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Overall Rating

Awesome: 22.73%
Worth A Look: 16.67%
Pretty Bad: 13.64%
Total Crap: 6.06%

6 reviews, 30 user ratings

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Black Hole, The (1979)
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by David Hollands

"Want some fresh cheese with your science fiction?"
3 stars

If you were to sit me down and hand a copy of The Black Hole to me saying that not only will I like this Disney film from the late 70s but that I would also consider it one of the companyís best live-action films, I would probably secretly examine the phone book for the best psychiatrist. Low and behold when I finally saw the entirety of The Black Hole not too long ago, I DID think it was the best live action work Disney has ever produced. Of course, the film only really meriting a maximum rating of three stars says quite a bit about the quality of Disney live-action films in general.

The story of The Black Hole is very intriguing. While on a mission searching for life other than that of human beings in the Universe, the crew of the spaceship Palamino encounter a derelict, the U.S.S. Cygnus, seemingly floating dead in space near an enormous black hole. Curious as to why the ship is not being sucked into it at such close proximity, the crew of the Palamino board and discover its lone occupants: Dr. Reindhart and many robots in charge of manning the controls. Dr. Reindhart has managed to create an anti-gravity field around the Cygnus which will allow it to travel unharmed directly through a black hole. According to Dr. Reindhart the other crew members, obeying orders received from Earth to abandon their mission, evacuated the Cygnus and left him behind to man it at his request.

What one notices immediately when The Black Hole begins is, to put it mildly, the cheese. This is one of those science fiction films that has melted cheese all over it. The sets, while definitely creative, look like they were designed by an over-enthusiastic five year old. The props are something straight out of the worst of Roger Corman flicks. Despite this cheese, however, The Black Hole does indeed work. It takes roughly twenty minutes for the cheese to set in, but once it does the viewing experience becomes much more pleasurable. When one is able to, letís say, get used to the smell of cheese, one is able to take the story not so much more seriously but is at least able to derive much more enjoyment from it. However, as mentioned before, it does take a little while for the possibility of enjoyment even being derived to reveal itself. Because this takes some time, the film has some difficulty suturing the audience in.

Certain aspects of the plot do not help matters either. When the crew of the Palamino first encounter the black hole, several lovely biblical allusions grace our ears. Yes, this is yet another film in which the mere mention of something from the Bible is supposed to be seen as automatically brilliant instead of completely desperate. In this case, a crewmember refers to it as something straight out of Danteís Inferno. The allusion is unfortunately miscalculated. Until an absolutely ridiculous conclusion in which the mysteries of the black hole are revealed, the allusions just kind of sit there doing absolutely nothing. So the black hole is like something out of Danteís Inferno. So what? They already explain it as an extremely destructive force, so why is the allusion even necessary? In fact, the proceeding line from another character is, to paraphrase, something along the lines of ďThere should be a guy with horns and a pitchfork in there.Ē Wow. I honestly never thought that Disney was this desperately Christian.

Given the cheese factor mentioned earlier, things like Biblical allusions fall completely flat. Itís already hard enough to take the film seriously, but when one adds pompous Biblical allusions the whole movie threatens to completely collapse under the weight of its own pretensions. Besides the allusions, most of the film has a seriousness that plagues much of it. Many science fiction films and television series from Star Trek to the recent second Star Wars trilogy fall into this trap. So much of science fiction and fantasy is incredibly cheesy in any case, so filmmakers taking their premises too seriously is a huge problem. It also tends to lessen oneís enjoyment of the film. And again, for the most part, The Black Hole falls into this trap. While some enjoyment after a while can be derived from the cheesiness, it is almost offset in a way by the initial sense that no one is really having any fun with the material. Itís not wrong to ask the big questions of life, but it is wrong to ask them in such a serious fashion in a film this cheesy. It only serves to lessen the overall quality of The Black Hole.

That being said, some fun can be had when it comes to the two main robot characters in the film. They are Vincent, the Palaminoís co-navigator, and Bob, an assistant on the U.S.S. Cygnus. Both are lovable creations. They resemble, for lack of a better description, penguins with eggs for eyes. Vincent is a fully functioning new model, while Bob has apparently been tortured and ruined by the other robots on the ship (specifically one that becomes too agitated when it loses at a laser shooting game). The robots are so likeable that they are in fact the characters with which the audience identifies most. This is the same situation that occurred in Stanley Kubrickís 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the HAL-9000 computer was more lifelike than its human counterparts. The fact that Bob and Vincent appear throughout most of The Black Holeís running time definitely helps keep an audience invested in the film. While the actual human beings may not generate much empathy or sympathy, the robots definitely do. And they are pretty much the anchors for the audience in The Black Hole. They make the film watch able. On a little side note, I donít recall if the meaning of Vincentís name was ever directly stated. The IMDB, however, lists it as Vital Information Necessary CENTralized. If I re-watch the film and find that something this unbelievably horrible actually exists in it, Iím knocking the movie down by another star. So perhaps itís for the best that I donít re-watch The Black Hole.

There is another positive aspect to The Black Hole that makes it perfectly watch able: its darkness. While not absolutely steeped in doom and gloom, the film is surprisingly dark when one considers that Disney produced it. Yes, I realize that Disney is responsible for killing more mothers in their films than perhaps any other studio, but those deaths were overly melodramatic if anything. The ones in The Black Hole seem designed to creep people out. Surprisingly, given the cheese factor, the deaths are never actually melodramatic. Rather, they are pretty frightening. One poor crewmember who wants to fallow Dr. Reindhart into the black hole meets a gruesome fate at the hands of Reindhartís imposing robot Maximilian; basically, a death by spinning blades straight through the stomach. Another character is crushed by a falling platform. Yet another is blown up in a fiery crash. Finally, the discovery of what actually happened to the rest of the U.S.S. Cygnusí crew is chilling. As mentioned before, the darkness isnít overbearing Ė after all, this is a film primarily for children Ė but whatís present in the film is still pretty shocking. It gives the proceedings a pleasant weight, and makes it clear that the stakes are quite high. Iím not sure how the most impressionable children will take such scenes. However, the darkness helps the film become slightly more than a merely passable science fiction adventure.

The special effects in The Black Hole are a mixed bag. Some shots, like most of the exteriors of the U.S.S. Cygnus, look very good and have quite the lifelike quality. Some of the matte paintings in the film are also very pleasing to the eye Ė not quite convincing, but pleasing all the same. Many of the shots of Bob and Vincent floating about are well handled. While itís pretty obvious that wires are supporting the two, the illusion is astonishing in parts. There is one sequence in an elevator in which Vincent does a full 180 degree turn that still boggles my mind, for no wires make themselves known to the naked eye. Some other moments, however, are not as astonishing. The colour of the wires on Bob and Vincent was obviously changed throughout the film so that they would blend effectively into the backgrounds. Occasionally Vincent or Bob will briefly move in front of a portion of the set thatís coloured differently, and the wires will show up clear as day. These moments are definitely distracting. Yet they are nothing compared to the horrific effects of the black hole itself. It looks like someone took a two-dimensional drawing and just rotated it. It looks incredibly fake and inorganic, and for something that drew comparisons to Danteís Inferno, it looks pretty darn unimposing.

The set itself is blown up quite convincingly. The pyrotechnics during the last act are fun, and so are the gloriously bad drawn in lasers with which the crewmembers and Maximilianís robots shoot at each other. Much of the conclusion, in fact, is saved by the quality of the special effects and the general sense of fun during those moments in the film that the filmmakers seem to be having. The final act is miles beyond the overly serious tone that plagued the first two acts. Itís non-stop slam-bang action fun, really. But what again offsets it slightly are some really bad matte painting shots. On the U.S.S. Cygnus, there is a conveyor that brings the crewmembers from one portion of the station to the other. A glass dome protects them from the lack of atmosphere outside. While this is cool in concept, itís terrible in execution. Seeing the characters zoom through this thing while the station is being destroyed is a sight I never want to witness again. It looks like someone took that video game Pong and applied the quality of those graphics to The Black Hole. My goodness do these shots look bad. If this werenít a generally cheesy film to begin with, these effects shots would make the entire film heretical to the religion of Filmmaking.

Despite the uneven quality of the special effects, the direction from Gary Nelson is actually quite good. Itís nothing extremely special, though it gets the job done very effectively. The widescreen visuals are extremely pleasing to the eye, especially some shots of the U.S.S. Cygnus interior in which the hallways seem to go on forever. Nelson definitely has a very good visual sense, as well as a sense of what plays effectively onscreen. A scene in which Vincent squares off against an old robot opponent of Bobís in a laser gun game is very well staged. The sceneís conclusion in which Vincentís opponent completely short circuits is actually a lot funnier than it has any right to be since Nelson has staged it so well. The action in the final act is also staged well. Thanks to Nelsonís direction, and the good editing by Gregg McLaughlin, the film is well paced and the various narrative punches (such as what has happened to the rest of U.S.S. Cygnusí crew) come off extremely well. Definitely helping matters is the plain yet good cinematography by Frank V. Phillips. While the filmís look doesnít quite give the locations a lived-in quality, at least the lighting is pleasing to the eye. It wonít make you believe that any of whatís onscreen actually exists, yet it will at least make things look very pretty.

The dialogue, courtesy of a screenplay by Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day, is good for the most part. Unsurprisingly, the best lines come courtesy of the robots Bob and Vincent. Itís as if the screenwriters realized that they would ultimately be the filmís best characters, and thus gave them as much good dialogue as possible. Also, characters are very well defined and there isnít, surprisingly, a single moment when character motivation is in any way sketchy. In fact, some of whatís presented here contributes effectively to the filmís darkness. One character proves to be a coward, and attempts to escape the U.S.S. Cygmus leaving his crew behind. He, of course, is punished in the film for this cowardly action. The moment itself, and some other equally bleak moments, give the film quite a bit of credibility. While this can sometimes make the film seem tonally inconsistent given the high cheese factor, it at least, as mentioned above, gives The Black Hole some credibility and a reason for the audience to continue watching.

Nothing in the film, I must say, is more disappointing than when the characters actually venture within the black hole and the moments leading up to it. Itís much like the desperate ten minute Star Child sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both sequences make one think how disappointingly anti-climactic the answer to one of lifeís mysteries is. If all thatís waiting for me on the other side is a fancy and inorganic light show, itís going to tick me off just a little bit. The light show before and in the black hole doesnít even make sense at times. As the U.S.S. Cygnus is being destroyed, the black hole becomes a bright fluorescent red. Huh? At one point, a hole breaks in the stationís greenhouse and the characters are somehow still able to walk without much resistance despite the fact that the air is being sucked out into space. Sometimes the action is so confusing around this point, that it actually looks like the crewmembers are resting on a portion of the ship thatís outside in space and but a few feet away from the black hole to boot! The journey through the hole itself is spellbindingly awful. I mentioned the Bible before, as well as some horrifically poor allusions to it. With this in mind, to where do you think the filmmakers want us to believe the black hole leads? To say that this would be impossible to capture is an understatement, and especially so when one considers the special effects available at the time. What we get in The Black Hole are some bad matte effects and a camera that spins around ridiculously with a silly distorted image. Thatís whatís waiting for me? Something that will make me look really silly for a few minutes?

The musical score by John Barry, however, does help us through this unbelievably poor passage of the film. Itís also quite enjoyable for the most part. While not really anything special, Barryís score does provide the audience with a good sense of wonder throughout The Black Hole. During the action scenes, the score is effective enough in livening the audience up enough to make them emotionally invested in whatís happening onscreen. The filmís overall theme is very pleasing, and I canít admit to not having listened to it a second time during the opening overture. There is one moment, however, in which Iím curious as to what Barry was thinking. The protagonist, Captain Dan Holland, is attempting to rescue his crewmember Dr. Kate McCrae from a machine that will severely inhibit her. The score under this scene is an uplifting one, which only functions in completely canceling out the suspense of the sequence. If the goal was to achieve a contrapuntal effect that would be in the filmís favour, the filmmakers have failed completely here. Setting a suspenseful sequence to uplifting music lets one know how the scene will conclude even before the threat of the scene has been established. Given that John Barry is usually intelligent when it comes to film scores, Iím surprised how he could think that using an uplifting score in a tense situation was in any way a good decision.

The performances work in The Black Holeís favour. Robert Forster is great as Captain Dan Holland. While the role does not require much, he is still able to convince an audience effectively that we are in fact watching Dan Holland and not Forster playing him. Ernest Borgnine contributes another of his trademark wide-eyed performances that are always of great entertainment value. As Harry Booth, he is great fun to watch. As the mildly insane Dr. Reindhart, Maximilian Schell is effective though a little bit too goofy. He attempts to underplay situations, yet it seems ultimately like he is trying way too hard to be insane and evil. Fortunately, he actually isnít onscreen for too long to hurt the film. In fact, his robot guard Maximilian exhibits much more menace than Schell ever does. As the voices of Vincent and Bob, Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickins respectively contribute some excellent voice work. Always a capable actor, McDowall is able to convince one that he or she is in fact watching a robot that is alive and human in some way. Without a performer of McDowallís capabilities, Vincent would hardly have been as entertaining to watch onscreen. Pickins contributes the same kind of excellence to Bob, reminding one affectionately of the tired old man character one sees occasionally in Westerns. Anthony Perkins, despite essentially playing the role as if he were still in Psycho, is very good as Dr. Alex Durant. One believes him all throughout the film, since his performance has an honesty that few actors actually possess. He plays every beat his character must take like a true pro, and the film is all the better for it. The supporting cast is also pretty effective, save for Yvette Mimieux as Dr. Kate McCrae. Throughout the film, she is the weakest element performance-wise, hardly ever convincing in her scenes.

The Black Hole is ultimately a perfectly average film that does provide some solid entertainment value. While it is definitely a flawed film, it is still the best live-action Disney film yet produced. Given the rating it deserves, however, that really isnít a great sign for the Disney Company in general. Give The Black Hole a look for some flawed yet mostly unassuming fun.

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originally posted: 02/18/07 09:03:36
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User Comments

5/28/18 Alan My favourite movie as a 7 year old child - liked it even more than Star Wars 5 stars
1/24/15 Giv Most remember this as a bad film; it's much better than that and rather affecting too. 4 stars
5/12/13 Perl Po8 This film is so adorable in how seriously it takes itself. I miss when Disney took chances 4 stars
9/11/12 cloudy There should be Alien vs. Maximillian and the goon bots 5 stars
4/24/08 David Cohen Okay, so it's not "Star Wars" at least it's not "The Phantom Menace" 3 stars
3/31/08 Aaron Weird yes, believeable no. This is a classic gothic tale in space, folks! 4 stars
12/27/07 Trey Did we watch the same movie?! Juvinile crap! 20000 Leagues in Space, my ass... 1 stars
11/19/07 Jeff Anderson A visually stunning masterpiece from Disney & lots of fun. John Barry's score is fantastic! 5 stars
11/14/07 Tom Servo Ahh my old uncle B.O.B.- god rest him. Maximillian STILL kicks ass! 4 stars
10/29/07 LouBob The ending is fantastic. The ultimate ending!! 5 stars
6/13/07 Alan Flawed, but visually stunning. Loved it as a kid, and I still love it now! 4 stars
4/24/07 David Pollastrini Great fx for it's time! 4 stars
3/23/07 Centurion Draco Visually stunning, with shocks and laughs! Great flying Robots. Maximillian is STILL scary! 5 stars
2/21/07 RKM Weak but lots of chessy fun, and so goofy. So Disney. 4 stars
2/12/07 Eric The first Disney movie where a human dies. 4 stars
10/27/06 Indrid Cold Possibly the most bizarre major studio release ever, certainly from Disney. 2 stars
6/12/05 Gecko Fanfoot A huge black hole of suck. 1 stars
6/27/04 Dr. Lecter Humans breathe in the vacuum of space! 2 stars
6/22/03 Anneca Loved it at age 13 & I see no reason to change my mind now. Nit-picking can ruin ANY movie. 5 stars
4/19/03 Marisa Monroe You will LOVE this movie! 5 stars
2/11/03 Ubu the Ripper Anyone who had anything to do with this movie should be euthanized. 1 stars
1/26/03 Jack Sommersby Atypically creepy flick from Disney. Flawed but mesmerizing. 4 stars
1/13/03 Vince Decent movie, but the end needs more explanation. 3 stars
12/05/02 Roddy fangirl My hero Roddy as a very sassy robot, what can be cooler?? 5 stars
10/26/02 Charles Tatum Cool effects 4 stars
1/18/02 David A. Lots of special effects but no story. Robot racism just doesn't do it for me. 2 stars
12/06/01 LP Quagmire On par with 2001. 5 stars
7/14/00 Japtalian Piece of Disney shit!! 1 stars
3/07/00 J. AlŠn Blankenship A strangely interesting film...I'd like to see a remake. 4 stars
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  21-Dec-1979 (PG)
  DVD: 03-Aug-2004



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