The Black Hole (1979)

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I was watching “The Impossible Planet” on BBC last week, an old episode of Doctor Who (which is to say, season 2 of the rebooted franchise and not the classic serials), and it occurred to me how much the story seemed to be riffing on the 70s Disney scifi movie The Black Hole. Sure enough, when I dug out the DVD of the episode and listened to the audio commentary, it was revealed that some of the original CGI FX work for the show had been rejected by the producers who wanted the black hole in the episode to be more like the one they remembered from that very movie. Clearly the connection was very much in everyone’s mind while making this, and a rewatch seemed called for.

I didn’t realise it when I saw this film as a kid, but what a total mess it proves to be. It was made in the aftermath of Star Wars’ explosive impact on the box office, and all the studios were suddenly desperately scrambling to find their own sci-fi blockbuster. They started wildly lashing out in panic, knowing that the sci-fi mega hit was the way of the future but still completely unsure what exactly it was about Star Wars that had made it such a massive hit. So Universal repurposed a TV pilot by the name of Battlestar Galactica into a copy-cat rip off; James Bond was dispatched to space in Moonraker; Paramount revived an old TV franchise for the worthy-but-dull Star Trek: The Motion Picture; and Roger Corman recognised George Lucas’ pilfering of Western classics and followed suit, remaking The Magnificent Seven as Battle Beyond The Stars.

With a four-decade history of making family-orientated fantasy films, Walt Disney Studios should have been in the best position of all. But what they came up with was The Black Hole, a film that shows the symptoms of the film industry’s blind panic and is practically a playbook for how not to make a scifi film. It starts with some 2001-ish “proper science” with scenes of zero gravity and explanations of what a black hole really is, but then immediately sets about misunderstanding and abusing every single concept. Suddenly there’s gravity; a probe ship can return from a trip to the black hole where – it’s just been explained – not even light can escape from. Characters can wonder around in open space and suffer only a bracing wind and a light frosting. ESP powers are thrown in just as something cool to communicate with over a distance instead of a mobile phone.

The film can’t decide whether to go for the sort of grandiose longeurs of 2001 and Star Trek: TMP or for the shoot-em-up blasters of Star Wars. Scenes with the robots are strictly for the kids (the lead droid has the stature of R2-D2, the voice of Threepio and the exaggerated wide eyes of Bambi), yet an early line of dialogue references Dante and the closing scenes explicitly play on the vision of hell from Inferno, which goes straight over the head of 95% of the audience. One of the main cast deaths is a particularly nasty implied moment even when kept mainly off-screen and certainly far too horrific for any Disney film. There’s a prolonged final sequence at the end clearly intended to mirror the hallucinogenic star trip of Dave Bowman at the climax of 2001 – only it’s too literal and stuck with the poorest effects of the entire film, suggesting that either the budget or the schedule presumably had expired by this point.

It’s the script that is particularly dire: the basic storyline is a rehashing of Disney’s own 1954 hit 20000 Leagues Under the Sea with Dr Hans Reinhardt as Captain Nemo, but the character quickly degenerates into a stereotyped Bond villain (of the Stromberg/Drax variety) complete with silent robotic henchman Maximilian standing in for Oddjob/Jaws. When Reinhardt meets his end by being flattened by a large video screen that simply falls off the wall of his command deck rather than anything the nominal heroes do, it feels this is surely an attempt at laugh-out-loud black meta-humour; except it isn’t.

There’s not a single line of dialogue in this film that doesn’t come across as painfully wooden, the sort of exposition that no one would ever say in real life but exists simply in order to info-dump necessary data into the heads of the poor audience. The characters are likewise two-dimensional cut-outs, and not one of them is remotely likeable. It takes some doing to extract such truly terrible performances from a world-class cast that includes Maximilian Schell as Reinhardt along with Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux (from George Pal’s The Time Machine) and Joseph Bottoms (the juvenile lead of the film, treated like a child despite the actor being 25), but the writers (Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day) and director (Gary Nelson) manage it between them. Poor Roddy McDowell – voicing the inevitable post-Star Wars likeable droid Vincent – is given a script that consists literally of witless clichés and eye-rollingly bad quotations. No wonder he dropped the screen credit, as did Western movie veteran star Slim Pickens.

Of course, at the time the target audience (young boys like myself who wanted any scifi they could get in the wake of Star Wars; and who left the theatre to excitedly buy the comic book and the action figures of Maximilian and Vincent) didn’t much care for the script anyway, as long as the effects were good. And for their day, those optical effects in The Black Hole really were pretty spectacular – as evidenced by the Doctor Who team still thinking of this as the touchstone for their own black hole sequence. The FX have not aged well, however, with the matte lines very apparent and the photographic processes employed seemingly having a detrimental effect on large sections of the film stock, which have turned a sickly green-sepia colour at least on the evidence of this DVD release. Still, fair’s fair and there’s some good visuals among the misfires, such as the opening computer graphic wireframe (simple stuff now but the longest such animation used on screen up to that time); the derelict USS Cygnus is an impressive model (which explains the long, dull tracking shot spent establishing it); and the scene where a flaming meteor rolls down the central section of the ship has an impressive sense of scale and substance (even if it makes precisely no sense from a scientific reality point of view.) And of course, the black hole itself does look cool as it’s continually glimpsed out of the windows, churning its way remorselessly through an unending diet of doomed stars and planets.

But the reality is that this is a film where pretty much nothing works anywhere near as well as it’s supposed to – even the music. The legendary John Barry supplies a memorable and grand main theme, but unfortunately it’s a bit too memorable: it’s hard not to think of the scores for Moonraker or Dances With Wolves from which it feels that it’s been ripped from. And then it’s repeated ad nauseum throughout the film, with little regard for the on-screen action its accompanying: this slow, majestic score plodding along at its own speed makes for a very odd background to an on-screen fast-paced futuristic laser battle between humans and robots.

By the time you’ve reached the end of the 90 minutes, the score has been infuriatingly overused and you just want it to stop. Pretty much the same as the feeling you have about the whole film, really, which really only goes to show that sometimes you really shouldn’t revisit and look too closely at childhood memories lest they deeply disappoint.

[Nerdology has now released a podcast audio commentary for the film which is well worth a listen to and is distinctly more fun than the film itself!]

8 thoughts on “The Black Hole (1979)

    John Hood said:
    February 15, 2012 at 11:17 am

    I remember being more interested in buying the action figures for both The Black Hole and Battlestar Galactica!

    Incidentally, Roger Corman’s sci-fi opus is Battle Beyond the Stars and boasts a prototype score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan by James Horner, himself.

    andrewlewin responded:
    February 15, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    Whoops, duly corrected, thanks! I had the right page open on IMDb but obviously my mind drifted on to thoughts of imported Japanese animé children’s fare at some point while typing!

    I certainly remember having the Maximilian robot action figure. He used to side with Darth and the stormtroopers against the Rebel Alliance if I recall correctly …

    Nick Lewin said:
    February 15, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    While quite a bit older when I saw the Black Hole, I have a great deal more fondness for my memories. There was much that was seriously wrong with the movie, most of which you mentioned. As someone who watched the very first episode of Dr Who when it was broadcast, I have to say I think the nostalgic forgiveness of some of the truly dreadful turns the series has taken over the years is fairly ridiculous. Most of it was laughably bad. I really think the overall estimation of Star Wars is inexplicable. Looking back at the six ( oh my God, I said it SIX!) movies I think they were pretty bad and Lucas’ direction pitiful.

    The Black Hole attached it’s storyline around a very interesting basic premise from modern physics. What are the chances that if you are sucked into a Black Hole somewhere in space, you might emerge through a White Hole at some other spot in Time/Space. Is this the cosmic version of birth/death being transcended by the journey being made by a living entity. Still a rather fascinating thought, and certainly an interestingly relevant and unexplorable one even as Quantum Sciences fail to be be sufficiently thought about (and especially taught) in this day and age.

    You also fail to mention the intriguing references to Mushroom soup and nitrous oxide that are so carefully inserted into this kids movie. To me they suggested the entire possibility of the journey being based in the mind where the exploration is accomplished. I saw the movie as a rather heavy handed (then again there has.never been a robot in a sci -fi movie that hasn’t made me cringe—-give me the good old computer in 2001 and his interplay with Dave) way to explore the blending of science /religion, birth/rebirth that were the central theme that Kubrick explored in 2001. Of course there aren’t many Kubricks!

    andrewlewin responded:
    February 15, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    Blimey, Nick, that’s less a comment than it is an entire guest post! And a happy birthday for yesterday while you’re here 🙂

    Yes, there’s an interesting premise buried deep at the heart of The Black Hole and I think I, too, responded to this as a kid when I saw the film. But boy, is that premise and promise buried deep. There’s a very good movie to be made on the idea of what happens in a black hole, but this isn’t it. You’re right that there are several interpretations of the climax available, and the film tries to have it all ways: Reinhardt and Maximilian end up in a ham-fisted literal representation of Hell; the heroes seem to end up in a different universe, or maybe Heaven; and the “it’s all a hallucination” idea is seeded as well. You can add hypoxia from exposure to open vacuum to the mushroom soup and nitrous oxide, although I’m frankly not convinced any of these are carefully inserted by any means! But all of this in a Disney film that up to now has been about cartoon robots shooting each other with blasters? It’s a painfully odd and uneven mix. And the script, dialogue and acting are abysmal, regardless of the film’s aspirations.

    The science answer is fairly clear: nothing and no one could survive the trip across the event horizon of a black hole, by definition. Ignoring that for a moment, the most intriguing idea is that time slows down as the singularity is approached so that from the outside the person/object appears eternally suspended on the boundary; but to the person/object themselves time would appear to be continuing normally. So is this some sort of journey for them to the literal end of the universe when all time ends? What happens then: is this the definition of what we mean by Heaven/Hell/another universe?

    And as for Doctor Who, I absolutely agree that it has had its dark times. I’ve personally been rather critical of its recent series, and as for when I really get going then just have a quick glance of last year’s post about “Resurrection of the Daleks” and the awful script which “doesn’t so much leave believability and credibility behind, as take them out round the back and shoot them point blank in the face”! And I still can’t think of a single positive thing to say about the Colin Baker era.

    I do think it’s important to remember the context of a film/show’s creation, though. No point attacking Doctor Who’s cut-price 60s and 70s sets and effects, because that was simply how things were done then. Similarly I think the most fascinating thing about The Black Hole is its context, dating from the end of the 70s when the whole film industry and science fiction genre had been been completely thrown on its head and no one was sure how to respond. This film is a desperately flawed attempt to do so, but it does at least try – even if it does then end up embodying the movie business’ hysteria and cluelessness. Personally I find the much-derided Star Trek:The Slow Motion Picture to be a far better and more intelligent contemporary response, though.

    Nick Lewin said:
    February 16, 2012 at 5:21 am

    Well I think any definitive ideas of scientific fixtures should be withdrawn till we get more scientists to register/incorporate the fairly definitive results of the ‘moving faster than the speed of light’ evidence from Geneva! The current ‘wriggle room’ on accepting that seems to be to say that it isn’t really moving faster than light but the are actually passing through the ‘wormholes’ in space that conventional (pre-quantum) science was always so certain didn’t really exist ie the ones that allow for time travel, parallel universes etc. Stuff I always intuitively thought rather exciting and potentially practical in a holographic universe. The gateway from one dimension to another always seemed the most exciting storyline in any sci-fi story to me and the white/black hole solution always appealed to me instinctively. I kind of loved Tim Leary’s mischievous proposal of pink holes! It was my deepest (and totally unachoeved) desire that the Black Hole might have inspired more speculation along these lines than it did!
    Incidentally I always rather enjoyed the low quality tiny budget efx of early Dr Who and Star Trek. Only Wrath of Kahn worked for me as a Trek movie, though I did kinda’ enjoy the recent re-boot. 2001 and Bladerunner, Matrix 1 and Dark City remain my most inspiring sci -fi visions though as they included not a scrap of camp amongst them—ok other than Kieger Sutherland’s impression of Peter Lorre in the later!

    andrewlewin responded:
    February 16, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Fine movies all. I reckon Khan is the odd one out as the only one of those not to be questioning the nature of reality in some way and to just be a good old-fashioned SF romp!

    Those FTL findings from Geneva are quite something, aren’t they? If they can’t find a way to explain them (within current theories) then it’s going to rip a huge hole through modern science. I’d love that, if only to remind us all once again that for all our progress, there is still so much that we don’t know about the universe and so much left to find out.

    ‘Wormholes’ are a fascinating concept; and yes, far more likely to be gateways than the traditional black holes which are by definition too destructive to work in that way. If wormholes exist, that is – I think they’re still theoretical aren’t they? Then again I think black holes are still formally ‘theoretical’ as well, since the problem is being able to see/detect/prove something that allows no emissions.

    Personally I have issues with quantum physics. It’s all very much based on statistics and probability, and I think what we’ve managed to do is produce a close approximation model that nicely matches all we we can currently see and detect about the quantum universe, like a top-class tracing of a picture; but which is nonetheless not exact, and which diverges from the reality at the very edges. And what interesting things the universe might be hiding in those isolated corners; maybe even pink holes!

    BothEyesShut said:
    February 2, 2014 at 7:14 am

    Hi Mr. Lewin,

    Thanks for the in-depth article! I came here looking to see if anyone else had noticed the Black Hole / “Impossible Planet” similarities. I noted that the captain’s console is octogonal and shows holograms like the console aboard the Palomino. The rocket is nearly identical in shape to the probe ship that enters Disney’s black hole (gotta be a better way to phrase that), right down to the seating arrangements inside. The red lights flashing on their faces as they go in , followed by the white light — it’s all just lifted from the feature film. What’s most intriguing to me, though, and which is most likely a coincidence if there is such a thing, is that there is a segment in the new Dr. Who theme right at the apex of the bridge as credits roll, that is the exact sequence of bars from “Laser,” the heroic sounding theme from John Barry. And they play that for every episode. It’s uncanny.

    Also, I’m a huge Black Hole fan! I think you’re an incredibly hard judge, sir! Objective, but hard. I rather liked much of the dialogue in BH, particularly from VINCENT. Ah, nevermind, though. No accounting for taste! 😀 Cheers, sir.

      andrewlewin responded:
      February 2, 2014 at 11:42 am

      It’s always great to get a counterpoint review from someone who’s a fan of a film to balance things up. It’s certainly remarkable what a long shadow The Black Hole has case, right through to “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit” – and that’s a remarkably observant collection of similarities you’ve put together there, far more than I had appreciated.

      I guess this is as good a place as any to pay respects to the great Maximillian Schell,who died on Saturday aged 83. RIP.

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