The year was 1979. It was
a time of disco. Afros. Three’s Company. The Black Hole.
We thought it would be another
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
Star Wars, Disney
In 1975 a low-budget horror
film about a shark rewrote the rules of the box office. Two years later,
two tinny robots landed on Tatooine and the concept of the "blockbuster"
had finally arrived.
Art films? Who needed them?
Big was in.
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Realizing the folly of remaking
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
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
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
Subtlety, thy name is rarely
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
Darth Maul would find Maximilian
a kindred spirit – especially since neither of them gets enough screen
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
The heroes resist the plan
and a final battle ensues, resulting in the joyful murder of Perkins and
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
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
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
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.