The Black Hole (1979)
Written by Gerry Day & Jeb Rosebrook
Directed by Gary Nelson
Who is Disney’s The Black Hole for? It’s too dark and metaphysical for kids to understand, yet it’s presented as a 1950s B-science fiction film unironically, which makes it less elevated than the material could be. The Black Hole is a film for no one, yet it has fascinated me years after first seeing it on a library VHS tape borrowed when I was eight years old. It is essential to understand the landscape The Black Hole was released in, and how out of touch with contemporary cinema is feels at moments. It’s also an exploitation flick in that it cribs from Star Wars, Alien, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but never in a good way.
The USS Palamino is on its way back to Earth after a deep space exploration mission when it discovers a black hole in the distance. Trapped in a gravitational stasis near the object is a large vessel, the Cygnus, lost twenty years earlier. Damage to their vessel causes the Palamino crew to land on the Cygnus, and they quickly discover the ship is still operational. The only surviving crew member is the obsessive Dr. Hans Reinhardt. Reinhardt has constructed a crew of robots to keep the Cygnus going and continue his research of the black hole. The Palamino crew can get parts to repair their ship but start to get the feeling Reinhardt plans to pull them into his macabre plans.
The Black Hole was released a week before Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a film that treads in the same territory and is by no means a beloved piece in that franchise. However, Star Trek is working with the same special effects technology of the era and delivers a much better presentation of space. The Black Hole looks like something made in the 1960s. This isn’t helped by flat, television-style cinematography. This is also the same year Ridley Scott’s Alien was released, a movie that took science fiction & horror to entirely new heights. I do think the miniature of the Cygnus is a fantastic piece of practical effects and shot wonderfully. It is an iconic gothic structure that evokes Lovecraftian futurism. If only the rest of the picture could live up to this element.
There are beautiful story elements in this film. The hook of an old ship resurfacing, surrounding in mystery is always one that gets me. In some ways, Event Horizon is a reimagining of The Black Hole, which mixes discussion of religious metaphysics with the exploration of the boundaries of the universe. But the tone is so muddled that as soon as the film goes down this dark, philosophical path, it gets stupid and silly with the supporting robot characters VINCENT and BOB. This feels like an attempt to grab aspects from other movies that are believed to be successful at the time, thinking that it didn’t matter what the ingredients were if they were in the soup they’d taste good.
Ridley Scott has described Alien as a haunted house story in space, and Alien: Salvation continues that tradition for better or worse. That element of The Black Hole is great, watching the crew split up and wander through the eerily silent halls of the Cygnus is genuinely creepy. The interiors of the ship can be unsettling. Maximilian Schell plays Reinhardt and steals the picture from the rest of the cast. He’s Captain Nemo in space, charismatic and compelling, confident in his beliefs of what lies beyond our reality.
Ultimately The Black Hole gets the science wrong, which is forgivable if it knew the tone it was aiming for. It’s still a watchable film, deeply flawed picture. The ending is one of the most unexpected & unearned conclusions I’ve seen, attempting to be bold and cosmic when the rest of the film is so sedate and honestly bland at so many moments. If Disney took these sorts of chances now, they’d be a much more interesting company, but instead, they have become a very streamlined, formulaic filmmaking machine.