The Black Hole (1979)

I love this film.

I know, I know, a lot of you won’t agree with me.

But it is a truly epic film, one which pushed the technological boundaries of its day, and gave the loving, “A” budget treatment to a film which was not merely a lowly member of a disregarded genre (science fiction) but was also utterly absurd.

And that’s why it remains one of my all time favorite movies from first post-Star Wars surge of the late Seventies and early Eighties — and one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies.

It is a technically dazzling film which not only looks beautiful, but does a lot of things so skillfully that most people won’t even notice how well it was done.

Which, you’ll admit, is pretty good for a film which is almost 45 years old.

And it is littered with all sorts of firsts: not only is it Disney’s first big-budget non-G Rated film, but it was also one of the first movies to have an extended computer animation sequence.

Okay, it’s only in the credits, but it’s still a big leap forward.

You might say it starts off small, although that might not have been the impression those who saw the film back in the theater got: after a long overture with the film’s stirring orchestral score by John Barry, the darkness suddenly opens up to reveal a stunning starscape, with a spaceship emerging from the darkness.

Inside this ship — the Palomino — a sudden disturbance disrupts things as a monstrous, unexpected gravitational pull yanks them off course.

But, as simple as this scene looks, it features a remarkable display of wire flying to simulate zero gravity, as well as a lots of busy control panels and quite a few technical tricks which are barely visible.

Yet most people don’t remember these scenes as what comes next is…

Well, words fail me.

As the Palomino drifts dangerously close to the eponymous Black Hole, they find a spaceship sitting perfectly still right next to it.

And when they get close to it, the massive gravitational pull just…stops.

They fly past it, trying to get a look at what is perhaps the most beautiful spaceship ever shown in any movie, the Cygus, a vessel almost half a mile long, a deep space exploration ship which vanished years before.  It has a marvelous, Victorian look, all steel and glass.  It’s as if someone took the exhibition buildings from Crystal Palace and sent them into space

Then something truly amazing happens, a moment so awe-inspiring that I still get shivers thinking of the time I first saw it at our local theater back in 1979: this vast, but dark and apparently derelict ship…

Lights up in a sudden blaze, like a vast glass cathedral.

Off course, after their struggles with the Hole and all this carefully built up mystery, we finally reach the ship itself, and, after a long journey through the Cygnus, the incredible bridge itself, high atop the control tower.  We meet the deadly robot Maximilian (another inspired design)…

And that’s where things start getting silly.

Okay, it’s not hard to figure out what happened.  The Black Hole started life as a simple 20,000 Leagues in space sort of film, complete with a mysterious, Captain Nemo-like hero, but was on its way to being a very Gothic and spooky version of the story…

Then Star Wars came out.

Which meant that they had to add cute robots who are meant to call to mind R2D2 in looks, although V.I.N.C.E.N.T. has a bit of C3PO’s brash know-it-all quality.  And they also threw in a ship full of sinister guard robots who look suspiciously close to Stormtroopers.

It’s a bit jarring.

Although not as jarring as the absolutely insane ending, which makes very little sense and probably isn’t meant to, when you consider all the talk about how reality comes to an end once you enter the black hole.

Now, as we’d expect from a Seventies live-action Disney film, we’ve got a great cast of aging actors on board, the kind of incredibly talented, but cheap actors the studio loved.  They include Maximilian Schell as the mysterious Doctor Reinhardt; Ernest Borgnine as a reporter; the vastly underrated character actor Robert Forster as the Palomino’s Captain; Joseph Bottoms, Anthony Perkins and Yvette Mimieux as his crew, and Roddy McDowall in a standout performance as the voice of the wise robot, V.I.N.C.E.N.T.

And yes, I even love that favorite sidekick from the old Westerns, Slim Pickens, as the voice of the battered old robot, B.O.B., who is one of the most absurd parts of the whole film.

Well, other than that shooting contest.

I think that’s why I love this one so much: as I watch it, I keep seeing one incredible sequence after another, where they had to use just about every trick imaginable to carry it all off, only to have the scene switch suddenly to goofy comedy aimed squarely at the kids.

But it is also true that where the film works best it is awe-inspiring, thanks not merely to the excellent technical work, but to the legendary matte artist and production designer, Peter Ellenshaw, the man responsible for so much of Disney’s greatest design and effects work in films like Mary Poppins, The Absent Minded Professor, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: he visualized every inch of the massive Cygnus, and framed some of the most iconic moments of the film, from our first glimpse of the control room to the pedestrian bridge silhouetted against the glowing mass of a giant meteor — and he gave it all an unearthly beauty which somehow was taken from his incredible paintings and thrown up on the screen almost unchanged.

You just can’t find films this beautiful anymore.

We’re talking about a film which is mysterious and sinister, with some genuine thrills and a creepy atmosphere, a film both staggeringly beautiful and technically brilliant…

Which is also a bit silly.  And comes to an utterly absurd ending because they literally had no idea how to end the film (but still got Twenty Million to make it.  Go figure).

It’s one of those films you can either love for its best parts, or loathe for all the goofiness and Star Wars ripoffs.

Or, if you can let go of your hate and love for the utterly absurd guilty pleasure it truly is.

Whichever path you choose, however, it is a film you won’t be able to ignore or easily dismiss.  It may make you mad, it may make you leave the theater in disgust.

But you won’t forget it…

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Check out our new Feature (Updated January 4, 2022):

The Rivets Zone:  The Best SF Movies You’ve Never Seen!



Which this time focuses on…Mike Nesmith???

2 thoughts on “The Black Hole (1979)

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