Does 'The Black Hole' Still Suck?
By Joshua Moss
Special to
posted: 01:26 pm ET
02 June 2000

Black Hole Retrospective  
The year was 1979. It was a time of disco. Afros. Three’s Company. The Black Hole.

We thought it would be another Star Wars. Boy, were we wrong.

Hoping to come to terms with some painful memories, I recently took another look at what a few dedicated fans call a lost sci-fi classic. I wanted to answer a question that had bothered me for years.

Did The Black Hole really suck?

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Art films? Who needed them? Big was in.

Realizing the folly of remaking Herbie Goes Bananas in this climate, the brain trust at Disney decided to branch out into space opera. After four years of development, the studio launched The Black Hole with much fanfare.

But disaster struck. The movie vanished off the pop-culture radar and was relegated to the video store dustbin, leaving little more than metal lunchboxes in its wake.

There are always two: a master and an apprentice.
Old B.O.B. and V.I.N.CENT; the malign Maximilian looks on.
[Copyright Walt Disney]

Cult of darkness

For years, small groups of fans kept a flame of passion alive for this modern retelling of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, they fruitlessly lobbied Disney for a laserdisc special edition.

With the release of a DVD in 1999, though, The Black Hole has a new lease on life and can now be properly appreciated in all its epic widescreen glory.

Was it really that bad?

I popped the DVD into my player with trepidation. I hadn’t seen the film in 21 years, but when I was six I thought the movie was mind-numbingly dumb.

Turns out my inner six-year-old was a natural movie critic.

Lost in space

The plot is your basic sci-fi spectacular. The crew of the spaceship Palomino discovers the U.S.S. Cygnus, long-lost ship of scientific genius Hans Reinhardt, parked on the edge of a nearby black hole.

During a flyby of the Cygnus, the Palomino is nearly sucked into the black hole. The ship is damaged, and the crew makes an emergency landing on Reinhardt’s giant fortress.

They quickly learn that Reinhardt is alive and conducting a scientific study with a crew of robots. He has shunned society to be left alone with his work.

The Palomino’s crew is filled with stereotypical SF characters. There’s a noble leader played by future Jackie Brown [and Supernova] alum Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms’ wacky comic relief sidekick, Ernest Borgnine as an eccentric Scotty-wannabe, and Anthony Perkins, who shows less life than Norman Bates’ dead mother.

Maximilian Schell gives his best Charlton Heston impression as Reinhardt, while Roddy McDowell voices V.I.N.CENT, an R2-D2 clone that attempts to do for Disney toys what Top Gun did for military enrollment.

C-3PO he ain’t

V.I.N.CENT wanders around for much of the film, held up by piano wire. He’s intended as comic relief, but his shuddering reactions and wide-eyed fear are more like South Park than Star Wars.

Just when you’ve adjusted to his grating qualities, V.I.N.CENT meets up with Old B.O.B., an abused and bizarrely rustic robot tossing off zingers with the diction of an old gunslinger.

Voiced by Slim Pickens, Old Bob tells Vincent forlornly, "Shoot, I’m too old and broken down for them other robots to care!"

The two robots become friends, with Old B.O.B. ratting out his ship to help the Palomino’s crew save themselves. The old robot even dies for his friends, a heroic final sacrifice that would be comical if not for the pallid comparisons to the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Subtlety, thy name is rarely Disney.

The only good robot is a vicious robot

As amazingly lame as these robots are, Reinhardt’s one-eyed robot sidekick Maximilian remains potent to this day. He’s lean, mean and ready to chop up some humans.

Darth Maul would find Maximilian a kindred spirit – especially since neither of them gets enough screen time.

Meanwhile, the plot boils over. The crew of the Palomino discovers that Reinhardt has turned his own crew into servant robots and plans to fly into the black hole.

Why? They never really explain that one.

The heroes resist the plan and a final battle ensues, resulting in the joyful murder of Perkins and Borgnine’s characters.

The remaining crew then struggles to escape the black hole, but it’s too late! The Cygnus is past the event horizon, and not even Stephen Hawking can save them now.

Into the black hole!

The finale is a protracted series of surreal images, colors and sounds that tries to recreate 2001’s transcendental ending.

Where Kubrick developed a metaphor for evolution, The Black Hole attempts a meditation on Heaven and Hell that fails miserably. The ideas of good, evil, and angels and devils merging inside a black hole end up muddled instead of inspiring or grand.

That said, the idea of danger on the edge of a black hole is a good one.

Jon Barry’s score is grand -- too bad it’s relegated to providing musical accompaniment for loving close-ups of Ernest Borgnine’s hammy mug -- and the mattes and images of the black hole still look good after twenty years.

Reinhardt’s ship is also brilliantly constructed. Part cathedral, part flying greenhouse, it is a masterpiece of surreal space design.

The Black Hole had potential. But the chewy acting, absurdly stupid robots and obvious Captain Nemo riffs waste what might have been a clever SF adventure.

The black hole spins on

Amazingly, this creative black hole still has its share of fanatics. Cultlike uber-fans hail its dark vision as if it were a lost Polanski classic.

While there’s no denying the film has a certain gloomy somberness, that’s not a subtle sign of quality filmmaking. Showgirls had cute girls, but that doesn’t make them actresses.

The Black Hole does have its uses, though. It proves -- perhaps even better than Star Wars -- that the heart of good science fiction is still an interesting story and engaging characters.

What do you think? Send your comments to the editor.

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