Directed by Gary Nelson
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!
* Yes, I know R2-D2 flew in Episode II. Fuck Episode II.