Comics (1980) – why hasn’t Dark Horse re-issued this gem?) released in 4 Issues (1 & 2 are basically the Film, 3 & 4 interpret what happens after exiting the black hole into a parallel Universe – yes enough of a story to make a sequel involving a race of people called Virlights in this new Universe)

    You’re going to want to hunt down In the official Disney Read-Along Recording Illustrated Storybook [yes I have the digital audio / pdf file of all the illustrations for personal use - let's hope the Walt Disney Co reissues this gem as I can't "legally" share it] where the story concludes with Captain Holland saying “We’ve been trained to find new worlds. Let’s go find one for ourselves!”

    You’re going to want to hunt down the Little Golden Books entitled The Black Hole: A Spaceship Adventure for Robots for its illustrated story involving V.I.N.Cent and Old B.O.B. exploring the Cygnus, encountering the “Humanoid Robots”, and escaping detection of Maximillian

    You’re going to want to hunt down the Mego Toys (12″ and 4″) Action Figures for the Film that were released in the Fall of 1979 (Mego – made cheap as fuck, but cool as hell to play when you’re a kid)

    Good luck finding Jack Kirby’s Illustrated Adaptation of the Film (scripted by Carl Fallberg) used in the Comic Strip “Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales” (come the fuck on Walt Disney Co., would it be too hard to pay the Estates of Kirby / Falberg and then re-release this?) Good luck finding the 8″ Magnetic Figures of V.I.N.Cent, S.T.A.R. and Maximillian; along with the 12″ figures of Holland, Durant, Reinhardt, Booth, McCrae and Pizer (better quality then the Mego Toys action figures).

    I personally didn’t care for the 2005 Medicom “Kubrick” Figures of Maximillian, Vincent and Old Bob (cheap as fuck, poor quality – typical of the Walt Disney Co today with their cheap as fuck over priced merchandise!) …

    http://d1466nnw0ex81e.cloudfront.net/n_iv/600/703435.jpg

  • like 1982’s TRON, I <3 1979's THE BLACK HOLE (& I hope Director Joseph Kosinski is given a chance to either remake, or bring a sequel – because [spoiler] we still don't know what happened to the 4 surviving crew members + 1 robot, but most of the actors involved are still alive (hint, hint, hint Walt Disney Co)!

    What a cast: Maximilian Schell – Anthony Perkins – Robert Forster – Joseph Bottoms – Yvette Mimieux – Ernest Borgnine – Roddy McDowall (as the voice of V.I.N.CENT) – Slim Pickens (as Voice of Old B.O.B.)!

    Yes, both are rated PG!
    Yes, both are groundbreaking Sci Fi Films loaded with fantastic special effects!
    Yes, both were Walt Disney Films almost impossible to market to children!
    Yes. both did receive interesting toys / games / vinyl lps (highly collectible now)!
    Yes, both Films have dark moments (especially THE BLACK HOLE)!
    Yes, both have awesome Soundtracks (by Wendy Carlos and John Barry)!
    Yes, both remain Cult Classics (1 still needs a great blu-ray remaster)!

    Like STAR TREK – THE MOTION PICTURE … THE BLACK HOLE was one of the last Hollywood Films to feature an Overture (an Intro) often played at cinemas before the Film started – but these days? We get a fuck load of commercials, followed by some PSA's to sit the fuck down, shut the fuck up, turn off your fucking smart phones!

    [spoilers]

    Check out that Opening Credits Sequence featuring "the longest computer graphics shot that had ever appeared in a film" at the time (& yes its not modern CGI – thank gawd – because back in the day things were still done "Practically" effects wise)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJaypC51Dds

    [spoilers]

    The scene that freaked a million kids (& parental units) out – except me – called "The Salvation of Dr. Hans Reinhardt" (I doubt a Studio would allow a scene like this in a Film today without a fucking PSA in front of the film to make sure that religious groups would shut the fuck up) & that ethereal figure with flowing long hair passing through a cathedral-like crystal arched tunnel was edited for some foreign markets where metaphysical and religious themes were deemed inappropriate (& it was still left edited out in European home video markets until the DVD releases)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFv9ZRAqG1s

    Thank You Ron Miller era Walt Disney Co for taking risks

  • Yeah I loved te hell out of this when I was a kid. I was 5 when this came out and the end scared the hell out of me. In Canada, Shreddies cerial was way in bed with Disney and I sent in the coupons to get Vincent and Maximilion. I witsh I could have got BOB and the Sentry as well but a boy can only eat so many Shreddies.

    I found it and showed it to my young kids about 5-8 years ago or so. They were unimpressed.

    I would love a remake. Keep the dark tone and make the Cygnus more a haunted house or “evil town” sort of thing. Or just pour CGI and crazy on it and make it a fun action romp.

  • @Damocles74 That was an alternate ending? I thought that was the actual ending. Or at least I always knew that was the end. I think I originally saw it on TV so I could’ve watched an “edited for TV” version.

  • There is some really good stuff in the movie that I didn’t appreciate as a kid. I think I mostly remembered this at the time because I knew one kid had all the action figures and thought this would be the next STAR WARS (franchise-wise). As an adult, there is some really haunting stuff in it.

  • I had a little pullout poster of this movie when I was a kid. Fond memories indeed. Though it was the mid-80s when I actually saw it. Forced my husband to watch it just a few years ago lol

    This and 20000 leagues are still the top of my Disney live-action list.

  • LOOOOVE this column. Keep it coming.

    As a child of the 70s/80s, these flicks are right in my wheelhouse. Ive been thinking about giving this one another go for a while now but wasnt sure how it’d hold up…i remember loving it as a kid.

    You could devote an entire column to bad-80’s-sci-fi movies that were part of the original 3D craze…names escape me but words like Metalstorm Jared Syn….Spacehunter..Parasite (well, that was more horror)..etc.

    Peace .n. Sci Fi

    3ToF

  • Maximilian Scared the SHIT out of me as a kid. Then i find out there was an alternate ending where he survives with his master inside him in a volcanic nightmare? Really? Maximilian- Robot king of Hell? well i didn’t need sleep anyway.

  • Every decade or so I try to give the Black Hole another go and I can never get into it. It is so slow and boring. But the part with Maximilian and Reinhardt merging at the end freaked me out when I was kid.

    Starcrash is a blast, as is Message from Space, a Japanese Star Wars ripoff.

  • I loved this movie as a kid and tried to show it recently to my girlfriend – needless to say she now thinks I am weird. But the Black Hole is an amazing movie and if you were a kid of the 70’s you remember it fondly!