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.

This is not a guy who found many things fun.

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 Carterthough 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.

“A public-domain story we don’t have to pay for? Score!”

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!”

This picture may not be completely accurate.

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.

“Oh yeah, this is way better than that R2-whatever. We are great at this.”

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:

Pictured: The first two and a half minutes of this movie. I’m not kidding.

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 PalominoApparently, 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.

From right to left: I don’t know; I don’t know; the stupid robot; Anthony Perkins.

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

This is concept art. The movie doesn’t look this good.

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 CygnusDr. 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.

Jordon Davis

B.A. Political Science, SUNY Albany - 1991
Master of Public Administration, University of Georgia - 1993
Juris Doctorate, Emory University - 1996

State of Georgia - 1996
State of New York - 1997

Fields Medal (with Laurent Lafforgue and Vladimir Voevodsky) - 1998

Follow Jordon at @LossLeader on Twitter.

Multi-Part Article: The Black Hole (1979), a recap

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  • The overture is great, though, with nothing to look at, I started envisioning the opening credits to Ultraman: Towards the Future.

    • Jerry Fritschle

      “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” gives the same blank screen effect with its overture. On its original run, though, at least some theaters were equipped to show it correctly–i.e, the screen had curtains, and they were opened (and the lights lowered) when the overture finished.

      But I like yours better :-)

  • I’ve long assumed Palomino was a budget starship, maybe due to cutbacks after losing the very large and expensive Cygnus. This, fortunately, is my only piece of The Black Hole headcanon. That’s right. I have no interpretations of the goddamned ending sequence.

    • Xander

      I read the novelization once years after seeing the movie as a kid. The ending of the novel made about as much sense as one would imagine, but it was still better than what we got.

    • Jordon Davis

      Maybe. Now that I’m locked in to watching the thing, I’m sure they’ll fail to address it somewhere.

      • It’s probably in the same scene where they explain why Kate and Vincent share a telepathic link.

    • noname

      I think they were trying to ape a 2001 ASO ending mixed with heavy emphasis on religious themes (don’t play god, yo or you become your machine). Also, V.I.N.C.E.N.T. sure is an arrogant little . And who programmed these robots to have emotion?

    • Michael Weyer

      They do have Harry saying it was “the biggest disaster in NASA history” so that would make a lot of sense.

  • Stuntman06

    I actually enjoyed TBH when I watched it as a kid. I just like seeing space ships, robots and ray gun battles. I watched it years later and understood it more.

    I didn’t pick up on the fact that this has similarities to Ad Astra. Yes, I agree that sucked.

    • Jordon Davis

      While I appreciate your agreement, Ad Astra sucking is an established mathematical fact. It can be proven via several different methods, at least one of them being total hours of sleep per audience member during showings of Ad Astra. I really hated that movie. It’ll probably end up winning a Golden Globe.

      • Stuntman06

        The only reason I didn’t fall asleep in Ad Astra was all of the science problems with that movie. It got to the point where I was waiting for the next one to appear.

    • Thomas Loney

      I remember being scared by the big robot, Vincent I think, who straight up turned a guy’s chest into chunky salsa with a rotating blade, and the humans turned into robotic zombies. Oh, and then the bad guy ends up in Hell. It makes sense this was originally a disaster movie, as it feels like a mature, violent film with kiddie elements stuffed in to appeal to children.

      • That’s Maximilian. Vincent is the less-beat-up trashcan robot.

        It’s easily been a quarter century since I saw this movie. Why do I remember this stuff?

      • You just reminded me that Vincent has a telepathic link with Mimieux’s character. I believe it’s left entirely unexplained why either of them is telepathic.

      • Stuntman06

        That was Maximilian. Yeah. That was pretty scary. I thought it was a rather dark movie overall.

  • maarvarq

    My only memory of this silly movie was the bad guy robots having double-barrelled blasters, and managing to miss the “heroes” on both sides at once.

    • Jerry Fritschle

      Yes, my friends and I roared at that scene in 1979. They came off as Stormtrooper knockoffs, right down to the bad aim. :-)

  • Jerry Fritschle

    I’m surprised that the reviewer doesn’t mention that, upon the discovery of the Cygnus, Ms. Mimieux gets to utter the line that the ship’s mission had been to search for “habitable life” (fleas looking for a dog?) Perhaps that’s coming in the next installment, but we seem to be past that scene here. Or did Disney do a Lucas (Han shot first!) and rejigger that scene? Anyway, my friends and I got a good laugh from that in 1979.

    • Jordon Davis

      I’ll get to it. Have to pick and choose what to include in each segment.

      • Jerry Fritschle

        Sorry to steal your thunder, then. I just thought the scene had already passed in your recap. While I’ve seen the film once or twice since, you can see that, forty years later, that line made an impression on me. :-)

        • Jordon Davis

          I think the scene has passed, because the focus shifts pretty quickly to going into the black hole and all sorts of 2001-brand lunacy. Disney definitely didn’t rejigger the scene. In other releases, they cut the black-screen overture and some “hells” and “damns” but that’s about it.

  • Michael Weyer

    This movie scared the hell out the four-year old me but I appreciate it better now. For its time, a daring move by Disney and the music and Schell’s performance remain top notch.

    I’ll mention it more when we get to him but, seriously, Maxmillian is one of the most bad-ass robots ever to appear on film.

  • ofidiano

    Screw you! Vincent was awesome!

  • Olaf_the_Lofty

    When this came out the Scholastic Book Club offered the novelisation, with colour stills in the middle. There were lots of pictures of the Cygnus, but I was disappointed to find none of the Palomino. Decades later when I saw the film on TV the Palomino came on screen and I was disappointed. Perhaps they didn’t include it in the stills because they were ashamed of it?