The Black Hole (1979)
January 8, 2016 7:53 PM - Subscribe

A research vessel finds a missing ship, commanded by a mysterious scientist, on the edge of a black hole.

Also known as Disney's first PG-rated movie and its first foray into sci-fi, with a budget of $20 million (which still couldn't afford them effects from ILM). The cast includes Robert Forster, Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Perkins, Joseph Bottoms, Maximilian Schell, and Yvette Mimieux. The robots' voices are Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens (both of which were uncredited). There are elements of Star Wars, 2001, Forbidden Planet, and the Night on Bald Mountain scene from Fantasia, among others.

DeGrasse Tyson: most scientifically inaccurate movie ever!

Ebert: [I]ntergalactic bathtub drains ... would be preferable to what happens in Disney's "The Black Hole," which takes us all the way to the rim of space only to bog us down in a talky melodrama whipped up out of mad scientists and haunted houses.

Maslin: The plot, unfortunately, trundles toward that towering bugaboo of science fiction movies, Ultimate Knowledge.

Recent appreciations here and here.

John Barry also wrote the score for another of my favorite slices of cinematic cheese: Starcrash.
posted by computech_apolloniajames (29 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Had never seen this movie until a couple months ago. Knew it hadn't been all that well received when it came out, but thought it had been gradually reassessed and was much better regarded now. Not sure where I got that idea.

Good lord, was this bad! It's an entire movie about a bunch of people who are endlessly realizing they're at the wrong end of the huge starship. Seriously, the plot is almost entirely about people going from one end of the ship to the other.

And the robots. Dear god. It's enough to make you long for Jar Jar Binks.
posted by Naberius at 8:21 PM on January 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

I had a poster of this movie on the back of my bedroom door as a child. I have become slightly more discriminating since.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:59 PM on January 8, 2016

Man, this movie freaked me out as a child! I think we saw it in a theater without our parents-i would've been 9, so that seems odd, but I think they dropped us off and saw something next door maybe? Anyway, maximillian and his spinning blades through the book-scared me to death!
posted by purenitrous at 10:06 PM on January 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Knew it hadn't been all that well received when it came out,

As a kid, loved it, had (and still have) the toys. Wanted a sequel.

As an adult, I can still see why I loved it as a kid, but holy hell, the Maximilian at the Gates of Hell theory is super-dark. I still have a soft spot for it as an adult, and will periodically rewatch it.

There's a hell of a lot to like.
posted by Mezentian at 12:43 AM on January 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

Not a great movie, but what a score!
posted by brundlefly at 1:34 AM on January 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think this movie is crazy underrated. Moody as hell, with gorgeous art direction. It was a real throwback even at the time, with spaceships literally hanging from wires and a plot that's basically Captain Nemo in Space. But it's also got that trippy-ass, 1970s post-2001 thing going on, where the narrative eventually kind of breaks down and we drift off into creepy-awesome cosmic weirdness. You see it in other stuff of the era like Star Trek: The Motion Picture and even the TV series Land of the Lost. It's the kind of ambition you rarely seen in sci-fi these days, and when it does show up cranky nerds tend to dismiss it as "mystical woo". (It's not like I think all sci-fi should be a big epic psychedelic freak out, but shouldn't some of it?)

There are a few elements that don't work for me now as well as they did when I was a kid. VINCENT's pearls of wisdom sound a lot more fortune cookie than they used to, and the psychic bond between Kate and VINCENT just seems weird. (They could have explained it by saying Kate has some sort of implant in her brain so she can communicate with VINCENT, but IIRC that's never addressed so it's just this weird thing where she can talk to a robot with her mind.) But this thing really is great, with Maximilian Schell as a mad scientist commanding a huge haunted castle spaceship that's crewed by zombie monks and killer robots! If that description doesn't thrill you to the very marrow, I can't even talk to you. Just dig those opening titles. Dig them, damn it!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:52 AM on January 9, 2016 [10 favorites]

the psychic bond between Kate and VINCENT just seems weird

As a kid I accepted it, but I can't remember if I rationalised it.

I just started a rewatch (thanks, Metafilter, I had Saturday Night PLANS!), and gosh, the music! The costumes!

(Although, for reasons, Topal keeps turning up).
posted by Mezentian at 4:49 AM on January 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I remember wanting actual "science fiction" and having quite low expectations, I mean really low expectations, and then just being mad and annoyed and how non-science/anti-science, just make a scary techno-fantasy image, go boo.
posted by sammyo at 6:27 AM on January 9, 2016

Yeah, between this movie and the psychedelic boat ride sequence in the one true Willy Wonka, I'm kinda not surprised at how our generation turned out.
posted by Etrigan at 7:28 AM on January 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

To set the scene: in December 1979 I was a pre-teen who had watched Star Trek in syndication so many times I could reel off finely-tuned plot synopses; who had seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture probably five or six times in the two weeks it had been out; who mourned the recently-cancelled Battlestar Galactica but was naively looking forward to its continuation, Galactica: 1980, set to premiere in a month; who watched (albeit with increasing dismay) the dire Buck Rogers TV series every week; who could recount and discuss every bit of speculation about the Star Wars sequel* coming out in six months; who was steadily plowing through the science fiction section of my public library; and who engaged in lengthy speculative inquiries about what the restricted-to-18-and-over Alien was about (an oral tradition, based on what one classmate's neighbour's college-aged cousin had recounted to someone once).

And I still did not go see The Black Hole.

I was pretty much the bullseye of their target audience, but even I could not muster up the enthusiasm to give up three dollars and pass 98 minutes of my life watching it. I think it was the underwhelming TV spots coupled with the Disney pedigree: Disney live action pretty much spelled out The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes or Herbie Goes Bananas. To this day, I still have never seen it, and the closest point of engagement had with it was that my considerable collection of Star Wars action figures was augmented by three or four Black Hole figures (Holland**, Pizer, Maximillian, and I think Robot Sentry, although that last may have been in my best friend's collection which often commingled with mine).

*The information drought on upcoming movies in the pre-Internet era would be difficult for anyone under thirty to grasp. As I mentioned once before on the site essentially no one outside of the filmmakers even knew what Yoda looked like up until the day that TESB came out. That is hard even for me to fathom and I was there.

**Looking back from the far side of Jackie Brown, Mulholland Dr. and the ending of Breaking Bad, I was pleased to realize today that I had Robert Forster action figure when I was a kid.

posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:29 AM on January 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

This was right around the time that people were speculating that Disney would just give up on movie production altogether and just concentrate on parks and licensing deals. The Black Hole and Tron were attempts by them to try to break out of ghetto that years of Dean Jones, Sandy Duncan and Kurt Russell movies had put them in. Nobody over the age of eight wanted to see a Disney film and it took them years to find their way out of that hole.

It's still a great looking movie but I can't actually sit through the whole thing anymore.
posted by octothorpe at 9:21 AM on January 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I only know this movie from the Read-Along storybook, which ended with our heroes in a new universe ready to explore. My understanding is this was not the case in the actual film?

The scant words and pictures devoted to the breakup of the ship's superstructure inspired my love of blowing shit up, a love that continued until 9/11. I bet the Cygnus's destruction in my head was way better than the one on screen.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:38 AM on January 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

VINCENT must be BB-8's grandfather...or vice versa...
posted by briank at 1:26 PM on January 9, 2016

I only know this movie from the Read-Along storybook, which ended with our heroes in a new universe ready to explore. My understanding is this was not the case in the actual film?

Spoilers, but it does end like that. It's a lot more trippy and ambiguous than the storybook, though! I'm kind of amazed people are so crabby about the movie here, but then I'm always amazed this movie doesn't get more love. It's great.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:58 PM on January 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's definitely some solid model work in there, and the ending visuals are perfectly weird.

(the second clip followed by the last ~25 seconds of the first clip is how the movie ends)
posted by effbot at 2:56 PM on January 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I only know this movie from the Read-Along storybook

I saw the movie, but yeah the story book is seared into my mind from repeat listens. Listen on Youtube for some crazy flashbacks.

Not sure I want to revisit the actual movie, but it has warm place in my memories alongside all the other Star Wars era space stuff.
posted by p3t3 at 2:02 AM on January 10, 2016

Rewatched it for the first time in a few years, with a more critical eye.

As others have said, the models, sets, character design and the ending are amazing (how had I never twigged to the ambulatory corpses before?).

Having watched The Expanse, I reckon the anti-grav scenes hold up.

The characters are pretty thin, but, as far as I can tell the Lone Female (Dr Kate) gets off well by late/'70s early '80s standards: she has a terrible perm and wears pink, but in most other aspects there's nothing FEMALE about her, aside from the fact she has ESP and "intuition", but you could easily have given that to Charlie and not change the plot much.

I think it holds up much better in my mind than I thought it did, but (like Black Cauldron) it seems to be a product of a time when Disney didn't know what it wanted: it has a lot of the cerebral space adventure of 2001 or Star Trek: TMP, with the pew-pew-pew and comedy robots of Star Wars.

It's a film due for a critical re-appraisal.

It's not perfect, and some of the CSO/green screen effects are dated, and there are some jarring tone issues (the 'droid bitch-out coming just before the unmasking), and lord knows what's going on with some of the editing.

And, why put a journalist on a deep space probe?

Also, why is the Cygnus mostly glass?

On the other hand, Reinhardt is 'killed' like a chump, under his flatscreen. LOLs.
posted by Mezentian at 2:03 AM on January 10, 2016

ricochet biscuit saved me some typing, I was also an SF gannet at that point, along with my mother, but can remember not the slightest enthusiasm for going to this. I saw it a few years later on TV and feel my lack of interest was justified. I think someone get me an annual of the continuing story and it was better than the film.

Also, why is the Cygnus mostly glass?

Transparent aluminium?
posted by biffa at 5:25 AM on January 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

and the ending visuals are perfectly weird.

Oh goodness no, not weird at all, they stole a bit from 2001 and then segued through lame hell and heaven images, nothing the slightest bit imaginative. (gosh now remembering more how mad it made me, sitting through lame fake/non science, absurd plot points, non-scary monsters, then, take a beat, religious iconography)

The film deserves a truly epic re-watch when it's released by Mystery Science Theater 10k (the super embarrassing edition)
posted by sammyo at 7:41 AM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Even at the time when I was fifteen or so it seems like a desperation move from Disney. After Star Wars everyone seemed to be scrambling to produce space movies and this was the best that they could come up with in a hurry. Even though it was PG, it seemed to be a throwback to Disney stuff from the fifties like 20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea but with some Star Wars robots and lasers thrown in and a 2001 ending tacked on. By the time it came out in late '79, I'd already seen Alien so this seemed so lame and old-fashioned at the time.
posted by octothorpe at 7:57 AM on January 10, 2016

non-scary monsters

Maximilian and I are frowning at you.

The part where he straight up kills Norman Bates, just after Bates has ripped the 'face' off a "robot" is seared into my brain almost as much as the face-melting in Indiana Jones.

I guess this is just one of those movies I saw at the right age, the age where I could want an Ernest Borgnine action figure for Christmas. He had a swivel neck!

Having delved into the toys and marketing for this film since yesterday, as an adult I am baffled.
posted by Mezentian at 3:18 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't think there was ever a time when I wouldn't want an Ernest Borgnine action figure.

Tangentially: Is Seven of Nine named after Ernest Borgnine?
posted by biffa at 3:38 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

And who doesn't want to slip into bed with Ernest?

(No joke, I'd have that on my bed in a flash).
posted by Mezentian at 5:03 PM on January 10, 2016

I've always had a soft spot for this movie. It is definitely a product of its time, but it is a fun watch. Fantastic sets and ship design - I always liked the design of the Cygnus. I had a plastic model of it I built back in the 1970's, which was my pride and joy back then.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:17 AM on January 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I find myself surprised to be reminded that I have never, ever, seen this movie. I remember it coming out and bugging my parents to go see it for what felt like weeks, but they never did take me. And somehow, in all the years since, I have never come across it in VHS/DVD/on tv/streaming...despite me wanting to devour pretty much everything science fiction and science fictiony that I can.

Not sure if it's worth tracking down or not.
posted by nubs at 11:16 AM on January 11, 2016

No joke, I'd have that on my bed in a flash

I had that on my bed....
posted by mr_roboto at 3:40 PM on January 11, 2016

I figure the glassness of the ship is from Silent Running (which according to Encyclopedia Britannica was built with parts from hundreds and hundreds of model tank kits).

I must have been the right sort of sci-fi space nerd to enjoy this movie at nine years old and ten or so years later rewatching it and maybe appreciating it a little bit more for being a way out there dark and spooky and nutso Disney movie.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:35 AM on January 12, 2016

I feel like i wrote a post sort of recently about, in retrospect, how obvious pre and post star wars movies were... but this and star trek TMP really feel like the last pre-star-wars era movies to sneak out the gate.

It feels like logans run, or maybe even something older.

I also really love the reactions of everyone my age to this movie. It's a serious WTF fest for an almost-80s disney movie if you're not schooled on this type of pre star wars cheesy scifi swashbuckler stuff.
posted by emptythought at 3:10 AM on January 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I saw this a couple of times as a kid. They showed the full version of this during a...junior high school, I think?...assembly as a treat, sometime in the early 80s, and then I saw it again thanks to my friend's cable connection. Anyhow, I liked V.I.N.C.E.N.T., thought Maximilian was scary (death by robot roto-rooter!), and was puzzled by Hell at the end (were the poor crewmembers in Hell? what had they done to deserve that?). I read the novelization later and was rather ticked off to discover that our heroes were supposed to have died and become some sort of new entity--even as an eleven-year-old, I didn't quite see how that was supposed to work with a robot in the mix, and besides, having all the heroes die didn't seem any more fair than having the zombified crew cooking in the nether regions.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:00 PM on January 12, 2016

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