If Disney’s 1979 “science fiction” movie, The Black Hole, were any stupider, it would collapse in on itself and the take the entire universe with it. Leading proponent of all things science-y, Neil Degrasse Tyson, calls The Black Hole the least scientific space movie of all time. And he’s only taking about the journey into the black hole itself. There’s an entire movie’s worth of stupid to deal with first.
Back in the late ‘70s, every studio wanted their own Star Wars, no one more desperately than Disney. I guess they finally got their wish, 35 years later. Let us all collectively pray they do better than The Black Hole (which may actually be a better movie than the Star Wars prequels. It’s a mighty low bar Disney needs to leap over here…)
Not even Moonraker is as stupid as The Black Hole, and Moonraker is fantastically, joyously stupid. Battle Beyond The Stars and Saturn 3 are perhaps more famously awful, but there’s something special about The Black Hole, by which I mean “special,” by which I mean in a class by itself, at the back of the school, far, far away from the other students, isolated not for its safety but for theirs.
Maybe it’s because, unlike the other rip-offs, and unlike Star Wars itself, The Black Hole pretends fealty to actual space science while humans breath in space, evil and/or goofy robots float around a derelict spaceship manned by medieval cyborgs, and, when finally everyone leaps into the black hole, they arrive, depending on their dispositions, in heaven or hell. Among other affronts to baseline human intelligence.
The Black Hole marked the beginning of a new era for Disney. No more were they only about the kiddies. They wanted a piece of the PG pie. The Black Hole features—you might want to sit down—use of the word “damn,” and worse still, the disemboweling of Dr. Durant (Anthony Perkins, pasty-faced and bored) by a robot’s blender-hand, albeit just off-screen and bloodlessly.
Naturally, Disney wanted the finest in talent in front of and behind the camera for their fabulous space adventure, the most expensive movie in the company’s history. Aside from Perkins, the cast includes such A-list superstars as Ernest Borgnine, Yvette Mimieux, Robert Forster, Maximillian Schell, and as the voices of the almost-but-not-quite-R2D2-rip-off pair of comedy relief robot sidekicks, V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and B.O.B. (acronyms too labored to here unpack), Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens.
Because if kids—and adults—love anyone, they love Schell and Pickens.
It was directed by Gary Nelson, who’d previously directed Disney’s Freaky Friday. Sounds perfect. To be fair, he’d also directed episodes of Happy Days and Gilligan’s Island, so his science bona fides checked out.
Even more impressive, it was written by Jeb Rosebrook, who’d previously written episodes of The Waltons, with more experienced scripter Gerry Day, who’d written such diverse TV shows as Hawaii Five-O, Little House On The Prairie, Peyton Place, Gunsmoke, The Virginians, Wagon Train, and my personal favorite, Electra Woman And Dyna Girl.
Disney couldn’t have picked a better team for their science fiction film.
Probably explains why there’s a robot gunplay sequence straight out of a crappy western, where the evil black robots face off against BOB and VINCENT. The leader of the evil black robots even twirls his pistols like a gunslinger. Hardy har har.
What are they shooting at, you ask? Little colorful circles zipping around in space outside the ship.
And how do they shoot laser beams from inside the ship at the targets outside the ship without burning holes in the ship?
Hey! Quit it with your nitpicky questions!
Plot? A spaceship is puttering around space when they spot a mystery ship parked outside a black hole, seemingly derelict. The thing is, it’s parked way too close to the black hole. The gravity should have sucked it in.
Our heroes fly their ship up close, even though the gravity will now destroy them, only to find the derelict parked in a never explained “no-gravitation zone.” Because yes, my sweet children, those absolutely exist.
Only it’s not a derelict, is it? No. It’s manned by genius scientist Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Schell), the only human on board. When the ship was crippled, you see, he sent everyone else back to Earth, and has been alone out here for 20 years. What’s that? No one ever came back to Earth? Well, I’m sure there’s no connection between that and the fifty-odd black-hooded cyborgs running Reinhardt’s spaceship.
Pretty much nothing else of interest happens after that, aside from the wacky antics of the sidekick robots and Perkins creeping up the place and the mean red robot, Maximillian, disemboweling him, until the end, when a bunch of passing meteors on fire (?) are sucked into the black hole and smash up the spaceship on their way.
There’s one neat shot of a meteor rolling through the ship like a fiery orange bowling ball. I dimly recall, as a little kid, reading an issue of Cinefex about The Black Hole where they explain how that shot was achieved with a cotton ball set on fire. Cool.
Speaking of my childhood, I hadn’t seen The Black Hole since, and considering how every movie I liked as a kid I watched about 900 times each, I worried watching it now would be a foolish move. And boy was it. But I admit The Black Hole kept me in its stupid grip from first frame to last. It is, truly, a wonderful achievement in the annals of bad cinema. If you’re into that sort of thing.
Sorry, where were we?
Ah, yes. Fiery meteors tearing though the ship. Now, if you have an I.Q. higher than seven, you might be wondering how all the peoples on the ship survive with no air, now that it’s all been sucked out through the gaping holes left by the meteors.
Never fear, my children! If the filmakers don’t care, why should you? To be fair, maybe they thought this was a western, in which oxygen-free vacuums are less common.
The evil Dr. Reinhardt and his evil robot Maximillian are sent spinning into the black hole while our heroes rush through the airless spaceship to the escape pod, attached, I was pretty sure, to the outside of the main ship.
Thing is, the movie is shot so poorly, it’s impossible to tell, at first, whether we’re outside the ship or inside it or what. Lots of shit is flying around, and there’s crazy colors and so on, and then one of the humans is flung from the struts of the escape pod—and twirls away into space and the waiting black hole!
So that’s a yes. They’re walking on the outside of the spaceship as they attempt to enter the escape pod. And Degrasse Tyson is complaining about the interior of the black hole?
Now we come to the most amazing part of all. Within the black hole, Dr. Reinhardt kind of somehow merges with his evil red robot. We see his human eyes staring out through the robot’s eye slit. And then—and then! Oh boy! We pull back from the red robot to see he’s standing on an outcropping of stone, the sky orange behind him, and below him a fiery deathscape through which wander the black-hooded cyborgs. Damned for eternity!
So, wait. What? Hell is in the black hole? And it’s ruled by Robot Satan? Um.
Cut to a heavenly doorway through which the escape pod flies, our heroes inside, all wide-eyed with wonder, and out the other side, where a planet awaits, and a sun behind it, kind of vaguely but not really 2001-like. The end.
If ever there was a what-the-fuck ending to a sci-fi film, this is it. 2001 is a model of linear thinking in comparison, and Phase IV an exercise in pure logic. Perfect for Disney! Kids will love it!
And I guess they kind of did. The Black Hole was a success. Go figure.
So anyhow, if you’re ever about to beat your face in with a shovel for 90 minutes, I’ve got the perfect alternative, one (almost) sure to cause less exterior bruising—watch The Black Hole.