1 Hr., 38 Mins.
The Black Hole October 22, 2020
isney’s The Black Hole (1979) is often framed historically as a blatant attempt from the studio at a Star Wars (1976)-style hit. One cannot deny the resemblances: it is set in outer space; there are a couple of cute robot sidekicks in the supporting cast with funny accents; a final battle is abundant in light beams and lasers. Some similarities, though, do not a ripoff make; I don’t think The Black Hole really is one. When I
watched it I was inclined to think not of something as epic and at times rascally as the Star Wars franchise but of sci-fi movies like Forbidden Planet (1956) and Fantastic Voyage (1966) — visually stunning operas in which a crew of characters eagerly journeys through fantastical otherworlds for some sort of scientific mission, with moral clearness increasingly blurred. These movies also have in common a strong aura of menace — like something is very wrong, or is going to go wrong, amid all this exploration.
And to stare at them is arguably even more rewarding than paying any attention to the narrative. The Black Hole’s storyline is scattered, but it has
some sensational images to grab us: a fiery meteor barreling through a spaceship, the people running opposite it rendered perfect shadows; a control room covered in screens, each filled with a distinctive mosaic pattern; an army of black-cloaked figures with mirror-like masks elegantly tending to the day’s tasks; a closing sequence that suggests that to move through a black hole (of course impossible — Neil DeGrasse Tyson has singled the film out as being among cinema’s most scientifically inaccurate) is a lot like flying through the inners of Heaven and Hell.
The Black Hole doesn’t quite work. It’s pretty convincing when trying to pull off ominously quiet space-based suspense, which consumes the first act and most of the second. But it suffers once it transitions into the final stretch, trying to turn into a standard-fare action movie. The film follows a group of space travelers — which includes two scientists (Yvette Mimieux, Anthony Perkins), a newspaperman (Ernest Borgnine), and a couple of astronauts (Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms) — who come aboard a thought-lost spaceship commandeered, alone, by Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell), who has somehow gotten his base to avoid being pulled in by a nearby black hole. Reinhardt is almost obviously no good before it can even be made explicit. He’s dressed and made up like a villain, first of all, but we don’t buy it when he says his crew simply abandoned him when he’s surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of masked “androids.” Something else has to be going on. The film awkwardly finally explains itself after spending most of its running time emphasizing sinister ambiguity around what’s really happening.
The ensemble is oddly cast, but that oddness is charming. I can think of few would-be blockbusters almost entirely encompassing character actors. (It’s a pleasure to see any movie with Borgnine and Forster, but together, and as the leads?) But the performances are across-the-board monochromatic and sluggish. The out-of-place, comic-relief-providing robots are livelier than the flesh and blood accompanying them.
Yet for all its misfires, The Black Hole looks too good, and is I think too interesting, to be written off as a bungled attempt at Star Wars-aping, even if ultimately its aesthetic pleasures are undermined by mostly everything else. If any movie is going to be criticized for doing Star Wars-aping badly, it should be the lazy, incoherent Starcrash, from 1978. (Which isn't to say that it hasn't been.) It wouldn’t be a mischaracterization to call The Black Hole a failure. But it’s worth noting that it’s a compelling failure, with its bevy of inspired images and its sometimes-efficient development of space-opera suspense. B-