The Black Hole: Not quite a review

The Cygnus, full of surprises and murder bots.

I saw The Black Hole originally in 1979, when I was 15 years old. I thought it was great. I bought the novel!

I never read the novel.

I wonder if I still have it stuffed in a box somewhere?

Last year, I watched the movie again on Disney+. I think it was the first time I had seen it all the way through since 1979. It’s goofy and weird, very un-Disney in many ways. I suspect it got the green light due to the success of Star Wars, but at its core, it’s actually more of a horror/fantasy film dressed up in science fiction clothes.

Yesterday, I saw a YouTube video about it and thought, “I’ll just watch the opening sequence” and ended up watching the entire movie again and going to bed late. And it’s not even a good movie, really.

This isn’t a review, as such, but I wanted to collect some thoughts on the movie while it was fresh in my mind. This may be a bit scattershot!

  • The film starts with a black screen while music plays over it for about two minutes. I have no idea why. Are they trying to set the mood? Are they showing just how black a black hole really is?
  • They obviously had no actual visual reference for a black hole in 1979, but I like to think they could have come up with something better than what appears to be blue water swirling down a kitchen sink drain.
  • I like that they did some scenes in zero gravity, even if it looks a little goofy. There’s at least a pretense to realism here.
  • The cast is chock-full of big stars, very unusual for any Disney pic back then.
  • Maximilian Schell is great. I love his giant mop of hair and intense gaze. I also like that the killer robot also has the same name.
  • Speaking of the robots, it’s super obvious that none of them are made of metal, though they are obviously supposed to be. Vincent and BOB come off the worst here, each of them looking like painted wooden toys. With lasers.
  • And speaking of lasers they have this satisfying sound that is like a thunky pew-pew.
  • The scene with Vincent and BOB playing what amounts to a video game with the menacing former head robot is just weird. I’m not sure why it’s even in the movie. Maybe they felt they built all these cool robots, they were going to use them, dammit!
  • The Cygnus is an amazing ship design. It’s been described as a cathedral in space. If they ever did a remake, the ships need to be miniature models, not CGI. Get Chris Nolan to direct, he’s totally into that stuff.
  • The special effects are all over the place in terms of quality. The matte paintings (of which the film had roughly a billion) are for the most part excellent. The meteor tumbling down the interior of the ship could pass for an FX shot made today. But other stuff, notably most of the green screen work, is terrible, like they either ran out of money for those shots, or handed them over to an intern who never got hired on full-time.
  • The score (by Bond composer John Barry) is as weird as so many other things in this film. During action scenes, the score picks up, but it doesn’t really reflect the action, it’s just bombastic music.
  • I love how Schell scolds the robot like a misbehaving child after it slices and dices Anthony Perkins’ character. “Maximilian, you shouldn’t have done that!” Maybe this is where J.J. Abrams got the idea to name his company Bad Robot.
  • I love the initial mystery of discovering a ship that’s been missing for 20 years, hanging out next to a black hole without getting sucked into it. Alien (released the same year!) has the same kind of vibe in its early scenes, but with a lot more swearing.
  • The ending is still totally bonkers no matter how many times I see it. Schell and Maximilian appear to embrace while floating in space, then, uh, merge? So now Schell is inside Maximilian, his eyes looking about frantically from inside the robot’s visor as it stands on a rocky spire in…hell? Then there’s a long glass hallway (?), an angel (?) and suddenly the surviving members of the Palomino crew are A-OK and heading peacefully toward a shiny planet somewhere on the other side of the black hole. If they do a remake, I’d love to see how they’d handle the ending, though I suspect it would end up being a lot more conventional.

Is The Black Hole a good movie? No. It feels like it wants to be a bunch of different things–a fantasy epic, a horror film, a disaster movie, and the science fiction part is kind of bolted on. It’s an odd, uneven mix.

But the design is fantastic, the effects, though mixed, generally hold up, and the initial mystery is captivating. After that, the film gets a bit thin, and it’s only Schell’s scenery-chewing, the ever-present threat of what will Maximilian do, and Roddy McDowell making pithy remarks that really keeps you interested. And I’ll give a few points to the general destruction of the Cygnus as it drifts to its doom.

Why did I sit through the entire movie again, though? I really can’t say. I will ponder this.

Leave a Comment