Get up, come on get down with the Cygnus.
The Black Hole is a fun, yet relatively shallow film about the nature of man, and the scientific wonder that is a black hole. It is also the final film that Sci-Fi Saturdays will look at for the 1970s.
The trailer depicts a crew of a spaceship caught in or near an actual black hole. It’s got spaceships, robots, laser guns, and drama, as well as a stellar cast of actors including Maximillian Schell, Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Perkins, and Yvette Mimieux. Apparently the ship is about to dive into the black hole so the heroes will need to escape. An extended sequence shows the female crewmember being rescued from some sort of futuristic operating table by Robert Forster. Disney has entered the adult sci-fi realm, so hold tight!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
On the way home from a deep space mission to discover habitable life in outer space, the USS Palomino is automatically diverted after encountering telemetry of a large, uncharted black hole. Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) orders them to take a closer look where they discover an apparently derelict ship matching the description of the USS Cygnus, a ship missing for 20 years–hovering near the maw, but not being drawn in. As the Palomino flies by the massive ship, it is caught in the tidal forces of the black hole and damages a number of systems. Managing to get back near the Cygnus, where the gravity is negated, the mystery ships lights turn on, seemingly not as derelict as it first appeared. Dan docks the ship and he and the crew, which includes journalist Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine), Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), and the robot V.I.N.CENT. (voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowell) board the Cygnus, leaving Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) to guard the Palomino.
Apparently automated, and containing black robed, faceless, humanoid looking robots, the Palomino crew meet a large, menacing red robot named Maximilian, who is halted by the Captain of the Cygnus, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell), the lone survivor of the crew. Charlie is escorted to the bridge by a group of security drones, himself having been disarmed. Reinhardt explains that he’s been alone for 20 years after sending the crew back towards Earth. Kate wonders about her father, who was a member of the crew, but Reinhardt says he died shortly after they found the black hole. The diminutive V.I.N.CENT. feels threatened by the massive Maximillian, whom Reinhardt dubs David and Goliath, when Dan orders the little robot to stand down. Reinhardt offers them the parts to repair their ship and invites them to dinner that evening.
Dan and Charlie go with V.I.N.CENT. and Maximillian to get the necessary parts when they meet another robot similar to V.I.N.CENT. but older and more beat up. Wanting to get a closer look at the Cygnus, Dan slips away finding abandoned crew quarters still stocked with clothing. He then sees a group of the black cloaked robots launching a coffin into space, in what appears to be a funeral. Elsewhere Harry is exploring too, and discovers a large greenhouse tended by another black cloaked robot with a limp. Reinhardt shows Kate and Alex his new power source that he has invented, which also helps keep them anchored from falling into the black hole. Alex is extremely impressed by meeting his idol having many questions. The crew regroups with their suspicions that something weird is going on, but Alex doesn’t believe any of it.
Reinhardt asks them to refrain from going off on their own again as he readies for the arrival of a probe he sent into the event horizon of the black hole to gather data. Dan and Charlie drop V.I.N.CENT. at a target practice room when they head off for dinner. There he is introduced to the older model, B.O.B. (voiced by Slim Pickens), and gets into a laser video game battle with S.T.A.R., the black garbed head of the security drones. V.I.N.CENT. beats S.T.A.R. who fries his circuits playing. Reinhardt tells the crew that he plans to review the data from his probe and then launch himself into the void, believing it’s a pathway to another dimension. Everyone but Alex thinks he’s a little crazy. Reinhardt wants Alex to stay and help him and provides him his notes on his study of the black hole.
Kate then receives a telepathic message from V.I.N.CENT. with her ESP. B.O.B. has told the other robot the truth about the ship. Apparently 20 years ago Reinhardt wanted to stay and explore the black hole when the crew mutinied. Kate’s father was the first to be killed and the rest of the crew were lobotomized and turned into the black clad humanoids running the ship. Alex removes the faceplate of one of the humanoids, seeing a shriveled, sunken-eyed, human underneath. Maximilian kills Alex before Reinhardt can call him off and has Kate taken in for “reprogramming.” Dan sneaks through the Cygnus to save Kate just before the laser scalpels cut into her brain. Charlie and Harry draw fire from some sentry drones, and Harry falls to the ground claiming his leg is broken. Charlie leaves him and goes to help Dan and Kate, but Harry was pretending so he could launch the Palomino before Reinhardt turns the Cygnus into the black hole. Unfortunately when Harry takes off he is targeted by the Cygnus’ lasers and is shot, crashing into the side of the larger ship.
Losing its anti-gravity well, the Cygnus begins to fall into the hole, ripping itself apart. Dan, Charlie, Kate, V.I.N.CENT., and old B.O.B. evade security drones, a shattered biodome which threatens to suck them into space, and even a meteor shower which sends one giant meteor down the long alleyway taking out a bridge moments after they’ve passed. Reinhardt becomes pinned by a falling piece of debris, but his lobotomized crew do nothing to help him, and he soon dies. Maximillian goes after the heroes as they try to make it onto the probe ship before the Cygnus breaks up completely. V.I.N.CENT. fights Maximillian and wins, but B.O.B. is injured and gets left behind. As they take off in the probe they realize that it has been pre-programmed to head straight into the black hole. The trip is strange and hallucinatory, and as they pass through the wormhole they see a hellscape where Reinhardt is trapped in the body of Maximillian, and a series of heavenly gates which an angelic form passing through. They exit back into real-space unharmed and approach an uncharted planet, just as Reinhardt had predicted.
“Tonight, my friends, we stand on the brink of a feat unparalleled in space exploration.” – Dr. Hans Reinhardt
History in the Making
As with other sci-fi films in the late 70s that Sci-Fi Saturdays has looked at, The Black Hole was in some ways influenced by the success of Star Wars, even though the production was started several years before that space-fantasy was released. Ultimately it represented a large step forward for the Walt Disney company with its first PG rated film. Dealing with more mature themes, and having subtle adult language (such as ‘damn’ and ‘hell’) the film was an attempt to broaden the audience appeal for their sci-fi films. There is very little comedy present in the film, being an evolution from their previous sci-fi and horror releases such as Escape to Witch Mountain, and continued in The Watcher in the Woods. It’s definitely not The Cat From Outer Space! Eventually Disney would create a subsidiary called Touchstone Pictures to release more adult oriented films.
But the film also represents many endings as well. It is the last sci-fi film released in the 1970s, premiering in the last week of the year, just before Christmas 1979. It was the last film to use overture music (which Star Trek: The Motion Picture had also done a few weeks previously). This is the music that starts playing prior to the image appearing on screen and was a popular inclusion in films of the 50s and 60s, particularly epic films like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, or keeping with the sci-fi genre, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was also the last big studio produced film. Disney, being Disney, produced the entire film in-house. Not because they necessarily wanted to, but due to being unable to get Industrial Light and Magic to work on the special effects. They invented some of their own effects processes, and even pulled famed matte artist Peter Ellenshaw out of retirement to work on the film. Overall it ended up being a lackluster production that didn’t pack the punch that the studio was hoping for, but has become enough of a cult favorite that it survives today.
The Black Hole sounds like a sci-fi film. As with last week’s Star Trek film, it decided to do things a little differently as well and take a page out of current scientific discussions about popular space phenomena, specifically black holes. It focused on a stellar object, which is as mysterious today as it was then. But this film undoubtedly helped to expand the discussion on the topic, and inspired others to use a similar plot points in their films as well. Interstellar, Event Horizon and Lost in Space are three that immediately come to mind. Maybe they weren’t directly inspired by this Disney film, but black holes continue to be a popular plot device due to their mysterious nature.
The Black Hole also takes inspiration (or perhaps only coincidence) from another early 1979 sci-fi film, Alien. Now, these two films don’t seem like they have much in common, but hear me out. The Black Hole is a horror film. Here’s how to determine that. Take out the genre element (space) and see what’s left. In this case a group returning home discovers a derelict ship (or perhaps castle–the Victorian designs of the dining room are particularly gothic inspired by Hammer horror films) where evil has taken hold. There’s a silent but burly assistant (Maximillian) and the strange drones that run everything. And on top of that the megalomaniacal captain who believes that he is God’s greatest creation, which adds to the creep factor. Unfortunately it’s still a Disney film and doesn’t go further, like Alien and later films (such as the above mentioned Event Horizon) would do.
It’s actually more often compared to Star Wars. In fact, it seems to have quite a few too many parallels to Star Wars to seem wholly original. Of course there’s the good and evil robots which seem similar to Artoo-Detoo and Darth Vader (who knew he wasn’t a robot in 1979?), S.T.A.R. and his squadrons looking like maroon stormtroopers, and the third act where the action set pieces really seem like a rip off of the Death Star escape. Dan (Han Solo) breaks into the med-center (detention level) to rescue Kate (Leia) from having laser brain surgery (imperial torture droid). They then have a shootout with the robots (stormtroopers) and run across a deep chasm, shooting the bad guys off the edges. Kate even has ESP, which isn’t overused, but somehow works with the mechanical V.I.N.CENT. It’s all a little too Force-like.
The Black Hole deals with several themes about man’s hubris and position in the universe. Reinhardt is depicted as an “off-his-rocker” scientist in the vein of mad scientists in early horror films. At one point Dan even refers to him as “Frankensein,” in reference to the mad creator of the monster. Reinhardt believes that he is correct in his calculations in there being life on the other side of the black hole, having bet the lives of his crew on this fact. Interestingly enough it turns out he is correct but the film never lets him see the fruits of his labors due the pain and suffering he has caused those around him. As with many villains, especially in Disney films, his downfall is all at his own hands. Were he not to have decided a course into the black hole, and turned his crew into mindless automatons, he would not have been trapped and killed under the panel when it fell. Reinhardt’s final fate, trapped in a hellish nightmare inside the skin of the evil robot that he created was also alluded to earlier by Booth, when he described the black hole as something out of Dante’s “Inferno.”
Short of that reading about Reinhardt, the rest of the characters are all one-dimensional. Dan is charismatic, Kate is the damsel in distress, Charlie is headstrong, Alex is sycophantic, and Booth is inevitably a coward. The most human feeling character, and the one that probably gets the most screen time is V.I.N.CENT., which is ironic being that he’s a robot. Either the creators felt it easier to identify with this character, or as was probably the case, putting a likable robot character forward would appeal to the kids and provide marketing opportunities later. Either way the strength of character is not what this film relies on. Time was spent on the special effects–which are phenomenal for the time–rather than characterization.
The Science in The Fiction
It does take an interesting tact and posit that the tunnel between dimensions/realms which is fed by the black hole is a world of devils and angels. Quite a heavy change in conventional thinking and a sudden departure from the more real-world science that the film had been streaming towards. Other than this departure, The Black Hole deals with scientific issues in more realistic ways. The film is not specific about the year it takes place in, but there have been significant developments in space travel technology at this time. The flight patterns of the Palomino are not depicted like spaceships in other popular films. Small thruster jets can be seen correcting the flight path throughout its movements. It also portrays the environment on the small ship as without gravity, which is consistent with what is known about space travel. A spinning space station as shown in 2001 or Moonraker generates a gravity field, but not the small ship. The Cygnus is a bit more fantastical as Reinhardt has discovered a way to control gravity from being stranded by the black hole for so long.
Reinhardt’s research has also led to the theory that the black hole is possibly a wormhole to another world or dimension. This is a theory put forth in 1916 by Ludwig Flamm and termed an Einstein-Rosen bridge. Alex and Reinhardt even mention such a thing in the film. The science behind this theory is beyond the purview of Sci-Fi Saturdays but suffice to say it’s yet to be either proven or disproven. The more recent film Interstellar takes some of these theories and extrapolates on them as part of the plot of that film.
One other interestingly consistent scientific moment is the puncturing of the green house. Space, which is about 455° below zero, is very cold. So when a puncture occurs in the humid greenhouse, the moisture in the air turns to a snowy blizzard as the temperature regulators fail and the air begins to rush out the hole. Technically it may not actually work this way, as the moisture might sublimate by turning directly into a gas, but it makes for an exciting and memorable scene.
The Final Frontier
The Black Hole was nominated for an academy award for visual effects, along with Alien, Moonraker and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but unfortunately lost to Ridley Scott’s scarier film. There’s no denying the effects of Alien are top notch, but the robotic designs and actual black hole effects still stand up quite nicely. Sure there’s some goofy effects (like the perfectly round meteor rolling through the corridor) but these effects were still much better than your average special effects.
The cast is still also a big draw for many people. Maximilian Schell who is better known for his drama roles in A Bridge Too Far or Judgment at Nuremberg, would appear in the sci-fi doomsday film Deep Impact. Anthony Perkins was much better known to many as the wicked Norman Bates from Psycho (coming up on 31 Days of Horror this October!), while Robert Forster was primarily a dramatic action actor, known for his later roles in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, and a recurring role on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Yvette Mimieux returns to the sci-fi genre after almost 20 years having appeared in The Time Machine. Ernest Borgnine would go on to make Escape from New York in the 80s, while Roddy McDowell, famous for playing the chimpanzee Cornelius in Planet of the Apes, returns to Disney after his appearance in The Cat From Outer Space.
Sci-Fi Saturdays will be going on a brief hiatus, but fear not! It will return in October with specifically curated science-fiction/horror films as part of the 31 Days of Horror project starting with Scanners; along with some other iconic sci-fi horror films from the early 80s. When it returns in earnest this November, it will start at the beginning of the 1980s, looking at the decade that took sci-fi from a wannabe blockbuster to a sure-fire bet. A decade where stories and special effects improved to such an extent that sci-fi films were able to explore dozens of new aspects of the genre, including blockbuster sequels, adaptations of award winning literature, and new types of stories that were undreamt of only a few years before.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.