MOVIE REVIEW: The Black Hole (1979)

THE BLACK HOLE_0001THE BLACK HOLE (1979)

Directed by Gary Nelson

45I can’t help it, I’m nostalgic for this movie. Long before I saw it, I had “The Story of…” on 7″ record. Remember those?  Kids today have no idea what I’m talking about do they!

I think Roddy McDowell is one of the most underrated actors ever, and I could probably listen to him reading his grocery list for two hours and still be entertained. McDowell and the legendary Slim Pickens both voiced robots in this movie (shameless R2D2 ripoffs, except they can fly!*) and the touch of classic, recognizable voices makes the movie that much easier to swallow.

Having said that, The Black Hole isn’t great sci-fi, but it’s not bad. The USS Cygnus (great name, if you know what it refers to) has been missing in space for 20 years. However, the exploration vessel Palomino has just stumbled upon it, seemingly derelict. It is also inexplicably hovering in front of a black hole! Impossible! And as Palomino approaches, Cygnus turns on her lights. She is not a derelict after all!

In fact, she is crewed entirely by robots, except for the commander. Dr. Hans Reinhardt (man, I love when mad scientists have German names!) commands this motley crew, a genius who has discovered the secrets of anti-gravity. But can he be trusted? Dr. Alex Durant (the wonderful Anthony Perkins) seems to trust him, but certain things do not add up. Why does he have gardens on board the ship, food enough to feed an army? Why do his robots have funerals? The psychic Dr. Kate doesn’t trust him either. Her father died under his command, and the stories just don’t sound right.

The starship design in this movie is just stellar, and very unique. All girders and lights, Cygnus is a monstrosity, with depth and foreboding beauty. The smaller Palomino follows similar designs, but is more capsule-shaped. I’ve never seen anything like these two ships before, and the level of detail is impressive.

There are some great performances here by the afformentioned Perkins, and Maximillion Schell cheeses up the place perfectly as Reinhardt. If you’re a mad scientist you may as well go for it.  This isn’t high cinema.  Also noteworthy are Robert Forster as the commander of Palomino, and Ernest Borgnine as the journalist Harry Booth. Absolutely horrible are Joseph Bottoms as Lieutenant Charles Pizer, and Yvette Mimieux as Dr. Kate McCrae. It’s obvious that they’re supposed to be the Han Solo and the token female of the crew, but man…they can’t act. I guess that’s why you’ve never heard of them?

Yeah, it’s a shameless Star Wars rip off. And yeah, the physics of space are ignored when convenient. (Creative viewers can probably rationalize how the crew still can run around the ship as a giant hole is ripped through the roof…forcefields maybe?) And yeah, the robots are kind of cutesy, especially Slim Pickens’ Old Bob. But I’ll be damned if this still isn’t a fun movie to watch. Fun, but dark. The very un-Disney ending evokes heaven, hell, and everything in between while making no logical sense. (The comic book that I had as a kid had a different ending, a more hopeful one, where the crew ended up in an alternate universe to explore.)

It’s not for everybody, certainly not for modern audiences spoiled by CG and flash. But it’s not as bad as I once thought!

3/5 stars

* Yes, I know R2-D2 flew in Episode II.  Fuck Episode II.

34 comments

  1. Saw this a LONG ass time ago…like probably when released. I seem to recall my sister having a Black Hole backpack or something. Obviously, the movie was lost on this 5 year old.

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    1. I think it was lost on me too. I was probably only interested in the robots and spaceships. The movie got a real bad rap at the time, but that was 1979. Today, sci-fi movies tend to set a much lower bar than Star Wars did back then, so the Black Hole comes off much stronger today.

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  2. Wow, have no recollection of this one.

    The good news is, although I don’t think we have any record+book read-alongs, my wife found a box full of Disney book-on-tapes at a garage sale. So at least one kid these days is still growing up in the 70s/80s read-along world, turning pages when she hears the ding!

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      1. Oh man I still have some Star Wars books/cassettes somewhere here! I should try to dig those up. I had some 7″ ones as well (can’t remember what any of these things were). The 7″ may be lost, though.

        Remember the colouring books? Really crude representations, those thick black lines…

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        1. We had this awesome Empire book that was broken up into sections horizontally, spiral-bound at the top. You could flip up the individual section pieces and make some really hilarious storylines that had nothing to do with the movie. Remember those?

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      1. 5. But man, that kind of thing was right in my wheelhouse. And when we finally got a VCR (I was much older) and could rent movies, this would totally have been the kind of thing I would have grbbed as my choice (when it was my turn). Apparently not, though. Weird.

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        1. Maybe your parents read the bad reviews and just decided not to waste their time on it? I know my dad was pretty much like that, but I pestered to see it. (Didn’t like it much back then, I like it more now.)

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        2. We didn’t get (limited) cable tv in my town until I was 15 or so, and by then I guess it was totally gone from my mind. I never spent much time watching tv anyway. Yup, this one is a total stealth ninja movie, for me!

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    1. True enough. Makes me think of that Simpsons episode where they make a totally accurate science fiction movie set in space. At the beginning, the theater’s packed, and at the end the only one left in the place is the dude from the comic book store, and he’s saying something like “Best. Movie. Ever!” Hahaha.

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      1. Even 2001 wasn’t totally accurate as they could make it. They consciously removed the “wings” from Discovery because they made it look too much like a fictiony spaceship. But in their design, the wings would have been to radiate heat.

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      1. You know how, usually, if someone hits their head it really messes things up? Well, since he’s been shite-ing out the garbage on his normal brain, I’m hoping Lucas hits his head and the opposite happens – after the damage, he starts cranking out the awesomeness.

        Before head hit = shite.
        After head hit = brilliance.

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  3. Awesome! I had the old 7″ story book too! Along with models of V.I.N.C.E.N.T and Maximilian. I grew up on a bunch of those 7″ story books! “You will know it is time to turn the page, when you hear chime ring like this..****” “Let’s begin now….”

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    1. Wow that brings back memories! Thanks phantomvogel! I had forgotten the chine and “Let’s begin now…”

      My sister has all our old Star Wars ones. I don’t know what happened to The Black Hole though. I may still have it, packed in a box. I found some Star Trek story records (sealed!) at a clearance sale and I think those are in the same box.

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  4. I still have a ton of your old things around here. As you know I always rescued your things from the garbage when your father threw them out! You will probably find lots of treasures if you look through some of the boxes.

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  5. *Spoiler alert*

    That image of Maximilian standing silhouetted on the hill top with it’s f*cking eyes glowing looking over the hellish landscape as the crew take their trippy trip through the black hole haunted me for years after I saw that film as a 6 year old at the cinema. It still gives me a chill now, if I were to be honest!

    Did you ever read the comic that was published after it that spun some tale about them meeting an alien race who (I’ve not read this thing since 198-something, so I’m probably getting it very wrong) seem to be dressed like ancient Romans. Sorta makes me think of Rush’s Cygnus X-1 story “series”. It wasn’t great.

    Loved the film though. John Barry’s score is great and the film looks fantastic. Must watch it again soon!

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    1. John Barry did a great job with the score. No I never had that comic. I had a comic, but it ended with them in the new universe and that was it! Nothing expanding on this.

      Maybe the race they met WERE ancient romans! One of my theories is that they bounced into a young new universe, maybe ours!

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