December of 1979 saw two competing space epics trying to steal some of Star Wars’ juggernaut mojo. One of them was Paramount’s big budgeted revival of its cult TV property “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, and the other saw Disney throw its mouse-eared hat into the big budget space epic arena with “The Black Hole”; both enjoyed solid box-office (if mixed critical successes), yet they were very different animals.
Star Trek: TMP tried to be a cerebral cross between the TV series and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, whereas Disney’s space opera was more a mix between Star Wars and their own “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954), complete with a grand, space-faring Nautilus-style starship, a mad skipper named Reinhart (who bears a superficial resemblance to James Mason’s Captain Nemo), and even a hotheaded ‘space cowboy’ not too unlike Kirk Douglas’ harpoonist Ned Landry. Like Star Wars, it also had two friendly robots, an army of killer cybernetic stormtroopers, and a robotic red badass named “Max” (think a hovering, fully automated Darth Vader).
I remember going to see the flick about a month or so after my 13th birthday. My dad was watching a football game on TV and didn’t care to see it (no one in my family did), so my mother took me to see it at a local mall multiplex (4 screens was a multiplex in those days). I was a Star Wars/sci-fi devotee, and was very much looking forward to this film, despite my deep love of its competition (“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” blew my little mind a month earlier; “Star Wars” changed my life two years before that). In 1979, Disney wasn’t quite the entertainment empire that it is today (especially with their recent acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm), but they always had a reputation for high-end stuff, so I was intrigued…
****BLACK HOLE-SIZED SPOILERS!!****
The print that I saw then, and the print I currently own on DVD, both open with an overture; one of those rare entr’acte musical wallpaper pieces that are never used in movies anymore. They were once commonplace in big 1960s roadshow epics like “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Doctor Zhivago,” “West Side Story,” and even “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but had fallen well into disuse by 1979. The Black Hole’s overture is a typically jaunty space opera theme which is also used later on in the movie during some of its action sequences. However, it bears no resemblance to the main title music that followed…
The credits then open with a crude, 1970s-vintage green screen computer grid depicting flat space and the eventual warpage induced by a black hole. This was one of the first big uses of computer graphics in those days. The theme is also one of the most unusual scores ever heard in a big-budget space opera. Composed by famed James Bond composer John Barry, the score consists of a few tense strings followed by what sounds like a cool intro for a new Bond movie… but it’s an intro that never gets past its opening phrase. That phrase simply repeats…endlessly…in different pitches, and occasionally punctuated by a blaster beam (a rare musical instrument/device that gives off a loud, dissonant reverb). A friend of mine recently told me he’d read that Barry composed this endlessly repeating phrase as a ‘joke’ on the inescapability of a black hole. In that context, it works very well.
We then see the small spaceship, the USS Palomino, a gray gumdrop on stilts that looks only a few generations ahead of the then-current Skylab space station. The ship is deep in interstellar space, searching aimlessly for life in our galaxy. We meet the crew, floating about in the zero gravity (via hidden wires) throughout the two main decks; Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster of “Jackie Brown”), his space cowboy lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), slightly neurotic scientist Dr. Alex Durant (“Psycho” star Anthony Perkins), ship’s psychic Dr. Kate McCrae (“The Time Machine”’s Yvette Mimeux), tag-along journalist Harry Booth (disaster flick staple Ernest Borgnine) and a hovering, aphorism-spouting robot VINCENT (Vital Information Necessary Centralized). VINCENT (an uncredited voice performance by the late great Roddy McDowall), in his worrisome British accent and rotund form, is essentially C3PO and R2D2 merged into one. In the opening scene, a gravitational anomaly detected by VINCENT turns out to be, in his words, “the largest black hole I’ve ever seen.”
At the outer edge of the black hole’s event horizon, and apparently holding its own against the monstrous gravity of the singularity, the crew locates a long missing starship; the star destroyer-sized USS Cygnus (named after the first confirmed black hole, Cygnus X-1). The grandiosely-appointed Cygnus doesn’t even look like it belongs in the same universe as the chintzy little space capsule Palomino.
The Cygnus appears to be deserted, until the Palomino gets close enough to feel the ship’s artificial gravity field, and voila… no more actors on wires! All of the huge vessel’s lights suddenly kick on. Cautiously, the crew of the Palomino boards the giant spacecraft, with VINCENT spouting cautionary metaphors at a ridiculous rate. Gotta say, I love the late Roddy McDowall’s works, but VINCENT’s constant stream of folksy adages really began to annoy me by this point…
Psychic Kate thinks she saw a crewman in a window earlier, and is convinced there is life aboard the massive ship. She’s spurred on by the hope that her father (who was a member of the ship’s crew) might still be alive. Eventually, they are taken in a shuttle tram to the main bridge (the ship is so big it needs tramways to get from one place to the other).
Once there, they see what appears to be robed robots tending control stations as well as armed sentry robots throughout the vessel. They also meet Reinhart’s evil red robotic deputy, Max (the alpha robot on the ship). After what seems like quite a while, they are then ‘welcomed’ by eccentric Captain Nemo–er, Dr. Hans Reinhart (Maximillian Schell), whose passive-aggressive nature just screams, “Get the hell out of here while you can.” Kate asks the creepy captain about her dad. Reinhart tells her not to get her “hopes up” (real sensitive) because her dear old dad is really most sincerely dead.
Suddenly sycophantic Dr. Durant asks Reinhart how he manages to keep the ship from spiraling into the nearby black hole. Reinhart enigmatically teases of an anti-gravity thingamajig he’s developed (okaaaay…) that keeps the ship locked in a “Mexican standoff” with the black hole outside (yikes…that came out rather racist-sounding, didn’t it?)
Kate enquires about the missing crew, and he tells her they all abandoned ship, but that he stayed because he’s such a noble kinda guy (!). Space cowboy Charlie, who wandered off earlier, is caught snooping by the ship’s robotic stormtroopers and brought before Reinhart. This, and other such infractions of Captain Holland begin to piss off the clearly unbalanced scientist, who reminds them they are his ‘guests.’
Holland and Pizer are convinced that Reinhart is certifiable (and the possible murderer of his entire crew). Durant however, seems to have a never-ending supply of rationalizations for the obviously deranged Reinhart, mainly because his anti-gravity stalemate with the black hole is a work of genius. Durant (rather quickly) throws in his lot with Reinhart, who wants to plunge the Cygnus into the black hole…convinced that his artificial gravity field will keep them from becoming cosmic angel hair-pasta. Riiiiighhht….
As the Palomino crew try to placate Reinhart with a charm offensive, VINCENT comes across a battered earlier model like himself; a southern accented hover-bot named BOB (voiced by Dr. Strangelove’s Slim Pickens). The two engage the leader of Reinhart’s robotic stormtroopers at a laser shooting range. BOB deferentially loses the match mainly because he’s terrified of the abusive droid, but also because the evil stormtrooper-bot cheats like Trump on the golf course. VINCENT takes on the goose-stepping droid for BOB’s honor and effortlessly wins the match…causing the infuriated loser to short-circuit in rage. The scene is one of the movie’s cutest bits. Despite his earlier worrisome nature, it’s clear that VINCENT is much braver than Star Wars’ C3PO. In gratitude, BOB warns VINCENT that Reinhart is a monster, and that the Palomino crew needs to leave ASAP…
Meanwhile, intrepid journalist Harry is sneaking about below decks of the Cygnus, tring to ‘interview’ one of the robot crewmembers, who are later revealed to be electronically lobotomized ‘survivors’ of the original crew….wearing robes and faceplates to conceal the last vestiges of their humanity.
This observation confirms what we see earlier, as a group of the robed ‘robots’ hold a space funeral for one of their fallen comrades (strange behavior for machines, right?). These aren’t robots…
The space funeral scene is another moment (of many) lifted straight from 1954’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, by the way. This revelation about the ‘dead’ (lobotomized) crew is the first of two genuinely shocking moments of this otherwise very Disney space opera. The other one comes a bit later on…
….when angry red robot Max gets a little tired of Durant’s sudden flurry of questions and uses dual-bladed spinning ‘hands’ to whip poor Dr. Durant into a bloody human puree. Reinhart angrily but belatedly admonishes his maniacal henchman, who just killed Reinhart’s only ally among the Palomino crew.
The frustrated Reinhart then has the overly-inquisitive psychic Kate taken to the ship’s ‘hospital’ to be lobotomized like the rest of his zombified crew. Luckily, when she sends a psychic distress call to her friends (her ESP is accepted very matter-of-factly). The group rescues her juuuuust as the laser-like lobotomizing rays strike! Pizer, Holland, VINCENT and BOB snatch Kate out of harm’s way, zapping the guards with laser guns, while destroying the lobotomizing machinery (the black hole itself could take care of in a few minutes, but okay…).
As the crew try to flee the Cygnus, Reinhart decides to plunge his massive starship closer to the black hole, and stop the survivor’s escape. As Reinhart takes the ship in, he upsets his artificial balance with gravity that has allowed him to maintain his standoff with the massive black hole. Flaming meteors, rushing towards the event horizon, crash into the Cygnus (don’t ask me why they’re flaming, as they’re not hitting atmosphere…) .
In one of the most spectacular shots of the entire movie, a giant, flaming meteor crashes through the length of the ship (most of which is just empty space, incidentally) and tumbles headlong towards the fleeing crew as they head for for escape. The shot, accomplished with miniatures and opticals (this was years before CGI become commonplace), is a jaw-dropping achievement for the time. The Black Hole’s FX, while not particularly realistic, are nevertheless a monument to the work of the optical age; particularly, the forced perspective matte paintings of artists Harrison Ellenshaw and his son Peter, both of whom were nominated for Oscars for their work in the film (and both of whom also worked on Lucas’ Star Wars a few years earlier).
During the escape, Dr. Reinhart makes preparations to escape in a smaller Cygnus probe ship (designed to study the black hole at closer range), but his plans are thwarted as he a falling view screen pins him down…begging his henchman robot Max for help, he is met only by a blank red stare…and the indifference of his zombified crew. Max later shoots an escaping BOB, who dies wishing VINCENT and the others good luck (my wife told me that this scene made her cry as a little girl, and I can see why). VINCENT avenges BOB by damaging Max, and speedily floats away to join his fleeing human friends.
With the Palomino damaged, its surviving crew escapes in Reinhart’s probe ship…the course of which is irrevocably locked on a course through the black hole (per his original plan). The crew detaches and escapes, and flies directly into the black hole… as does Reinhart and Max aboard the crumbling remains of the Cygnus.
Each encounter a rather literal form of heaven and hell, with Reinhart’s eyes are now seen behind Max’s red LED visor slit, with the newly merged evil being standing upon a volcanic cliff, overlooking a vision right out of Dante’s Inferno…
….meanwhile, the Palomino survivors fly through what appears to be crystalline arches, and are met with a white angelic being (who looks like a benign cousin to the spirits from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”). The Palomino crew fly out of the other side of the black hole, and are (apparently) alive and well. Who knows where are are, or what century they’re in, but they’re safe…
Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping…
Bearing in mind that this was essentially a family film from the late 1970s, one wouldn’t expect the science of black holes (let alone space travel) to be very accurate, as this film was more about competing with Star Wars and Star Trek than educating young would-be physicists. The black hole of the movie is problematic for many reasons; primarily there are apparently no effects of time dilation from the singularity, and that close to the event horizon, there should be quite a bit of it. Time closer to the black hole would operate much slower than time further away from the event horizon. Gravity warps spacetime, and the near-unimaginable gravity of “the biggest black hole ever seen” would make such warpage even more intense. Time might even be different at one end of the Cygnus to the other, depending on its relative attitude to the event horizon. I give the writers a little credit for a casual reference to an “Einstein-Rosen bridge” (a 1935 model that paved the way for our current understanding of the somewhat different phenomena of wormholes), but most everything else in the movie is pretty much for entertainment purposes only.
Even as far back as 1968, “Planet of the Apes” dealt with time dilation. When Charlton Heston’s crew traveled aboard the Icarus at speeds approaching light (something that happens deep within a black hole’s event horizon as well), they unwittingly returned to Earth thousands of years later, while only aging a few months on their spaceship (with a little help from cryogenic napping, too).
Similarly, the more recent “Interstellar” (2014) employed world-renowned astrophysicist and black hole expert Kip Thorne as a science adviser, and it paid off handsomely. The time-dilating effects of a black hole (menacingly named “Gargantua”) actually play a critical role in the story. We see a landing party descend onto a planet near a black hole’s event horizon, where time runs much slower than it does for a waiting crew member aboard their mothership. Due to an unforeseen complication with their ascent engines, they are late in rendezvous with their mothership and find that its sole occupant has aged decades. Time dilation is also illustrated by the painful separation between an astronaut father named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his family. As his bitter daughter sends messages to her dad, he sees her age from little girl, to thirty-something, and finally into an infirm old woman by the time of their eventual, heartbreaking reunion.
Disney’s “The Black Hole” doesn’t bother with such technicalities, since they probably assumed their target audience (kids) wouldn’t be able to wrap their popcorn & soda-fed brains around such concepts as special relativity. For that time, they were probably right. I know my then-13 year old self probably didn’t care if a black hole slowed time or not. And maybe it did? Since we never see the Palomino crew attempt communication with Earth, who knows how many centuries passed from the time of their launch? Maybe Disney (in hindsight) was wiser to leave that to the audience’s imagination until they were old enough to deal with it…
Some non-science nits.
The whitebread casting of the movie is a bit of a sore thumb, even for 1979. The actors are all game, though Robert Forster seems to be in generic hero mode, as does Joseph Bottoms; they were the two least memorable cast members for me, though Forster would redeem the hell out of this role with his later, (IMO Oscar-worthy) performance as aging bail bondsman “Max Cherrry” in 1997’s “Jackie Brown” (starring blaxploitation queen Pam Grier), arguably the best of director Quentin Tarantino’s movies.
The late great Roddy McDowall (in an uncredited voice performance) gives the robot VINCENT a lot more personality than is written on the page, though the character’s ceaseless stream of adages wears thin after the first couple dozen or so…
While the overall execution of the movie was handsomely done, the heavily derivative script is a major handicap. “The Black Hole” borrows a little too much from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (almost scene for scene) as well as Lucas’ Star Wars. Overall, it’s far more ‘inspired-by‘ than inspirational.
The real ‘star’ of the show.
The ‘star’ of the show was a space phenomenon that was all the rage in the late 1970s. Theoretical objects called ‘black holes’, which gathered scientific popularity some 15 years earlier (in 1964) with the confirmation of Cygnus X-1. Cygnus X-1 was a strong radio source in the same-named constellation which was believed to harbor an elusive black hole. Black holes were first theoretically (using Einstein’s special relativity as a guide) by German physicist/astronomer Karl Schwarzchild, but a revised version of these phenomena by Georgia Tech professor emeritus David Finkelstein around 1958. Finkelstein’s model is a one-way focal point so dense that light itself could not escape.
A black hole was believed to be made from a collapsing star of sufficient mass/density. A black hole, also known as a quantum singularity, will warp spacetime, mass, gravity and even light itself into something that nearly defies the laws of physics. It’s no wonder Disney wanted to make a movie about them. To call these solar-system devouring objects dramatic is something of an understatement…like characterizing an atomic bomb as a 4th of July sparkler. This year, scientists pooling data from observatories all over the world have directly observed a black hole in M-87 some 55 million light years away (for scale, our neighboring galaxy, M-31/Andromeda, is about 2.5 million light years away). I’m humbled that I live in a time where I’ve seen these monstrous objects go from physicist’s chalkboards to actual photos showing up in my Instagram feed. Despite the problems of our current age, it’s moments like these where it feels truly wondrous to be alive!
Summing it up.
Directed by Gary Nelson (Disney’s original “Freaky Friday”) written by Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Barbash and Richard Landau, “The Black Hole” is an unchallenging, modestly-entertaining space opera which still retains a certain charm nearly 40 years later. There is great production value throughout, despite some badly dated green screen work (which is offset by striking matte paintings and miniature work). The actors are game, if a bit underutilized and disappointingly non-diverse. This is precisely the kind of movie that parents of my youth would leave their kids in while they shopped (or just savored a couple of hours to themselves), and that’s perfectly okay; not every film has to be an event movie. While Disney was clearly gambling that this film would be their answer to Star Wars, but it was sadly not to be. Instead, we’re left with an entertaining-enough matinee movie from an entirely different age of filmmaking. I doubt kids of today could have the same feelings I had for this odd little movie, any more than I would have nostalgia for the “Flash Gordon” serials of the 1930s (though I do enjoy those as well, in my own way). For the curious, “The Black Hole” is a 40-year old space anomaly certainly worth investigating…