The Black Hole (1979), a recap (part 2)
NOTE: This article is a work in progress.
Please check back soon for more installments!
Previously: Nothing. Nothing happened. The small exploratory starship USS Palomino found the long-missing big exploratory starship USS Cygnus near a black hole. That’s it. You are all caught up. Also, I misidentified long-time character actor Robert Forster as “Robert Forester” because this is the Agony Booth, not the Washington Post.
Everyone aboard the Palomino is trying to figure out what to do. Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine (reporter Harry Booth), and First Officer Pizer think they need to check out the ship. The robot doesn’t think so. Neither does the captain because, you know, he doesn’t want to die in a black hole. Even though his instincts are against it, Captain Dan Holland gives in to the majority and agrees to do a pass over the ship. So it’s not so much a chain of command as it is a direct democracy.
Everybody talks technobabble to each other as they maneuver the ship to intercept the Cygnus. There are a bunch of space shots of the Palomino firing thrusters and other stuff, all of which look terrible. They encounter a lot of turbulence which mysteriously stops as they get nearer to the Cygnus. And Disney takes its sweet time with a two-minute shot of the massive beauty of the model they built for the movie. It’s like Star Wars, except not as cool, or Star Trek: The Motion Picture, except also not as cool.
Quick note: All three movies—Wars, Trek and Hole—have similar slow shots of fantastic spacecraft in their opening minutes. Even so, neither Lucasfilm, Paramount, nor Disney had any interest in helping either of the others out. So all three companies nearly simultaneously invented new technologies to accomplish this effect. George Lucas won, because basically, he wasn’t under the time crunch of having to catch up with George Lucas.
As soon as they start heading away from the Cygnus, the Palomino encounters even worse turbulence than before. Does it matter that turbulence is not a thing near a black hole? It’s like any other gravity well. You either get caught and head towards it in a graceful arc, or you just ignore it and go back to Earth, where we have an atmosphere… and therefore turbulence. Everything aboard the Palomino is breaking and rupturing. Air lines are spilling out steam or dry ice fog or whatever. The number four hatch blows. The captain sends the robot out to fix it.
I suppose we have to talk about this robot. Here’s the main thing to keep in mind: everything about him is made of insanity. First of all, his name is V.I.N.Cent. This stands for “Vital Information Necessary CENTralized”, except it doesn’t, because of course it doesn’t. Otherwise, why would it contain two synonyms for “essential”? It’s clear they named the robot Vincent and then had to retcon a justification for it.
As robots go, Vincent is definitely one of them. He was designed to basically be the two Star Wars droids rolled into one. He has all the functions of R2-D2: He can interface with the ship and even go out on the hull to fix things. At the same time, he’s also similar in personality to C-3PO in that they both have English accents, maybe? Threepio is more nervous than anything else, whereas Vincent likes to sound smarter than people.
Vincent actually spends a lot of time working in obscure references when he should be doing normal robot stuff. While arguing that they should stay away from the Cygnus, he manages to quote Cicero. And this doesn’t stop for the entire movie. There’s nothing kids love more than dead Roman philosophers. You’re doing a great job, Disney. Also, when the ship goes into a roll, Vincent stays in the same plane. Have a look:
This even continues until he’s fully upside-down.
What is the point of this? Astronauts can certainly feel roll. Neil Armstrong nearly blacked out and died from it aboard Gemini VIII before Neil-Armstrong-ing the hell out of everything and saving the mission. But no matter what forces astronauts are feeling, their orientation within the spaceship stays the same. So why would Vincent, who has eyes, want to look at the underside of the command console? Did Disney think they were breaking new ground by spinning the camera while turning the puppet?
It doesn’t matter, because the next thing is worse; like, Ewoks worse. Vincent goes out to fix the airlock. This is fine. He extends little ball feet and is tethered by a line to the hull. Inside, they lose radio communication with Vincent due to interference from the black hole. So the captain asks [sigh] Dr. McCrae to see if she can make contact with the robot using her ESP. And just let me state that this is never—never—explained. Kate McCrae is, from all appearances, human. There aren’t even any aliens in the film. Her father is never mentioned as having any similar powers. And the only person she can ESP with is her own ship’s robot. She can’t do it with robots in general or any other people; just Vincent.
Why does this ESP thing exist? Technically, it’s to make the end of the movie work. And I guess some versions of telepathy show up in both Stars Trek and Wars, but at least in those movies they gave some vague explanations. In Black Hole, we get nothing. Maybe Disney was saving it for the sequel, Black Hole II: This Time It’s Really Black.
Dr. McCrae asks Vincent, via ESP, if he’s okay. Vincent responds, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” This in no way answers the question. But true to Vincent’s nature, it’s a quote. It’s generally attributed to pioneer aviator Harry Copland, which is a deep, deep cut. Why would anyone at Disney know that? Vincent fixes the hatch, but his tether breaks. He goes floating off into space. The first officer gets out of his seat to retrieve him, but the captain orders him to stay at his station. This causes Pizer to ask angrily, “What the hell are you made of? What if it were one of us out there?”
All of this manufactured tension is for nothing. Vincent just shoots out a little magnetic cable from his R2-like Swiss army knife of a body. He reels himself back in with no consequences. I’m more worried about the engineers back on earth who are going to have to explain why their tethers don’t actually tether things.
With the hatch fixed and Vincent out of danger, the captain orders full thrusters to make a run for zero gravity. Anthony Perkins tells the captain that the damage is extensive and that they’re in danger of losing all their oxygen. Holland decides they have to look for a place to set down. And um, what? This is not how space works.
There is, of course, only one place to set down. It’s the Cygnus, which remains unaffected by the turbulence of the black hole. They go back to the lifeless hull of the Cygnus, doing yet another pass over the $100,000 model they built for the movie.
This time, however, the Cygnus suddenly roars to life. All the lights within the ship come on at once. This startles the crew of the Palomino while Vincent retracts his head completely inside his body. Ducking his head to various degrees will be the main way he conveys emotion, though I’m not sure why it would be of any value to have a robot with emotion. And I really don’t understand why the designers would leave a big, hollow space for Vincent’s head to retract inside of instead of, you know, filling it with important robot parts. It’s strange, because Disney usually cares so much about scientific accuracy.
Captain Dan Holland locks warheads into firing position. Anthony Perkins tells him to hold it. “They’ve got to be friendly,” he reasons, “or they could have blasted us right out of the sky.” I realize that, once again, military discipline is a little lacking on this ship. My bigger question is: Why do they have warheads? The Palomino’s mission, like the Cygnus over twenty years earlier, was to search for extraterrestrial life. Neither of them found anything. So why would they have weapons? At least in Trek Wars there are actual enemies. And even if the Palomino was carrying a couple of nukes just in case, the Cygnus is a friendly ship from the same fleet. It would be as if every time the USS Arleigh Burke sailed into Norfolk, it went weapons hot just in case.
In any event, the Palomino has nowhere else to go. They dock with the Cygnus, and the model makers and compositors did a great job here. You really get a sense of the enormity of the Cygnus. The Palomino is at least a couple of stories tall, but the Cygnus is a mile long and a quarter-mile wide. Ernest Borgnine really sells it.
Once docked, the crew is amazed to discover they have gravity. The Cygnus sends out a little tube thing to hook up with their airlock. They leave the Palomino and at least the captain and first officer are not only armed, but have their laser guns drawn. Because whenever a friendly ship from your own fleet rescues you from the brink of destruction, allows you to dock, mates a pressurized tunnel to your airlock, and opens its doors for you, it’s best to assume they’re hostile.
Captain Holland orders Pizer to stay with the ship. Pizer, as is his nature, whines about wanting to go on this adventure with them. Vincent, of all people, condescends, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Everybody leaves Pizer behind. Pizer, alone in the airlock plays with his gun like a ten year-old.
As soon as the Palomino’s hatch closes, lasers shoot out of somewhere, destroying the captain’s blaster and disabling whatever weapon Vincent had hidden inside him (a lightsaber to toss to Luke, maybe?). They instantly lose radio contact with Pizer. A door opens for them and they have no choice but to go forward.
Next time: The crew of the Palomino does, indeed, walk into the matte painting. And maybe the movie finally starts. Also, I check out what else they have on Disney+ and probably watch Pete’s Dragon again. “We gotta bill of sale… right… heeeeere!” Man, that was a great movie. And Shelley Winters was also in The Poseidon Adventure! It all comes full circle next time on The Black Trek, I mean, The Star Hole, I mean… you get the idea.