- Directed by Gary Nelson
- December 18, 1979 (UK) / December 21, 1979 (US)
A missing scientist and his ship are discovered on the edge of a black hole.
I haven’t seen The Black Hole in decades and am so thankful it is available on Disney+. It was one of many films I discovered during afternoon movie marathons that once ran on independent local stations. I must once again state that I miss those because I found entertaining gems like this.
In execution The Black Hole is caught somewhere between a movie like Forbidden Planet and your general disaster film. It has the appearance of an older science-fiction film and at points has elements of a disaster movie. In particular when Harry (Ernest Borgnine) panics and runs and ends up getting killed and at the end making the whole situation worse.
Looking like an older science fiction film is not necessarily a negative. There are some very stunning visuals in it because of that. The shots of the USS Cygnus and of the black hole and the stuff in the finale are just absolutely beautiful. While it was attempting to ride the success of Star Wars, it wanted to be and was a little something more. It’s a dark mystery story about a crazed scientist and his obsession.
The main problem with this movie is that it is only a little over 90 minutes and they have a lot to work with in the premise they lay out. There’s the crazy scientist. There’s the mystery sprinkled throughout the narrative of what happened to the Cygnus’s crew and what exactly the scientist’s plan is for the black hole they have all encountered. That is a lot when presented but there is not enough time to work properly through it all.
There is an intriguing concept for a story here. My issue is just that the movie is not long enough to explore things. I think another 15 minutes to half hour should’ve been attached to explore the mystery of what happened to the crew and the oddities of the environment. If there is only one person left on the ship then what is up with the arboretum they have capable of supporting vast numbers more? If the crew all escaped, then what happened to them? What exactly is the scientist’s plan? We get answers to all that but it just happens too quickly and it’s not as though they solved the mysteries but rather they just stumbled onto the answers.
And as such characterization does suffer a bit. Plot lines meant to develop some fall flat or get cut short. At points the characters are relatively interchangeable despite having a pretty decent cast here. Other than Ernest Borgnine we have the great Maximilian Schell as Dr. Hans Reinhardt, Anthony Perkins as Dr. Alex Durant, Robert Forster as Captain Dan Holland, Yvette Mimieux as Dr. Kate McCrae, Roddy McDowall as the voice of V.I.N.C.E.N.T. LF-396 (Vital Information Necessary CENTralized Labor Force-396), and Slim Pickens as the voice of Old BO.B. LF-28 (Old BiO-sanitation Battalion Labor Force-28).
As characters go the real breakouts are the menacing Maximillian the robot and V.I.N.C.E.N.T. LF-396. V.I.N.C.E.N.T. LF-396 is a particularly endearing character and probably the best defined of all of them. He is fond of quotations and has a bit of a sense of humor to go along with it. He is the heart of the crew and the one that ultimately is the mind behind that filters what they experience.
The characters needed to be differentiated better. For example Capt. Holland and Lt. Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) are rather interchangeable for the most part. Harry is a little different, but Borgnine is different because he’s Borgnine. Even his most generic performances during his career took material that would’ve been uninteresting and bland and turned into something special. Dr. Durant had the potential to be something very interesting as he began to share some of the same goals as Dr. Reinhardt, but it just got wrapped up a little too easily and quickly.
We have a talented cast and they give fine performances but no characters other than the robots really stand out. We didn’t get enough material or time on screen to really say that one will do something and the other will not. For instance, I could easily see Pizer be the one running off trying to escape on the ship rather than Harry. Until this recent watch I did think that!
That’s not saying The Black Hole is terrible but it certainly is not as fine as it could be. What we do get is very interesting and very entertaining. It’s dark and a little weird and just somehow manages to hook you. Maybe it’s the Disney name attached to something this unusual. Or maybe they just got so very close to greatness that it’s worth watching.
Perhaps some of it even goes to the John Barry score. The man was a musical giant and each of his soundtracks are fantastic. There are a few points where the music doesn’t seem to quite match up with what we get on screen but for the most part it highlights the odd and attempted grandiose nature of the story we get.
Whatever the reason The Black Hole is a worthy attempt at a serious science-fiction film that while not great is very good. It’s worth a watch and is currently streaming on Disney+.
2 thoughts on “The Black Hole”
I saw this in the cinema back in the day. I remember it came out at the same time as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and both were massively maligned by critics (John Brosnan in Starburst magazine had an absolute ball). These days I think that both films have a certain charm about them, they are so typical of films and television of that time immediately after Star Wars. Lots of model shots, robots, laser shoot-outs: its clear that The Black Hole was definitely more influenced by Lucas’ fantasy hit than some. Some people voiced surprise back then that Star Wars wasn’t a Disney film when it came out, which is a bit ironic considering how things eventually turned out.
I bought the John Barry soundtrack on vinyl back then and years later the expanded Intrada CD. The music is at its best when it suggests the film’s Captain Nemo In Space origins (the film feels quite schizophrenic at times, like three films sandwiched together; Jules Verne, Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas ill-fitting inspirations) more than Barry’s awkward, cheesy attempts at a Star Wars march .
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Despite all its flaws it is certainly rewatchable in my opinion.
My love for it in part is from comes from one of those movie viewer things you put up to your eye and cranked. It just grabbed my imagination.