I’ll say right off the bat that this is not exactly a classic. There are plot holes and stiff dialogue and the science definitely leans more towards fiction than fact. And there are some questionable robot designs. Despite that I recommend this film. It is a flawed gem.
At the time it was rather groundbreaking in the special effects department. Those effects haven’t aged well but there are some images that have stuck with me since the first time I saw it way back in 1979. If you like to see the evolution of film that’s a reason to see it. In fact the opening sequence was the longest computer-graphics shot that had ever appeared in a film. So that’s cool.
In the post Star Wars age many studios attempted to capitalize on its success. Dozens of sci-fi adventure films were produced with varying results and quality. The Black Hole was Disney Studio’s answer and they threw in a big budget and star power. And it came out…interesting.
The one thing that sticks out about this film is its tonal inconsistency. It is as if they are trying to make several different films simultaneously, like the script was written by committee. It wants to be a space opera, an action adventure, a kid’s movie, a psychological thriller and a spiritual metaphor; but doesn’t commit to any one direction. It even throws in some psychic abilities for no real reason at all.
Now that last bit is the real interesting part for me, the spiritual metaphor. I think that if the film had stuck with that one idea and committed to it we would be talking about this film as outright classic and not a flawed curiosity. In that one respect The Black Hole is just “Faust in Space” and that is a really intriguing idea. The metaphysical and religious themes expressed throughout the film are incredibly thought provoking and so tantalizing I just wish the filmmakers had just gone with it. But Disney being Disney they need to put in kid friendly robots with googly eyes. Sigh.
Again, despite all that I still really enjoy this film. I’m not sure how much of it is nostalgia, had I not seen this film upon its initial release would I still be recommending it? The answer is a resounding, maybe.
What It Is
In the year 2130 a deep space exploratory ship, the USS Palomino, discovers a black hole with a long lost ship, the USS Cygnus, hovering just outside its event horizon.
The crew, Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster), First Officer Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), journalist Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine), ESP-sensitive scientist Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), the expedition’s civilian leader Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) and the robot V.I.N.CENT (“Vital Information Necessary CENTralized”), decide to investigate.
Two things to notice here: 1) when going on a deep space mission always bring a journalist and 2) someone was really trying hard to make that robot’s name spell Vincent.
They find the Cygnus held in place by an advanced anti-gravity field and, when boarding the Cygnus, discover that it was created by the ships commander Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), also a brilliant scientist. Reinhardt explains that he has lived all alone on the Cygnus for years after the crew died aided by faceless drones in black robes and sinister robot called Maximilian. He has been studying the Black Hole ever since.
The crew of the Palomino soon grows suspicious of the faceless drones’ human-like behavior when they witness one with a limp and several others seemingly performing a funeral. At the same time V.I.N.CENT meets B.O.B. (BiO-sanitation Battalion – again someone’s trying really hard), a battered early model robot similar to himself, who explains that the faceless drones are in fact the human crew, who mutinied when Reinhardt refused to return to Earth and had been lobotomized and “reprogrammed” by Reinhardt to serve him. V.I.N.CENT tells this to Kate via ESP and the crew attempt to leave.
Durant, who up till now has been defending Reinhardt, is appalled and confronts Reinhardt on the bridge where he is quickly eviscerated by Maximilian ’s spinning blades. Did I mention this was a kid’s movie?
Meanwhile a cowardly Booth attempts to flee on the Palomino without the others but Reinhardt has it shot down and it crashes into the Cygnus destroying the anti-gravity force-field generator. Without the gravity-field the Cygnus moves toward the Black Hole and through a rather convenient meteor shower. The meteor shower causes much picturesque destruction.
Holland, Pizer, McCrae and V.I.N.CENT attempt escape in a probe ship only to discover the controls locked onto a flightpath toward the Black Hole as well.
In a surreal sequence inside the Black Hole an aged Reinhardt becomes merged with Maximilian in a burning, hellish landscape populated by dark robed specters resembling the faceless drones.
Then, a floating, angelic figure with long flowing hair passes through a cathedral-like arched crystal tunnel. The probe ship carrying Holland, Pizer, McCrae and V.I.N.CENT then emerges from a White Hole and floats towards a planet near a bright star.
The end. Did I mention this is a kid’s movie?
FYI: I’ve placed a video of the ending below, even if you don’t watch this movie you should watch that because it’s bizarre.