From the archives: The Black Hole

George Lucas has a lot of sins for which to atone. Even assuming you can forgive the excesses of theStar Wars flicks, and provided that you can overlook the horror of Howard the Duck, and you’re OK with the concept of a movie’s box office take as being a source of profit secondary to ancillary licensing, he’s still a criminal against art and humanity. That’s because the success and worldwide appeal of the original Star Wars created an entire industry of movies cynically designed to cash in on its popularity. But few of these films’ creators bothered to study why Star Wars worked despite its flaws: its universal themes, its tightly-structure plot, and its convincingly “lived-in” sci-fi world. The importance of the thoughtfully-crafted special effects shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Few of Star Wars (or “Episode IVs”, if you prefer) would-be successors offered even one of those elements, providing moviegoers with little more than warmed-over B-movie clichés and archetypes with slightly better special effects than those seen in the ’50s. At best, the results of this bad sci-fi boom were tepid and unwatchable – at worst, they were deeply offensive to the human race.

No one was immune to the enticing charms of a tepid Star Wars cash-in – least of all Walt Disney studios, which had slowly faded from phenomenal to horrible after the death of its founder. In 1979, while Fox was serving up the brilliant Alien, they weighed in with what could very well be one of the worst science fiction movies of all time: The Black Hole. Significantly, you’ll find that the movie is not published on DVD by Disney themselves, but by “Anchor Bay,” a company whose reputation is not precisely one of quality.

The movie bears a fitting title: A black hole is an ultradense point of space possessing such intense gravity that even light can’t work up enough speed to escape its voracious appetite. Meanwhile,The Black Hole is a piece of celluloid possessing such intense stupidity that even nostalgia can’t escape its nauseating awfulness. And my brain emits some impressively powerful nostalgia waves when it comes to The Black Hole – I was about 5 or 6 when I first discovered the movie on a very young version of HBO. I owned a hammered metal Black Hole lunchbox which could only be described as “rad.” I lent my budding palette-swapping skills to the Black Hole coloring book. I drew VINCENT far more often than I doodled his inspiration R2-D2. And I had even read the obligatory Alan Dean Foster novelization of the movie half a dozen times by the time I reached sixth grade and discovered the far less brain-curdling Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Yet none of this can soften the fact that The Black Hole is truly a miserable affair, worthy of every ounce of contempt in my body. I’m willing to face facts and admit that, yes, as a child I had no sense of taste. I’m OK with that. I’m all better now. Mostly better, anyway.

The Black Hole transpires in an undefined future time where spaceships are built in an impressively baroque (and also completely impractical) neo-Victorian style. It’s an era when people speak in pronouncements and literary references rather than having actual conversations. You know the bits in the Metal Gear? games where the characters cease to talk like humans and sound like they’re reading from Wired? (It happens fairly often – Kojima has trouble going more than about 90 minutes without patting himself on the back for his own intellectual prowess.) Everyone in this movie speaks just like that. Except they’re even more inspid.

The story centers around the crew of a suped-up Mercury capsule called the Palamino, a ship which travels the galaxy in search of “habitable life.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean. My guess is that the people in this movie look human but actually are tiny parasitic microorganisms seeking a planet full of normal-sized people who can serve as their hosts. Their mission is interrupted when the ship veers off course due to a gravitational anomaly, which is caused by a massive black hole that the crew fails to detect until it’s only a few hundred miles away. Despite the fact that the singularity’s accretion disc is about the size of a planet and emits powerful radiation that can be detected across a galaxy. That’s what happens when your ship is filled with lots of neat flashing light panels and no functional computers, I guess – you end up steering through space with a sextant and periscope.

Immediately after noticing the black hole, the Palamino gets caught in its gravity well. Fortuitously, the black hole happens to be orbited by a flying cathedral in the shape of a backwards SDF-1, where the crew land to make repairs to their tiny craft. By an amazing coincidence, this ghost ship is a missing exploratory vessel on which the father of the movie’s sole female cast member once served! Never underestimate the power of contrivance.

In another exciting example of contrivance in action, the token female (whose name is Kate, although you won’t care about any of the characters enough to bother to remember names which aren’t being currently mentioned on-screen at any given moment) is only allowed into this particular boy’s club of a movie because of her ability to communicate with the ship’s robot. This is not because the robot speaks some obscure binary language – it’s fluent in aphorism-laden English – but because she can use ESP to talk to Vincent over long distances. Complete with woo woo woo woo sound effects. Another drawback of not having functional machinery aboard the ship means no radio communications, it would seem. Lucky for them that telepathy is a sixth sense which allows humans and computers to converse.

Aboard the ghost ship – named the Cygnus, which so embarrassed Rush by association that they vowed never again to perform the song “Cygnus X-1” after they saw this movie – the Palaminocrew discovers a crew of robots led by the infamous captain of the lost vessel, one (something) Reinhardt and Maximilian, his baleful Red Robot who wishes to destroy all Hu-mans. (I seem to remember mention of the captain’s first name, but it’s hard enough for me to motivate myself to bother to remember his last name, so eh.) Ernest Borgnine – who plays a sort of hybrid of Dr. McCoy, Mr. Scott and, in one particularly goofy scene, Solid Snake – considers Reinhardt a mad genius. Later, Borgnine’s character tries to fly a spaceship on his own despite being an untrained journalist and smashes straight through the hull of the Cygnus, so it’s safe to say his judgment leaves much to be desired. That holds for his opinion of Reinhardt, too, as the captain is less “mad genius” and more “senile murderer with a slippery grasp of physics.” He did, however, invent a magical anti-gravity device which allows him to defy the power of the black hole. By no small coincidence, this anti-gravity device is precisely what is required to suspend the average viewer’s disbelief.

Anyone with a brain can sense that Reinhardt is a complete loony and a freakin’ liar. Except, ironically, the Palamino‘s Anthony Perkins-esque science officer, who should theoretically be the smartest guy around. He thinks Reinhardt is a saint, and wants to hang out in the captain’s flying mausoleum for the rest of his life. In a dazzling display of redundency, everyone but Science Officer Genius separately determines that the robotic crew of the Palamino mostly consists of the presumed-dead human crew, zombified by badly-animated special effects, and that They Should Get The Hell Out Of There. Sadly, even this repetitive duplication of exposition, combined with countless boring cutesy robot sequences, barely stretches the threadbare plot beyond 90 minutes. And that’s including the overture, which is an embarrassment all to itself. Now, 2001? deserved an overture. Star Trek The Motion Picture probably less so, but it was pleasantly majestic and the judges will allow it. But for a movie like this to force audiences to suffer through an opening overture is sort of like being asked to enjoy a lovely appetizer of lobster and caviar before ripping open a bag of pork rinds.

After an hour or so of talking about flying into the Black Hole, the mad captain finally does so. Right about this time, any logic and cohesion the story might have laid claim to go right out the window and things fall apart in a spendid fashion. Half a dozen boring plot threads come to fruition; in a better movie this could be called “payoff,” but here I think the proper term is “audience abuse.” TheCygnus begins its descent into the black hole right as the Palamino crew realizes Reinhardt is nuts. Suddenly, a confusing melee of badly-filmed action sequences begins! The crew races against time as their host ship plummets into certain death. The robot sentries start blasting at them. Anthony Perkins dies after Maximilan reveals his Cuisinart attachment. The token female is brainwashed. Ernest Borgnine turns traitor. And for no good reason at all a swarm of glowing, transluscent red asteroids overtakes and pummels the Cygnus in a mad rush to be the first to the event horizon. It’s fun to try to determine exactly when and where the special effects budget ran out for this movie. Was it with these poorly-matted asteroids? The choppy, awkward final flight of the Palamino? The hilariously-animated mind-control rays of the crew reprogramming center (where victims are dressed in full Jiffy Pop regalia)? It’s a delightful mystery.

The merit of The Black Hole as anything besides an homage to the vision of Ed Wood never moves beyond “doubtful,” but within that state of crappiness exists a vast range of badness. Interestingly, the quality of each section of the movie is directly proportionate to how much time the writers bothered to spend paying attention to physics. For instance, the opening bits are merely “mediocre,” and they also take into account some small notion of reality. The final 20 minutes of the movie contain some of the most horrible sci-fi sequences ever committed to film, and not coincidentally the physics demonstrated in that portion bear no resemblance whatsoever to anything you might happen to encounter in the real world. The asteroids which appear from absolutely nowhere punch through the ship like a flaming icepick through a Hershey bar, although the largest one simply breaks into the ship at high speed and then rolls along a passageway toward the “heroes” at a leisurely pace. The humans, for their part, don’t seem particularly affected by the explosive decompression that one assumes would result from having massive portions of the ship splayed open to empty space (not to mention their exposure to intense radiation from the black hole that would likely cook them to a crispy finish in a fraction of a second). When the hydroponics lab is gutted, they have to deal with air cold enough to cause snow to precipitate and the robots to frost over instantly, but that doesn’t seem to faze them, either. When they finally reach the escape pod (while the Cygnus is mere kilometers from the light-annihilating power of the event horizon, and far beyond the point at which all matter would normally be rent to its component sub-atomic particles by the violent gravitational forces in action), they do so by climbing along the exterior of the ship through the vacuum of space with the hellish, boiling, radioactive intensity of the black hole’s accretion disc all around them.

Meanwhile, Reinhardt gets crushed beneath his 20-foot plasma monitor, which proves once and for all that it really is a bad idea to invest in a TV bigger than 27″. He feebly cries for help from the mindless slave people he created, who of course ignore his pleas. Ah, Justice, you’re a lovely lass, but in movies like this you wield irony like a blunt weapon.

The finale is sadly no better. We learn that plummeting through the interior of a Black Hole resembles nothing so much as a trip down a major artery as depicted in The Fantastic Voyage (or was that The Incredible Journey? Whichever. The one that doesn’t involve courageous cats and dogs), followed by a detour into Hell. Yes, Hell. There, Reinhardt – encased within Maximilan’s robotic shell – subs for Satan, lording over the brainwashed legions of the Cygnus crew. No break for those poor victims, it would seem. The part with Reinhardt being consumed by Maximilian is a bit confusing: by the time the captain is devoured, the robot had already floated into the Black Hole (after VINCENT realized that his Dremel attachment was far more powerful than his death lasers). Also, even assuming Max’s interior is hollow, his body isn’t large enough for an adult human being to fit inside, which adds a creepy “Boxing Helena” spin to an already grisly turn of events. As if it weren’t bad enough that Reinhardt’s absorption is initiated by what appears to be zero-G coitus between robot and creator – a deeply wrong variation on Arthur Dent and Fenchurch. The more you think about it, the worse it gets.

But hey! If you’ve been a good girl or boy (or aphorism-spouting R2-D2 rip-off), you pass beyond Hell through a cathedral made of iridescent plastic. A badly blue-screened angel leads you to the exit, where a shiny new planet awaits you a few hundred miles beyond the event horizon. There, you can live in peace for a few weeks, until the all-consuming maw of the Black Hole pulls the entire planet in from the other side.

Unless of course you’re George Lucas, and therefore indirectly responsible for inspiring this cinematic disaster (and countless others) to begin with. In that case, you should get ready to hang out with Max and Reinhardt and the boys from the Cygnus as you do that “eternal atonement” thing. The really bad news is that your punishment is to watch this movie over and over, forever. Enjoy!

Originally published in 2001

11 thoughts on “From the archives: The Black Hole

  1. I always found the ending of this movie so confusing, but you summed up the flaws and oddities nicely. Nice job! I never thought of all the damned humanoids as the crew, but that certainly makes “sense”. :/

  2. It may be risible judged as science fiction, but it works as schlocky space horror: 50’s b-movie with a budget. It ends up being more Event Horizon for kids than Star Wars. It is kind of fascinating that Disney took such a dark approach. The John Barry score is legitimately good, especially the main theme.

  3. Hmm. I don’t get the George Lucas bashing. Its seems so one-sided on the internet.

    Yes I understand, changing films of historical significance, alters history and erases contributions of early fx workers.

    On the other hand, the evil licensing that Lucas perfected with Star Wars also allowed him to have total control over his films. Which makes sense as an artist and in any interview you see with him.

    I think Lucas, is unfairly demonized by internet fan boys? Has he made some bad decisions? Sure. But on balance I think he has given culture and cinema much more than he has taken away.

  4. Don’t forget Battle Beyond the Stars which, cheesiness aside, at least had the sense to borrow from a different Kurosawa movie, the Seven Samurai. Message From Space, also based on Samurai, looked to be a delightfully awful pastiche of Buck Rogers, Star Wars & Smokey and the Bandit with a 70s Space Samurai motif, but sadly runs too long and gets boring near the 3rd reel.

    Plus, we have Star Wars to thanks for Moonraker which is basically, The Spy Who Loved Me all over again…IN SPAAAAAACE!!!

    I kind of love all these dumb movies, but man, it’s hard to defend most of them.

    If you REALLY want to feel the pain that Star Wars brought, rent anything Mark Hamill did between Jedi and switching to voicing the Joker. Woof!

    And Krull is a turd. I knew that even as a kid!

  5. “Significantly, you’ll find that the movie is not published on DVD by Disney themselves, but by “Anchor Bay,” a company whose reputation is not precisely one of quality.”

    Wasn’t Anchor Bay well known for being a niche publisher and putting out a lot of classics/cult favorites? Seems like kind of a mean dig at a small publisher. (Yes, I see this article was from 2001.)

  6. God damn, what was with that weird slam on Anchor Bay? They were one of the higher quality DVD companies back in the day. Not quite Criterion, but their releases were way better than the early Disney DVDs (which were notable for being bare bones releases and overpriced.) They released lots of Disney live action movies back then, as well as movies from New World, Fox, Universal, etc.

  7. “True. He inspired gems like Krull, The Black Hole, Flash Gordon ’80, etc. Whatta saint!”

    Blaming Lucas for sub-par sci fi is the same thing in my mind as blaming Nirvana for grunge imitators. Success is always mimicked.

    I don’t think Lucas is a saint. But I do think there is much more to his story than his detractors, the vocal majority on the internet, would have the public believe. Lucas wanted artistic control and has always wanted artistic control. Licensing became his vehicle to achieve that end, with all the good and bad that entails. There are only a handful of filmmakers who have made or can make big-budget movies and have artistic control. Lucas is one of those filmmakers, and perhaps the most important.

  8. Judging by the comments above, I wonder what would happen if you were to repost that old Megaman 3&4 review from the Jump years (the one where you keep mixing them up).

    On the Black Hole itself, I haven’t seen it, though I’ve watched other Star Wars also-rans from that era.

  9. This review reminds me that I have the book this movie is based on a shelf distressingly nearby. I’m halfway tempted to read it just to see if the ending makes any more sense.

    • Was it based on a book? Or do you mean the Alan Dean Foster novelization of the movie? Because it’s essentially the same.

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