The Black Hole is one of those movies that gets very little love. Like many cult classics of the late 70s and 80s, it had mixed reviews on release and was considered a box office failure (why, I don’t know since it apparently made a 15 million dollar profit on domestic ticket sales alone). Unlike its peers, however, it’s not really considered a cult classic, never having connected even on a nostalgic level in the more than 30 years since its 1979 release.
In fact, people seem to go out of their way to disavow it, perhaps at best declaring that “Maximillian was cool” (and he is, but we’ll get to him later). Looking at what reviews I can scrounge up from the last ten years, history is even being retroactively written by claims that it was universally panned on release, when according to Wikipedia Time Magazine, The New York Times and Variety all gave the film positive reviews. Yet go to IMDB and it’s currently sitting on a 5.7 rating, while Rotten Tomatoes has it in the low 40’s. Maybe the allure of typing “The Black Hole Sucks” represents an inescapable event horizon where critics can’t lift themselves above the gravity of the…
The point is, I remember watching the shit out of this movie as a kid. I don’t remember if I saw it in the theater but it was on cable a lot, and I was at just the right age to be awed and terrified and made joyful by it in that way that only seems possible before you hit the cynical age of 10. I’ve carried that sense of enjoyment and those memories (however vague) with me for decades. Now, rapidly approaching the age of 40, I stumbled across a reference to The Black Hole on that time-thieving siren, TV Tropes. I don’t know about you lot, but when I’m suddenly reminded of a film I liked chances are these days I’ll google binge it looking for reviews and recaps, ideally from people who felt the same about it as I do. As noted above, I found precious little corroboration, and that can make a man doubt, especially if he hasn’t actually watched the source in a long, long time.
But, you know, this is why I pay a flat monthly fee to get DVDs delivered to my door. So this week, I sat down and revisited this Disney dark horse. Did the movie hold up? Or did it collapse into itself like the formation of a…
The short answer is yes. It’s not a great film, but there are some movies that have enough imagination and cool moments infused into them that you overlook the rough patches. The oddest thing, especially given the reviews of everyone else taking a second look, is that I was actually able to appreciate some things on a different level than when I was a kid. The first half or so is especially tasty in terms of creepily building atmosphere and foreshadowing. Plus there certain features that I hadn’t really ever considered. This movie came out in 1979, several years before a couple of British dudes named Andy Chambers and Rick Priestly dreamed up a dystopian far future setting where, amongst other ideas, spaceships look like this:
Compare the above to the design of The Black Hole’s USS Cygnus, the gigantic ghost ship where most of the action of the movie takes place:
In fact, in the DVD extras the designers talked about how they envisioned the Cygnus as a sort of “cathedral in space”, both inside and out. The bridge of the Cygnus is crazy cavernous and moody in its lighting, the systems manned by silent, robot-like servitors. Don’t get me wrong, I know Dune and Starship Troopers (the book) are the works everyone always names as a huge influence on Warhammer 40, 000, but maybe, just maybe, there’s an uncredited bit of inspiration to be found in imagery like this:
Speaking of uncredited, the voices of the two “good guy” robots in the movie are none other than Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens, but you won’t see them on the cast list. We’ve also got Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Perkins, both of whom bring a lot of presence and sincerity to somewhat underdeveloped roles.
The visual design and creepy, deliberate pace of the first part is still a real treat. The mystery is well constructed and there’s a sense of shadowy menace which the musical score fits into perfectly. Maybe the constant quoting of Dante and other literary sources is a tad pretentious, but it wouldn’t be so jarring if it weren’t for the fact that the movie doesn’t handle its comedy and action sequences with nearly as much aplomb. In fact, I could argue this is where it falls apart for an adult viewer: there’s a level of slapstick and clumsy one-liners that feels forced and unnecessary. I don’t remember it being a problem when I was little, but now it really feels like something where Disney couldn’t commit to the somber tale being told and kept having to pull back from it. Ditto for the action sequences, which are obviously trying to capture the Star Wars magic, but for the most part involve robot antagonists so incapable of movement it makes things sort of boring no matter how much the other characters shout and jump around. Although that’s not the case with all of the robot antagonists; let’s get back to Maximillian.
I don’t know, maybe it’s the little kid in me still remembering sleepless nights of long ago, but Maximillian holds up to me as a hell of a design for an evil machine. He was silent, he was implacable, and he was always a flimsy tether away from killing you in a horrible, horrible manner. At one point that tether slips in a way that, as a kid, you will never forget… and even as an adult caused my wife (who’d never seen the movie before last week) to cry out “Holy shit!”. Maximillian is bad news.
But you know, I honestly like the good guy robot designs as well. I know, they don’t make sense. I know, V.I.N.C.E.N.T. is somewhat insufferable, but even now I still want to cheer for him. He’s cool looking and chock full o’ gadgets, and the only one with the guts (circuits?) to take Big Red head on during the climax, incidentally giving his human companions time to get away whether or not he wins… and I remember not being sure he was going to win. Max was just that nasty. By contrast B.O.B. is just… well, if you had to design a broken down, frightened old man in robot form, he’s it.
These are great robots. They just are. I’m hearing noises that a remake of the movie is in the works, and if that’s true I really hope they don’t stray too far from the 1979 designs, because those designs represent some of the best aspects.
I probably need to mention the ending. It’s weird. There’s no question about that. It’s shades of 2001 level weird, but with heavy, heavy doses of Christian heaven and hell imagery. Watching it now left me with not much less of the same WTF? reaction I had as a child, but then again, a point they kept repeating throughout the first part of the film was that beyond the event horizon of a black hole, the laws of reality cease to be. It’s compared to diving into “The Mind of God”. But it’s very much up to interpretation, and again, there’s all that slapstick and those clumsy action movie scenes from the last 90 minutes or so you’ve been watching that clutter your sensibilities and leave you a tad unprepared for allegory.
In the extras they talk about how they did start shooting the movie without an ending actually written. That happens a lot in today’s Hollywood where endings are written by focus groups, but I think 1979 predates that practice… certainly I don’t think any focus group would have really greenlit what they ended up with. You can read a lot of meaning into it, as this fascinating John Kenneth Muir blog does, and it’s at least a lot cooler looking than the original ending mentioned where they were just going to cut to a slow zoom out of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Sadly, I feel fairly certain any remake will go in the opposite direction I would want. I would want to see the wonderful designs preserved, the deliberately paced moodiness and growing horror, all that potential the first act promises, without it being undercut by forcibly inserted cliches of comedy and action. But at the time of the first movie people at least imagined you could still make a successful, epically envisioned science fiction film that wasn’t in the mold of Star Wars. Space Opera in a different key, if you will. Now? Imagination and risk-taking are both in short, short supply. I may not be that wide-eyed, easily pleased kid anymore, but The Black Hole remains dear to me for that.