CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Black Hole (1979)
-from the trailer for The Black Hole (1979).
In 1979, in the wake of Star Wars, Walt Disney Studios released an outer-space adventure called The Black Hole directed by Gary Nelson. It was the first movie in Disney history to be rated PG rather than G for general audiences. And it faced direct competition in theaters from the likes of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), the long-awaited revival of the popular sci-fi TV series.
Reviews at the time were generally negative. Roger Ebert gave the The Black Hole two stars out of four, found the film essentially a talky melodrama, and noticed similarities to Lucas's blockbuster of 1977. The word from science-fiction magazines and writers was far less gracious. "Poisonous" might be a better descriptor. Even twenty years after the film's theatrical release reviewers were still deriding the movie in articles with titles like "Does The Black Hole still suck?"
The main point of contention for most science-based writers appears to be The Black Hole's flagrant ignorance about the laws of physics (at least as we understand them today.) For instance, there seemed to be a breathable atmosphere in outer space (at the mouth of the black hole...) during the film's fiery finale. And then there is Kate McCrae's (Yvette Mimieux's) famously mangled line of dialogue early on insisting that the Palomino and Cygnus vessels shared the same mission: "to find habitable life" in space. What? Technically, the learned scientist claims to be looking for "life" that people can inhabit or live in. And obviously that makes no sense. Had Kate simply said they were in search of "habitable worlds" or new "life forms," this wouldn't have been a concern. But there you have it. The Black Hole didn't do itself any favors by featuring a nonsensical line that should have been cut.
Despite such problematic moments, The Black Hole has survived and endured for some three decades on the affection of fans, mostly ones like me, I suspect, who first viewed the film in childhood and never forgot it. But is there more to The Black Hole than the inescapable gravitational pull of nostalgia? Exactly what are the film's merits? And why, on its 30 year anniversary, does it remain such a polarizing and influential film?
First off, a brief synopsis of this dark space fantasy: The Black Hole dramatizes the story of the Palomino, a small Earth space craft charged with seeking out and discovering the aforementioned "habitable life" in space. On mission day 547, however, the exploratory craft commanded by Captain Dan Holland (a steady, impressive Robert Forster) discovers something else of interest: the largest black hole ever detected by man. As the ship's ESP sensitive empath, Dr. Kate McCrae reminds her shipmates, black holes are such powerful forces that they may some day "devour the universe itself." Dr. Durant (Anthony Perkins) notes that nothing, not even light can escape from one.
Intriguingly, the ship's robot, V.I.N.Cent (Vital Information Network Centralized) detects a stationary object near the black hole: the shrouded silhouette of a vast spaceship. The crew soon recognizes the craft as Space Probe One, The Cygnus...the costliest fiasco in America's space program history. The Cygnus's eccentric commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) -- "one of the greatest space scientists of all time" -- refused Mission Control's recall order and the Cygnus has not been seen from or heard from since.
Now, the quiescent Cygnus sits at the lip of the swirling black hole, miraculously resisting the pull of the devouring maw. After taking on some minor damage, the Palomino lands on the Cygnus and the crew comes to learn the secrets of Reinhardt and his vast "death ship." Palomino's science officer, Dr. Durant, becomes obsessed with Reinhardt's dream of traveling inside the black hole and learning the secret of creation....literally voyaging into the Mind of God. Meanwhile, journalist Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) believes he's stumbled upon the story of the century.
Soon, V.I.N.Cent learns from another 'bot, Old B.O.B., that Reinhardt is insane; and that he lobotomized his mutinous human crew, eradicating their will and leaving the men and women of Cygnus mindless, spiritless automatons, essentially. Also, Reinhardt has created a devilish red robot, Maximillian, to help him carry out his plans. The survivors of the Palomino attempt to escape from Reinhardt, Maximillian and his Sentry army, even as the Cygnus sets a fateful course for the black hole. The escape attempt fails, and characters good and evil meet their fates inside the strange, mystical forces of the black hole.
A Manichean Pilgrimage into the Mind of God
Mani was a Persian philosopher of antiquity (210-176 AD) who contended in his writings and teachings that that the universe was split into two opposing natures: Darkness and Light. He furthermore suggested that these warring forces fought their battles in the terrain of the human being. Man's body -- the material world -- was the world of sin and darkness. And man's soul -- his spirit side -- represented the Light. Roiling inside all of us is that never-ending conflict between these forces.
As is the case in the 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica (particularly the episodes involving Count Iblis), in The Black Hole, viewers can detect a number of Manichean ideas expressed in the dramatis personae and the narrative situations. This is especially so during the metaphysical journey through the black hole in the finale, a strange religious twist on the trippy denouement of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mani believed that Evil had many faces...but that at all those faces were part and parcel of the same Evil, not different ones. In The Black Hole, we see Maximillian and Hans Reinhardt as two faces of Evil (mechanical and human, respectively) and in their nightmarish last scene, these two evils literally join to become one: Reinhardt is subsumed inside the robot demon Maximillian. Hauntingly, we see Reinhardt's frightened human eyes peering out from the machine's mechanical shell. This is our last close-up view of the characterrs, of twin evils welded together.
This strange inhuman union occurs inside the black hole, in a realm that resembles a Boschean vision of Hell, with hopeless souls (the spirit-less humanoids) trudging across a Taratrus-like underworld of sorts as flames lick at the bottom of the frame. High atop a hellish, craggy mountain, the Maximillian/Reinhardt Hybrid rules, like Milton's Lucifer. In keeping with Manichean beliefs, this is visibly the realm of physical things: bodies, mountains, fire...materialism. It is no coincidence either that the production design of the film has colored Maximillian, Dr. Hans Reinhardt and Hell itself in crimson tones. This bond of red -- whether Reinhardt's uniform, Maximillian's coat of paint, or the strange illuminating light of Hell itself -- connects all of them as "the One Evil," not separate evils, conceived by the ancient philosophy.
Contrarily, the four survivors of the Palomino expedition (Holland, McCrae, Pizer and V.I.N.C.ent) find not Hell in at the event horizon, but rather a celestial cathedral of sorts. Their vessel, the probe ship, is guided through this realm of the spirit (not the body), by another soul...a white guardian angel of sorts. The protagonists temporarily seem to exit the world of the body, and the film reveals their thoughts -- past and present -- "merging" during a brief, strange scene involving slow-motion photography.
What this scene appears to portend is that the three humans -- and robot (!) -- have been judged by the cosmic, Manichean forces inside the black hole and found to be above "sin," hence their journey through the long, Near Death Experience-style "light at the end of the tunnel" and subsequent safe re-emergence back into space. Instead of remaining trapped in a physical Hell of sorts (like the Reinhardt/Maximillian hybrid), the probe ship and those aboard pass through the gauntlet of "spirituality" where nothing -- not even sin -- can escape, and arrive safely in what appears to be a new universe. The closing shot of the film finds the probe ship on course for a giant white sun...a beacon of light and hope, and perhaps even a new beginning for the human race (and again, robot-kind...).
Reinhardt's final utterance before entering the crucible of the black hole is simply a mumbled..."all light." This might be an allusion to William Wordsworth's poem, An Evening Walk Addressed to A Young Lady: "all light is mute amid the gloom," It may be Reinhardt's (too late...) recognition of the fact that just as he has squelched out all light in the souls of his crew; so will the black hole mute out his spiritual light...sending him into utter, eternal darkness.
The climactic and symbolic final moments of The Black Hole -- long a subject of debate among the movie's detractors and admirers -- fits the tenets of Manicheism perfectly, positing for us the metaphor of devouring black hole as a spiritual testing ground or judgement day: one where humans understand that the secret of creation...is man's spirituality; his sense of morality. So the use the movie ultimately puts the black hole to is not scientific at all, but rather spiritual, religious. For some viewers, that may simply be a bridge too far in belief. For other's, it's a recognition, perhaps, that man must ultimately reckon with himself, especially when facing the Mind of God.
20,000 Leagues Into Space: Jules Verne Redux
Another way to appreciate The Black Hole is as a virtual compendium of Jules Verne concepts and characters (as they appeared in both literature and film history...), only translated from the sea into the realm of outer space. For instance, Hans Reinhardt is clearly a futuristic version of Captain Nemo. Like his literary predecessor, Reinhardt is a figure associated with a magnificent and highly-advanced vessel. In this case, that vessel is Cygnus not Nautilus.
But consider that both Reinhardt and Nemo also grant their "guests" (prisoners?) an extensive tour of those ships, with special attention paid to technological innovation. In the book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Nemo created a ship that ran on electricity; in the film it was atomic energy that powered Nautilus. In The Black Hole, Reinhardt discusses his creation of a limitless power source called "Cygnium" after his beloved ship. This is the thing that allows his ship to resist the forces of the black hole.
Furthermore, both Nemo and Reinhardt are largely defined in terms of their ingenious ability to live off the resources at hand; off the sea or off outer space, as it were. In both 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and The Black Hole, the Nemo figure explains this fact in a dining room setting to his guests. In the former tale, Nemo serves Aronnax and the others delicacies acquired from the abundant sea. In the latter narrative, Reinhardt discusses his personal hydroponic garden, which has grown all of his food. Again, it's interesting that both dining rooms (on the Nautilus and Cygnus respectively...) genuflect to the traditions of the past in terms of decor (candelabras, crystal glass ware a naval telescope, statuary...) while the remainder of rooms on each ship suggest a technological future.
As in Mysterious Island (1961) and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), The Black Hole's screenplay explicitly debates the essential, conflicted and perhaps Manichean nature of Hans Reinhardt with the very words we've seen utilized before in relation to Nemo: "insane" and "genius," particularly. Similarly, like Nemo, Reinhardt is a man who has left mankind behind, dwelling in a realm of exile. Yet there's an important distinction here: Reinhardt is not an anti-hero like Nemo. He is not a hero of any kind. Reinhardt is actually an egomaniac who has robbed his crew of their very souls in his quest to probe the mysteries of God. Reinhardt is so narcissistic in fact, that he has forced his soulless crew members to wear reflective, mirrored face-plates over their own visages. What does this mean in practice? When Reinhardt looks at his crew, he sees only his own face -- reflected back. This is arrogance and vanity far beyond anything which Nemo ever aspired to or considered.
It seems clear that if Mysterious Island transforms Captain Nemo into a more palatable, rational 1960s "man of peace," Reinhardt is a post-Watergate, post-Three-Mile-Island, post-Vietnam figure of corruption, avarice and madness. He is Nemo, perhaps, but Nemo skewed heavily to the dark side, instead of to the light.
The remaining characters in The Black Hole also seem to have distinct corollaries with those found in Verne's works (literary and cinematic). Most clearly, Alex Durant is a dedicated man of science and one in "search of his own greatness." He thus seems a skewed version of the noble Professor Aronnax (another French name...) from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Aronnax clearly boasted a healthy moral compass, however, and by comparison Durant seems mesmerized, star-struck and overcome by the dreams and accomplishments of Reinhardt. Again, we see a character from Verne's universe skewed to the dark side. This is appropriate given the increasingly low public approval of scientists as the 1970s wore on.
Harry Booth is very much the same story. A journalist, he could very well be the "war correspondent" Spillit from the movie Mysterious Island, only once more decidedly tweaked to seem more negative: this time emerging as a treacherous coward. Both Mysterious Island and The Black Hole feature confrontational scenes in which the Captain Nemo figure reveals his disdain for the reporter. Perhaps it is because the reporter, in both situations, represents the interests of the population back home and their "earthly" concerns. The "unwashed" masses.
The similarities between Verne's world and the world of The Black Hole don't end with character descriptions, either. Consider that a crew funeral plays an important role in both the Fleischer version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the Disney space film. In 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the underwater funeral is the first thing Aronnax sees of Nemo's nature, crew and world. In The Black Hole, Holland spies a humanoid funeral and garners the first clue about the nature of those "robots." The dangerous black hole itself seems to represent the whirlpool, the deadly maelstrom that destroyed the Nautilus in Verne's literary masterpiece, serving the same function in The Black Hole.
Finally, it is impossible not to notice that Reinhardt and Nemo share very similar death scenes in both The Black Hole and the movie version of Mysterious Island. In The Black Hole, Reinhardt is crushed by a falling view screen, and we see him die with his (bulging...) eyes wide open. In Mysterious Island, Nemo also dies with eyes open, after a crushing beam has fallen on his torso.
While one or two of these Verne-style visuals, narrative points, characterizations or story traits might simply prove a coincidence, there is such a preponderance of them in The Black Hole that it becomes incumbent on us to view the film as almost literally a post-Star Wars adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. One that has updated the "fantasy" setting from the bottom of the sea to the most distant reaches of outer space; one that has re-fashioned the anti-hero Nemo as a more cynical, more corrupt 1970s-style figure. One that has replaced atomic age features of self-annihilation, with the 1970s "Me Generation" fear of personal oblivion and spiritual malaise.
I believe it was Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country who discussed the idea that many of the greatest works of art leave some sort of "gap" for the percipients to fill in for themselves.
When we listen to music, our mind supplies the images. When we gaze at a great painting, our mind fills in movement or "life," perhaps. And in great, artistic films (like The Birds, for instance), some gaps in motive, narration and explanation are left open so that we -- the viewer -- can bridge that gulf with our own imagination. We thus engage the material not with passive disinterest, but with active thought.
For all of its ignorance regarding science and physics, The Black Hole is positively filled with bizarre, almost throwaway moments of remarkable imagination and implications. For instance, late in the film, after Maximillian has disemboweled Dr. Durant with his spinning propeller blades, Dr. Reinhardt approaches Kate with extreme fear -- and insanity -- in his eyes. He begs her in a whisper (so that his machine minion cannot overhear...): "Protect me from Maximillian."
There is no explicit follow-up to this moment; no real mention of it later in the film, just this urgent, persuasive conversational alleyway (lensed in medium shot) that suggests -- for a fraction of a second -- that Reinhardt fears his own Frankenstein monster. That it is the hovering, scarlet cyclops named Maximillian who rules the Cygnus, not the fallible, eccentric human being. It is as though Maximillian is Reinhardt's id, only separated from him, acting of his own volition.
We might extrapolate that this single line of dialogue helps better to explain Reinhardt's final disposition -- his personal Hell -- though no explicit mention is made of it. Inside the black hole, he is forced to join with Maximillian, to go inside the beast and dwell there for eternity. We know from that single, odd line of dialogue that Reinhardt fears such a thing...a monster he can no longer control...but that controls him. Where many people believe that in death we leave our bodies for non-corporeal spirit forms, the Manichean truth of Reinhardt's afterlife is that the Darkness has prevailed and he will be trapped in a metal shell for eternity. There is no ascension for him because of his sins. We know this later when we hear (inside the probe ship), his repeated and tortured calls for "help."
There are several odd little moments like this one in The Black Hole that are worthy of mention and analysis. Many critics picked on V.I.N.Cent -- the Cicero quoting platitude machine -- as some kind of R2-D2 rip-off. They complained about his mode of communication too.
Throughout the film, the robot speaks almost entirely in proverb and platitudes, throwing out one after the other in clearly...mechanical fashion. You can look at V.I.N.C.ent's mode of expression as a result of bad writing if you wish, or as something a bit more interesting and unique. That V.I.N.C.ent apparently sees his world in terms of metaphors suggests that he possesses some sense of understanding of life beyond the literal.
Again, this uncommented-upon touch plays into the ending of the film: the robot boasts a "soul," apparently, and survives the crucible of judgment inside the black hole since he -- a machine -- is put there on equal footing with Dan, Kate and Charlie Pizer...and we are privy to his thoughts.. Even his throwaway line about disliking the company of robots seems to indicate that V.I.N.C.ent for all his lamentable cartoonish qualities...is more than mere robot.
Kate is able to communicate telepathically with the robot, another indicator, perhaps, that he is more than the sum of his parts. And that brings us to another interesting line of dialogue laden with implications: while on the Cygnus V.I.N.C.ent reveals the specifics of something called "Project Black Hole," a governmental operation which sent robots to the event horizon and telepathically recorded their responses to the strange events occurring there. Again, this idea has no play in the remainder of the film, but it raises all kinds of notions. Are robots the slaves of man in the future envisioned by The Black Hole? Or are they an artificial life form slowly developing sentience? And if Project Black Hole existed a long time ago as V.I.N.C.ent indicates, then did Reinhardt know of it? Did he actually create Maximillian to house his body (knowing a robot could survive there...) in case of emergency? Was Maximillian's armor Reinhardt's second fallback measure, behind the probe ship?
Yes, it's very easy to look at many moments in The Black Hole as being silly "fun with robots," or other such nonsense, but if you go back to my argument about Manichiesm, you might see how Maximillian symbolizes the realm of the body/darkness and V.I.N.C.ent seems to evolve beyond that, achieving the level of the spiritual/Light.
Another thing that The Black Hole does remarkably well is hint at the larger universe of the characters. You see that in V.I.N.C.ent's casual mention of Project Black Hole, but elsewhere too. Early in the film, the crew of the Palomino attempts to identify the Cygnus on a holographic projector, and we are treated to a litany of missing ships. Arcturus 10 from Great Britain, Liberty 7 from the U.S., Russian Series 5 Experimental Space Station, and the French Sahara Module, etc. Eventually the crew hits on the Cygnus, but not before we get a sense of how "dangerous" outer space can be in this particular universe.
This is a Death Ship: The Black Hole as Childhood Heart of Darkness
When I watched The Black Hole again recently, my wife Kathryn turned to me and noted with astonishment that it was not a kid's movie at all. Well, in some ways it is and in some ways it is not. Some of the heroics seem juvenile at points, and certainly the Sentry robots have a cartoony aspect to their movement and behavior.
Yet part of the film's longevity, I believe, derives from the fact that it possesses this creepy, almost gothic texture of dread and terror. The humanoids are like faceless medieval monks, and you can't deny Maximillian is deliberately a devil in red armor. The Cygnus itself is a vast, empty, flying dutchman of ghosts, loaded with mysteries (like limping robots, and eerily empty crew quarters...) which lurk around every corner.
The Black Hole even opens in macabre fashion, with an early digital representation of a black hole -- here something like a neon green spider-web leading to a kind of inescapable funnel. We spin inexorably towards this cosmic whirpool faster and faster, all to the portentous strains of John Barry's Hermannesque score. The stage is thus set for dark fantasy.
The creep factor finds it's fullest voice in a scene set in the Cygnus control tower. Dr. Durant removes a humanoid's face-plate and in horrifying close-up we see briefly what a human looks like without his soul. The face we see is drawn, dry, dessicated; awake but unseeing. It's a gruesome visage...and certainly nightmare fodder for children. And that moment is followed almost immediately by the sequence in which Maximilllian brutally slices and dices Dr. Durant (and Perkins' reaction is particularly effective.) Finally, the end of the movie takes us on a tour through Hell. Sci-fi movies don't get much darker than that.
So while it would be foolish and counterproductive to deny "nostalgia" as a reason for remembering The Black Hole fondly 30 years later, I must also wonder if the movie's creepy, unsettling nature is the thing that, over the years, has brought many of us (adults) back to the movie a second, even third time. Like we're finally trying to pin the experience of watching the movie down. Finally trying to see if it was as horrifying as we remember. If there was more there, perhaps, than the critics crying Star Wars rip-off told us.
Also, in an age long before digital effects and CGI, The Black Hole features flying robots in virtually every scene, not to mention several scenes of "weightlessness" aboard the Palomino and Cygnus. These moments are painstakingly crafted and hold up pretty well after thirty years. Again, real life elements had to be rigged with wires and other tricks to work on-set. Not fixed in "post." Not green-screened in later. The level of care and attention to production design, special effects and miniatures is more than commendable...it's amazing.
Again, I wish I had the time and space to comment on all the visual flourishes and extravagances in The Black Hole. Just one more: The Cygnus -- a vast ship -- is traversible front to back only by a pod car that rockets through a transparent tube running the exterior perimeter of the vessel. Again, this is a detail a cheaper, less ambitious film would have certainly foregone. But not here: instead, we see Holland, Kate and the others riding this railcar at several points, the totality of outer space and the Cygnus outside the walls. Everything, from the vast control tower of Cygnus, to the vessel's mid-section (torn apart by a smoldering asteroid...) is rendered in such convincing, highly-detailed and awesome terms that you can't believe it wasn't done by computer. The integration of miniature and live action components is also astounding, and often seamless.
We can laugh at The Black Hole and some of the basic, stupid mistakes it makes, but we might have a better sense of how successful it really is simply by tallying the influences it has had on newer productions. Consider the likes of Event Horizon (1997), which posits a kind of Hell Dimension not entirely unlike what we see depicted inside the black hole here. Or consider Supernova (2000) with Robert Forster (!) and another endangered crew, or even Danny Boyle's brilliant Sunshine (2007), which concerns a lost mission to the sun and a madman's desire to alone touch the face of God there. These movies -- some of them quite good -- owe more than a little to 1979's much maligned Disney effort.
It's all too easy in the Internet Age to be dismissive of films just to show off how cool you are; to be snarky about the ways time has rendered old movies "cheesy." In the case of The Black Hole, the film's flaws are obvious (and perhaps legion...), but the film's strengths are worthy of excavation and praise too. To paraphrase a character in the film, The Black Hole walks "a tightrope;" if not between "genius" and "insanity," then certainly between "genius" and "banality." If you're looking at this movie as a Manichean exercise between darkness and light, then you can -- for at least a few hours -- entertain the "genius" part of that equation.