The Black Hole (1979) **
So just how pervasive was the trend toward transgression in 1970’s cinema? Well, consider this: even frigging Disney decided that it was time to give their brand identity a little more edge. After a few tentative steps in that direction, such as the mostly harmless but uncharacteristically paranoid Witch Mountain movies, the studio finally went whole hog at the end of the decade, producing a picture that not even the relatively lenient ratings board of 1979 could let off with a G-certificate. Although it looks at first glance like just one more bid to cash in on the continuing popularity of Star Wars, and although it features such conventionally Disney-like elements as two calculatedly adorable robots that make R2-D2 look like Hector from Saturn 3, The Black Hole is a surprisingly dark film with a 2001-inspired ending that left me confused and a little disturbed when I saw it as a small child at the Governor Ritchie Drive-In in Glen Burnie. That didn’t stop me from loving this movie nearly to the point of obsession, though, and while I can see today that it frankly isn’t particularly good, I nevertheless find it almost as weirdly compelling now as I did back then.
Incredibly, The Black Hole’s setup seems to owe at least as much to Alien as it does to that other big sci-fi blockbuster of the late 1970’s. The spaceship Palomino, with a crew of five humans and one robot, is on a solitary mission in deep space (Dr. Kate McCrae [Yvette Mimieux, from Snowbeast and The Time Machine], one of the ship’s civilian crewmembers, heaps embarrassment on The Black Hole early on by saying they’re searching for “habitable life”) when an unexpected discovery triggers a fateful detour. VINCENT, the Palomino’s robot engineer (one of the aforementioned appalling cute-bots, voiced by Roddy McDowall, of Cutting Class and Class of 1984), announces that the ship requires an unscheduled course correction; science officer Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins, from On the Beach and The Edge of Sanity) questions VINCENT’s calculations, but he ought to know better than that. The ship has drifted off of its programmed course because it has entered the influence of a titanic black hole, the largest anyone aboard has ever seen. Even more extraordinary is what VINCENT turns up on a long-range scan of the debris in the black hole’s accretion disc. There’s a ship out there, a kilometer-long leviathan that the Palomino computer identifies as the USS Cygnus, which disappeared twenty years ago, right after the American space agency decided that its mission had become a costly boondoggle, and ordered it back to Earth. And impossible though it seems, the Cygnus is in a stable obit around the cosmic maelstrom, at a distance from which nothing should be able to resist its gravity for any length of time. By a remarkable coincidence, Dr. McCrae’s father was an officer aboard the Cygnus, adding a personal dimension to the mystery. Curiosity gets the better of caution, and Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster, of Alligator and Satan’s Princess) orders the Palomino in for a closer look.
Obviously, wrestling with the gravity of a giant black hole is at the extreme outer limit of the Palomino’s capabilities, so Holland is unwilling to risk more than a single pass along the other ship’s hull. He, VINCENT, and first officer Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms, from The Intruder Within and The Sins of Dorian Gray) have their hands full just keeping their ship under control on the ride in, and an attempt to contact the Cygnus would therefore be out of the question even if the gravitational distortion weren’t playing havoc with the Palomino’s communication systems. Things take a turn for the deeply bizarre, however, when the ship gets within about 500 meters of the Cygnus, and all of the explorers’ gravity-related problems instantaneously vanish— as, in fact, does the black hole’s gravity itself! Durant has no idea whether this is some hitherto-unsuspected natural phenomenon, or something generated artificially by the Cygnus, but Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine, of The Devil’s Rain and Deadly Blessing), the journalist charged with recording the Palomino’s expedition, may be able to shed a bit of light on that question. Booth, you see, has been in his business long enough to have met Dr. Hans Reinhardt, the commander of the Cygnus mission, before his disappearance. It is the reporter’s opinion that Reinhardt was an egomaniac, a megalomaniac, and an all-around arrogant bastard, but that he was also quite possibly a genius. He was definitely the sort of man to attempt something as apparently crazy as defying the power of a black hole, and he might even have been the sort of man to succeed. The point is evidently moot, however, for there is absolutely no sign of life aboard Reinhardt’s vessel now.
The Palomino crew is nevertheless forced to land aboard the colossal ghost ship, for their much more fragile craft is crippled almost at once upon leaving the enigmatic zone of antigravity. The Cygnus is a much livelier place, too, when the smaller ship limps back under its protective aegis. The lights come on, the docking elevator comes up, and McCrae believes she glimpses people moving about behind the mysterious ship’s translucent skin. There’s still no reply from the Cygnus to any attempt at communication, however. And from the way Holland, Pizer, and VINCENT are forcibly disarmed by remote-controlled laser fire when they warily go aboard, it would appear that the ship’s unseen occupants are slightly less than friendly, even if they aren’t precisely hostile, either. The biggest bafflement of all comes when our heroes reach the control tower of the Cygnus, and meet those occupants at last— so far as they can see, the ship is crewed entirely by robots! The bridge is staffed by eerily lifelike androids garbed like medieval monks, but with featureless, convex mirrors for faces. The great vessel’s corridors are patrolled by a gendarmerie of contrastingly stiff-limbed robot soldiers armed with double-barreled laser pistols. And at the head of them all is a fearsome monster of a machine, evidently armored against anything the Palomino crew could possibly throw at it, whose six insectile arms each terminate in some manner of obviously deadly weapon. Or maybe this mechanical colossus isn’t in charge after all; no sooner has it begun brandishing its propeller-like rotary claws at the interlopers than a man’s heavily accented voice rings out, saying, “Now, now, Maximilian— these are our guests.” You think maybe our intrepid space explorers have just met the notorious Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell, from Vampires and Deep Impact)? Good call.
Reinhardt certainly lives up to his billing. He is, for all practical purposes, the Captain Nemo of the 22nd century (or whenever this is supposed to be), with the Cygnus as his Nautilus. In response to the expected flood of questions from Booth, McCrae, Holland, and Durant, Reinhardt explains that when the order to abort the mission reached him, the Cygnus was incapable of replying or complying, having been badly damaged by a meteor strike. When repair efforts proved unavailing, Reinhardt packed his crew off in the lifeboats, remaining aboard to go down with the ship in what he concedes was a rather melodramatic gesture. That was the last he saw of the others; if they failed to reach Earth, then he can offer no insight into their fate. Only one man remained at Reinhardt’s side, his trusted first officer, Frank McCrae. Even he has since died, however (although Reinhardt curiously neglects to mention when or how), and now Reinhardt’s sole companions are those whom he created himself. In time, this new android crew succeeded where their human predecessors failed, and restored the Cygnus to full functionality. Thenceforth, Reinhardt and his mechanical minions have cruised the spaceways in quest of the secrets of the universe, and as their vessel’s back-fitted gravity-control system attests, they have unlocked a good many of them. The Palomino has come at a momentous time, too, for Reinhardt is now gearing up for his most daring voyage yet. Just outside the black hole’s event horizon is a small probe ship, and once Reinhardt has a chance to digest the data that probe will soon bring back to him, he means to take the Cygus into the black hole to explore the mysteries of a new universe altogether. And now with Holland’s ship on hand, there will be someone to witness and record the historic event and bear tidings of Reinhardt’s greatest accomplishment back to the homeworld.
Reinhardt’s guests are sharply divided over how to take this pronouncement. Booth and Pizer think it’s about the craziest thing they’ve ever heard. Durant, more attuned to the significance of the seemingly impossible things that his eccentric host has already achieved, is frankly star-struck; not only does he believe that Reinhardt can actually do what he proposes, but he quickly conceives a desire to remain aboard the Cygnus and take part in the venture himself. Holland and McCrae are more guarded in their assessments. McCrae reveals that she holds a PhD in stating the obvious when she declares, “He’s either a genius or a madman,” while Holland’s main concern is the impact that Durant’s intended defection might have on the Palomino’s mission. The captain certainly has no patience for Booth’s suggestion of taking over the Cygnus and dragging Reinhardt home on piracy charges. But as the repairs to the Palomino progress, hints keep surfacing to suggest that the Cygnus holds more secrets than are contained within the notebooks that Reinhardt gives Durant. The greenhouse is still growing food crops at full capacity, even though Reinhardt should require but a fraction of its output. The android overseeing that horticultural overkill walks with a distinctly organic-looking limp. And Holland observes a party of androids conducting what looks for all the world like a nautical funeral while poking around in the part of the ship that once held the crew’s quarters. It isn’t until VINCENT meets BOB, a dilapidated robot from earlier in his own design series (and with the voice of Slim Pickens, from This House Possessed and The Swarm), that the truth comes out, however. There was no crippling accident twenty years ago, and the Cygnus’s android crewmen are so uncannily human because they’re really cyborgs— the electronically and mechanically zombified remains of Reinhardt’s original crew. Frank McCrae had led them in a mutiny when Reinhardt disregarded the order to come home, and the uprising evidently did not go well. A man who’ll do something like that surely won’t scruple at much should somebody attempt to thwart his will— whether by hauling him Earthward to face justice or even simply by refusing to play their appointed parts in his latest drive for glory.
Impertinent question number one: if Reinhardt’s whole crew rose up in mutiny, then how exactly did he manage to come out on top when (as the movie strongly implies) he didn’t construct his robot army until after the Cygnus became his private playground amid the stars? More than the ridiculously loopy “science,” more than the aggressively leaden dialogue, more than the enthusiastic embrace of plot points and characterizations that had become sci-fi cliches more than twenty years earlier, it’s this gaping hole through the very center of the premise that lets you know writing in The Black Hole took a back seat to practically everything else. And that’s a shame, because there was a huge amount of potential here. To start with, there’s a reason people keep filming variations on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Captain Nemo is a character who transcends even the worst writing, and that remains true even if you change his name to Hans Reinhardt and give him a huge, impossible spaceship instead of a huge, impossible submarine. Throw in a dash of Frankenstein and maybe a little Dr. Moreau, and you’ve got the makings of a nearly unforgettable villain. Maximilian Schell is pretty impressive in the part, too, despite laboring under the burden of the movie’s most top-heavy dialogue. Then there’s Maximilian, Reinhardt’s enigmatic pet monster. With him/it/whatever, we may well be looking at the best performance by an inanimate object since Mighty Joe Young 30 years earlier. Particularly considering that he never speaks and has only three points of articulation outside of his forest of arms, Maximilian is an amazingly expressive creation. He radiates menace like a demon out of a fairy tale (something that Disney’s writers should know a thing or two about, after all), and conveys a kind of inscrutable, malevolent intelligence despite his silence and rigidity. It’s also plain that Maximilian has his own mysterious agenda, one that does not always or entirely coincide with his creator’s. When Maximilian disembowels one of the Palomino astronauts (surely the most shocking act of violence ever committed in a Disney production), he is explicitly acting in contravention of Reinhardt’s wishes, and while the doctor’s subsequent whispered plea to McCrea to remain aboard the Cygnus and “Protect me from Maximilian” is best interpreted as a ruse to forestall the effectively captive crew uniting against him, there’s also just the faintest hint that a part of him really means it. Furthermore, Maximilian’s actions during the climax, when the Cygnus faces for real the circumstances that Reinhardt once used as a cover story to excuse his rebellion against mission control, indicate that his loyalty to Reinhardt has, if not limits exactly, then at least a few terms and conditions. And of course, there’s the ending to consider. It’s a jarring, bizarre, and indulgent mess, fully in keeping with most of 70’s sci-fi’s excursions into mysticism, but it’s also remarkable for offering at face value the situation asserted earlier by the “Beyond the Infinite” segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Once inside the black hole, the surviving characters do indeed travel through eternity in a discomfitingly literal sense, eventually to emerge who knows where on the other side— and while they’re in there, Dante and Milton step up to join Verne, Wells, and Shelley as contributors to Hans Reinhardt’s character arc.
The trouble is that none of that stuff ever really comes into focus, and that the screenplay is littered with annoying little defects— to say nothing of a few huge and impossible-to-ignore fuck-ups along the way. As I’ve mentioned already, there are entirely too many hoary sci-fi cliches being used to drive the plot. In Alex Durant, we have the smug scientist who is all too eager to swallow anything and everything the bad guy says in the hope that that trust will gain him access to undreamed-of knowledge; he’s basically Professor Aronax raised to the level of Professor Carrington. One of the Palomino crewmen betrays his fellows out of cowardice, even though we are given no prior reason to suspect him of being a coward. The Mad Scientist plans to do something horrible to The Chick for no very persuasive reason. There’s a scene in which an artificial intelligence gets so worked up over an affront to its sense of orderly reality that it fries its own circuits. There’s even that most longstanding stopgap of lazy sci-fi plotting, an out-of-nowhere meteor shower! 1979 really was awfully late in the game to be playing all of those tropes straight, especially when there was enough truly fresh and/or truly classic material in The Black Hole’s premise to render the bulk of them obviously unnecessary. It was also awfully late in the game to assume that even this movie’s juvenile target audience wouldn’t recognize that a human needs a pressure suit and an oxygen supply to survive in the vacuum of space, a scientific lapse that is all the more baffling given that The Black Hole consistently depicts the Palomino relying upon directional thrusters to maneuver and using its main engines only to accelerate and decelerate. There’s a really good— maybe even great— movie in here somewhere. It just needed a little more polish and a lot more attention to detail at the screenplay level.
The one department in which The Black Hole does completely live up to its potential is in its production design. There is simply no other movie I’ve seen that looks much of anything like The Black Hole. Even when this picture riffs on visual ideas from its antecedents, the elements are combined in novel and interesting ways, and much of what we see here is completely and rivetingly original. Consider the Palomino, which is like a cross between a real-life Apollo orbiter and those toroidal space stations familiar from 1960’s sci-fi films, and the Cygnus sentry droids, which manage to hearken back to both the Star Wars storm troopers and the trashcan robots commanded by the villains in 1940’s serials like The Mysterious Dr. Satan simultaneously. The Black Hole beat “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to the idea of undead outer space cyborgs by a good ten years, and did so in a hauntingly freaky way that suggests Guillermo Del Toro trying his hand at a sci-fi remake of Horror of the Zombies. And then there’s the Cygnus, which is just flat-out fucking awesome. If the Edwardian-era naval architect Sir William White had designed a chandelier for Galactus’s dining room, it might have come out looking something like the Cygnus— and the very fact that virtually nobody is going to have the slightest idea of what I mean by that is itself the surest indication of the Cygnus model’s uniqueness. The rarity of genuine uniqueness, meanwhile, goes a long way toward explaining why I find myself wanting to watch The Black Hole again right now, even though I just spent an hour and a half saying to myself, “Yeah, this movie isn’t nearly as good as I thought it was when I was six years old.”