Mar 5, 2020
The Black Hole (1979), a recap (part 1)
NOTE: This article is a work in progress.
Please check back soon for more installments!
Loyal readers may have noticed that I don’t write much. That’s because what I do write is indisputably genius. But why would a genius such as me (or Charles Babbage, or Sir George Stokes, or Isaac Newton, or any of my other fellow holders of Lucasian Chair at Cambridge University) have to wait so long to find a bad science fiction movie? Well, in the case of the professors I just named, it was because only one of them lived long enough for movies to be invented. That guy was already 77, and as biographies reveal, in no mood to see a standing shot of a train vaguely wandering towards the screen.
No, the reason it took me so long is that I was waiting for the launch of Disney+. Disney now owns a lot of science fiction including all of Star Wars, the entire Marvel universe, the Muppets, and Cars (which I assume is some sort of post-apocalyptic meta-commentary on Larry the Cable Guy). But back before Disney simply bought anybody doing anything better than it was, it tried to compete on its own. And with the possible exception of Escape to Witch Mountain, it largely failed.
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Which brings us to one of the great failures in the entire original Disney library: the 1979 classic The Black Hole. Technically, it made a little money, but even more technically, it sucked. Disney wouldn’t make its own live-action space movie again until 2012’s John Carter, though they released a couple that had been made by smaller, indie studios.
The Black Hole didn’t have to be bad. It was originally conceived of as a disaster movie in space tentatively titled Space Station 1. It was supposed to rip off other non-Disney movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, but, you know, in space. The latter made $93 million off just a $5 million investment. And Disney’s long-standing motto at the time was, “Steal everything!”
Stealing other people’s ideas, changing them slightly, and selling them back to the public had been a long-standing Disney tradition. It hearkened back to Disney’s first feature film ever, the reworked 1812 Grimm’s fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, released in 1937.
But a complication arose during the development of Space Station 1. A young upstart calling himself George Lucas released a small art film that became a cultural phenomenon. It, along with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, revived the whole concept of the blockbuster. Star Wars made $500 million on an $11 million investment on its initial release. This caused Walt Disney, who had died eleven years earlier, to jump completely out of his cryotank and yell, “Holy f***ing s***! Do that!”
And so it came to pass that a terrible disaster movie morphed into a terrible Star Wars rip-off. It barely made a profit on its $20 million budget. Also, the only things the creators appeared to understand about Star Wars was that it had a cool name and there were robots in it.
I actually saw The Black Hole in a theater when I was nine years old. And all I can remember is that: a) it was boring, and b) that one robot looked like Oscar the Grouch peeking out of his garbage can.
So now that Disney has put this back into the world, and now that I get Disney+ for free as a Verizon customer, and now that I’ve been removed from the Lucasian Chair because “someone is already sitting in it”, I’ll watch this film for the first time in forty years. Will it get better with age? I really, really doubt it.
The movie opens in total blackness. I’m not kidding. Just like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole was one of the last movies to begin with an overture. Why was it one of the last? Because nobody wants to sit through an overture. And this is what we’re watching:
Blank screen aside, the overture is really great. The music was written by prolific composer John Barry, who won five Oscars out of seven nominations. He’s written so much music for so many movies that I can’t even list them here. True, Barry wasn’t John Williams, but then none of us are (John Williams excepted). But it’s a really good score. Listen for yourself and tell me I’m wrong. P.S. I’m not wrong.
The movie then wastes another minute and a half showing a wire-frame model of space and a black hole. Low on the screen, they list close to half of the credits, including the stars, the director, the writers, the production designer, the Professor, and Mary Ann. And they went all out, including Oscar winner Maximilian Schell, Robert Forester (who just died in October 2019, so pour one out for the guy with 186 acting credits), no less than two Poseidon Adventure alums, and Slim Goddamned Pickens. They also got Yvette Mimieux. You’ll be forgiven if you don’t remember her. Despite still being alive, she hasn’t acted since 1992. How did they land her?
Also, I feel compelled to repeat that we are four minutes into the movie and nothing has happened. Let’s check in with A New Hope and see where they were at on minute four: Oh, stormtroopers had just breached the door of Tantive IV to find Princess Leia. Booooriiiiing! Show me four minutes of nothing and then I’ll be impressed.
Finally—finally—something sort of happens. A robot (voiced by Roddy McDowall) starts robosplaining the events aboard the USS Palomino. Apparently, they’re making an unscheduled course correction. Captain Don Holland wants to know why they’re making a correction because they were heading back to Earth in pretty much a straight line. And we just spent 30 seconds looking at a starfield, like a goddamned screensaver from back when those were a thing.
Incidentally, the movie has finally done something I like. They named the captain Don Holland. True, it’s the most boringly white guy name ever, but it’s still better than Luke Skywalker. Skywalker? Really? Is that Dutch? Because Holland sure the hell is. In any case, if you’re keeping track, my favorite space names in order are: Galactica Actual, James T. Kirk, Don Effing Holland, and then Luke Skywalker.
Oh, I forgot. During all this talking, the starship Palomino flies by. And when I say it’s a ship, I mean it’s a chafing dish on a tripod. I found a picture of the original model because the movie is so dark you can’t really see it.
The robot thinks he knows the problem and asks First Officer Pizer to please come up. Pizer does. and we get our first interior shot of the movie at minute five. The robot has found that they’re being pulled off-course by a big black hole. He puts it up on the holographic projector. The movie tries to simulate zero gravity by lifting its actors a foot off the ground and swaying them back and forth on wires. In a confusing edit, a couple people go to one room to view it and another couple appear to be in a second room. It’s very hard to tell who’s who. Here’s the room with the robot.
In any case, everybody agrees that a) it’s a black hole, and b) it’s a big one. One person says it’s a page out of Dante’s Inferno, which it certainly isn’t. Dr. McCrae (Yvette Mimieux) says she had a professor who theorized that black holes would devour the universe, which they certainly won’t. Anthony Perkins says black holes are the most destructive force in the universe. I would have thought the most destructive force was Cars 3.
The robot has found something even more remarkable. Parked in the accretion disk is a spaceship. It’s the USS Cygnus, which was on a mission to discover extraterrestrial life in the universe when it disappeared. Even more, Dr. McCrae’s father was aboard that ship and OHMYGOD this is the plot of Ad Astra. But the one bit of good news is that the Cygnus looks way better than the stupid Palomino.
Captain Don Holland orders the robot to signal the ship, which is exactly what happened in Ad Astra. Then there’s a lot of talk about how the captain of the Cygnus, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, was a legend who must have hated being called back to Earth, due to his mission being a failure. And this is still the plot of Ad Astra!
Next week: I don’t know. I hope something happens. At this point in Star Wars, Darth Vader was already confronting Princess Leia (without in any way sensing she’s his daughter, because you know, Lucas hadn’t thought of that yet). Also, Ad Astra sucked.