1 Hr., 38 Mins.
The Black Hole August 28, 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: there are a couple of cute robot sidekicks in the supporting cast with funny accents; a final battle with lots of light beams and lasers involved. Some similarities, though, do not a ripoff make; I don’t think “The Black Hole” 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. These movies also have in common a strong aura of menace — like something is very 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 at least has some sensational images: a fiery meteor barreling through a spaceship, the people running opposite perfect shadows; a control room covered in screens, each filled with a distinctive mosaic pattern; an army of black-figured 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 quiet, space-based suspense, which comprises the first act and most of the second. Then 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 inevitably no good — he’s dressed and made up like a villain, first of all, but we don’t buy it when he says his crew disappeared when he’s surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of masked “androids.”
The film somewhat awkwardly has to finally explain itself after spending most of its running time pushing creepy ambiguity as to what’s really going on. The ensemble is likably oddly cast. I can think of few would-be blockbusters encompassed almost entirely by character actors. (It’s a pleasure to see any movie with Borgnine and Forster, but together?) But the performances are across-the-board monochromatic and sluggish. The out-of-place, comic-relief-providing robots are perhaps accidentally more energetic 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. 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 in certain moments its efficient development of space-opera suspense. B-