Retrospective: The Black Hole (1979)

One of my friends loves Disney’s 1979 sci-fi adventure, The Black Hole (directed by Gary Nelson, who is probably better remembered for his television work or the original film version of Freaky Friday), and he has encouraged me to watch it for a while now. I was interested by the premise, and with Disney+ making so much of the Disney back catalog available, I had no excuse not to watch it. It is the first of many Disney sci-fi and fantasy films from the seventies and eighties that I hope to watch over the coming months, and it was an interesting first choice indeed.

The premise is initially simple: the crew of a deep-space exploratory vessel discovers a long-lost research station somehow floating just above the event horizon of a black hole. After almost being pulled into the black hole’s gravity, they dock with the seemingly derelict station, and over the remainder of the film, they discover its secrets. But there’s so much weirdness layered on top of and woven between that simple premise. Please keep with me here–I’m going to get into a lot of the dumb and the bad at first, but it has its charms.

The movie starts off weird: the first two minutes and twenty-six seconds play the parade-style score over a black screen. We’re introduced to the (all-white) crew, with one blonde woman among the overwhelmingly male presence. This woman is a doctor, but most people refer to her by her first name, including the enigmatic surviving leader of the space station. She also possesses ESP, a concept that isn’t really developed much at all other than to provide a convenient plot device: she can communicate telepathically with the ship’s robot assistant. How does she possess such a power? Why is it treated as normal? How can you use telepathy with a robot? Why is the only woman, who is a doctor, largely characterized as someone who can feel deeply and sense the emotions of others?

The robot, on the other hand, is a purely Disney droid. He’s absolutely adorable. He’s bold and sassy and speaks in popular sayings and riddles. He acts like a vulnerable puppy at times but he always gets the job done when called on. IMDb informs me that V.I.N.C.E.N.T. is voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall, who does great work providing a warmth, earnestness, self-assurance, and dry wit to the little bot. As much as Vincent seems particularly engineered to be cute and likable, I can’t help but buy in completely. He was, in many ways, the heart and soul of the movie. He was probably the most heroic, and he was easily the most competent, all while poking big ol’ eyes out of his tortoise shell of a torso. And really, this seems exactly how you’d want to design a robot interacting closely with humans in an enclosed environment: overwhelmingly capable, but reassuring and cute, someone you’re bound to like and feel safe around. He’s the anti-HAL.

Much of the rest of the movie doesn’t make as much sense from a design or scientific perspective. The ship designs are cool enough but not especially memorable. The depiction of the black hole (and gravity, and anti-gravity, and exposure to vacuum, and comets, and so on) was wonky and certainly bad science even for the time. The ending in particular seemed to want to have a mind-bendingly bizarre conclusion like that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it falls flat, playing heaven-and-hell tropes far too literally without saying much. That we would have heaven and hell displayed was clear enough early on in the film, when characters would make melodramatic statements about how a black hole looks like hell itself or could contain the very mind of god.

You can feel Disney’s desire to cash in on the sci-fi space adventure genre. Star Wars premiered in 1977. Alien came out earlier in the same year as The Black Hole, and that year also saw a Buck Rogers reboot. Flash Gordon would release a year after Disney’s foray into the craze. Dune would come out in 1984. Sadly, The Black Hole feels like a movie chasing after the greatness of Star Wars and Alien, like the others. Its special effects are impressive for the time–but Star Wars and Alien look better. It has crisp, distinctive sound design, but it often likes to play with dated B-movie sound effects. John Barry’s score is somewhat generic and mundane, like a knock-off of a bombastic John Williams soundtrack or the older sci-fi serials that preceded them all, although when Barry’s score goes for an eerie refrain instead of more pomp and circumstance, it can be effective. At its worst, it makes action scenes feel even flatter than they would be without music, which is really saying something.

That said, I respect writers Jeb Rosebrook, Gerry Day, Bob Barbash, and Richard Landau for at least telling a new story. In a world awash with more Star Wars and Alien films, and plenty of other franchise staples, reboots, sequels, remakes, and adaptations, it’s refreshing to see something different. The story and the production both seem a bit unrefined, but this also gives the film quite a bit of quirkiness. And while the movie released into a post-Star Wars world, it feels more like it was an eighties movie designed to appear like a fifties or sixties scif-fi pulp adventure. It felt more like Lost in Space or Forbidden Planet or the original Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even though the story doesn’t betray the slightest hint of scientific awareness, with plenty of nonsense shoved in, it nonetheless focuses on a small team of characters who must face the unknown with logic, heart, and bravery. They aren’t going to start/end a war or get swept up in a religious crusade. The appearance of the costumes and set designs felt more of that earlier sci-fi era, as well.

It also did something I loved, something I believe I’ve talked about on this site in other contexts before: it mixed a big space sci-fi story with the intimate creepiness of a Gothic horror tale. That’s an element of the plot that I haven’t even really touched upon. But the secrets of this eccentric and isolated science station leader, his missing crew, and the robotic army he’s assembled slowly unravel through unescorted detours to observe hidden proceedings in remote rooms down abandoned halls, or in melodramatic yet polite conversations in an ornately appointed dining room. You can guess the abominable scheming of the villain in advance, especially if you recognize the tropes. That element of the film’s plot was almost as engaging as Vincent’s storyline, and more interesting. But I actually don’t want to get into further details here, because if you haven’t seen this movie yet, even decades after it came out, I think it will be more fun to find out on viewing it.

I don’t have much to say about the cast; the acting was serviceable, but I wouldn’t point to a stand-out performance, aside from Vincent and his charming older-model counterpart, B.O.B. (and wow, that’s apparently an uncredited Slim Pickens–no wonder I liked him). Other than that, whether an otherwise star actor or obscure talent, none of the performances were stellar (get it? space joke). Maximilian Schell portrays a megalomaniacal, amoral, and charismatic villain who veers toward desperation as his plans deteriorate. Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, and Yvette Mimieux are forgettable as the ship’s crew (yes, Anthony Perkins is forgettable here), but their scoundrel of a journalist attache, Harry Booth, is played with self-important bluster and a layer of sweaty sleaziness by Ernest Borgnine. No one’s acting is ever really bad–it’s just lackluster. But I suppose they did what they could with the script, which generally lacks much emotion or nuance and makes sometimes arbitrary character choices.

I discussed a lot of the weirdness and faults of the movie above, but I hope I also highlighted its charms and eccentricities. It was a fun family space adventure. It’s definitely a product of its era, and yet it reached back to pull themes and ideas from times that preceded it. It’s serious and goofy and engaging. It wants to be metaphysically intriguing, though it doesn’t have much to say. I never got bored with it.

To my friend who recommended it: thank you for the suggestion; even though I didn’t love it like you do, I did have a fun time!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s