The Black Hole sent a generation of sci-fi fans to hell

One afternoon in 1979, a movie sent me to hell.

I was 7 years old. The movie was Disney’s science-fiction event The Black Hole. I watched it the week it was released—Christmas week, because I guess God thinks he’s funny—and I left that matinee shaken and bewildered, my brain squirming with nightmares.

I’d already seen the trailer for The Black Hole a dozen times by the time it opened, thanks to the fact that my grandmother managed a movie theater. Judging from that trailer, I expected The Black Hole to be more or less like Star Wars. If anything, I thought it might be even more kid-friendly than Star Wars. After all, it was made by Disney. What I got instead was a slow-paced, sporadically disorienting film that ends with the human villain merging with the robot villain. After that, this hybrid man-bot is consigned—with no ambiguity whatsoever—to the fire and brimstone of the biblical underworld. Hell. Literally. My entire 7-year-old cosmology, such as it was, imploded. I couldn’t help but love it.

At the age of 7, I was already a science-fiction fan. I was raised on Star Trek reruns. I saw Star Wars in the theater during its original run. My favorite TV show was Battlestar Galactica. Space captivated me. So did lasers, starships, and robots. Three years before I was born, man had walked on the moon. It seemed only logical—yes, Spock was my role model—that by the time I was, oh, maybe 9 or so, we’d be on Mars. And by the time I was 42? In the year 2014? I’d be whizzing back and forth to Alpha Centauri every weekend using my warp-speed jetpack.

Science fiction was my religion. Religion certainly wasn’t. When I was 7, I barely knew what hell was. I was baptized as a baby, and that’s as close to faith as I’ve ever come. I’m pretty sure my mom rolled joints on our otherwise neglected copy of the Bible. My grandparents believed in God—they were the ones who insisted on my baptism—but they never pushed me toward religion. I was more likely to hear them cuss and switch the channel to Star Trek when a televangelist came on than I was to hear them pray.

The infernal imagery of The Black Hole didn’t enthrall me because I thought I might go to hell and burn forever someday. Vivid and enveloping, the film was just plain awesome to behold. It didn’t hurt that Maximilian—the silent, single-eyed, blood-red robot who winds up merging with his diabolical creator, Dr. Hans Reinhardt—looked like a cross between a Cylon and Darth Vader. He was Droid Vader, and he had murderous blades that spun like propellers, and he was the most badass robot I had ever seen.

I recently rewatched The Black Hole for the first time in 35 years. I still agree with my 7-year-old self’s assessment of Maximilian. Hulking and sinister, he’s brilliantly designed and utilized in the film. Which is good, because the story isn’t. Its premise is groaningly simple: In the future, a crew of space explorers stumbles across a ship, the Cygnus, that was presumed lost decades ago. Even less probably, it’s parked just outside a black hole; somehow it’s able to counteract the phenomenon’s immense gravitational pull. The one that light, we are reminded constantly, can’t even escape.

Once inside the Cygnus, the crew meets Reinhardt, a stereotypically Nazi-like mad scientist who enslaved his former crewmates and now has insane plans for the black hole. Humans fight humans. Humans fight robots. Robots fight robots. Things come to a head, the villains get their just desserts, and that’s that. There’s about as much plot to The Black Hole as there is to an average, hour-long episode of the original Star Trek. Perhaps less. Only that flimsy story is stretched out over 98 minutes, with a full 60 of those minutes consisting of people milling about while tranquilly talking to each other.

Even when Maximilian makes his first appearance, immediately busts out his deadly blades, and slowly advances toward them, the heroes stand around chatting about him in nonchalant, professorial tones. If the characters don’t act like they’re in direct peril when they glaringly are, it’s kind of hard to feel any kind of sympathy for them, let alone suspense.

But it’s not all bad. The Black Hole, on a level of strict optics, is even better than I remember. Disney had to invest in innovative, computer-aided technology to realize director Gary Nelson’s sprawling cosmic vistas, due to the cost-prohibitive plan of renting equipment from George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic. Nelson had primarily worked in television up to that point; his filmography was only three movies long, the most recent being 1976’s Freaky Friday. Technically, Freak Friday is a speculative-fiction film, but of course it’s nowhere near as conceptual or darkly panoramic as The Black Hole.

Nelson may have been in over his head, but it doesn’t show from The Black Hole’s design. It’s beautiful, with intricate spacecraft, richly detailed sets, and the aforementioned Maximilian, a study in sculptural menace. Then there’s the titular orifice itself, which swirls and spirals like some kind of vast, living math equation. As far as hard science goes, though, The Black Hole gets a big, fat F. The movie has been lambasted for decades for its shoddy astrophysics. Earlier this year, Neil DeGrasse Tyson went so far to dub it the most scientifically inaccurate movie of all time. (Granted, Lucy hadn’t come out yet.)

With all respect to DeGrasse Tyson: As a 7-year-old, I did not give a fuck about the accuracy of The Black Hole’s science, and I do not give a fuck now. The fact that one of the good-guy scientists, the leaden Kate McCrae, can communicate telepathically with a robot doesn’t even bother me. Just as Star Wars works better as fantasy as than as science fiction, so does The Black Hole work better as another genre entirely—in this case, gothic horror. The film is awash in mood and mystery. It’s steeped in shadows and silhouettes. Reinhardt isn’t just a mad scientist; he’s the deranged, manipulative Manfred in The Castle Of Otranto. And the Cygnus is that castle, only tilted on its side.

Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in May of 1979, but I didn’t see it until long after I’d seen The Black Hole—and so I had yet to witness the new ways that horror and science fiction could be combined on the big screen. But the atmospheric, gore-free horror of The Black Hole works for me more effectively now that it did when I was little. I’m bored more than ever by the film’s soggy middle hour, but I love its subtle audacity. The haunted, oppressive weight of The Black Hole belies the weightlessness of its setting, and that tension is at times breathtaking.

If only V.I.N.CENT could be digitally erased from the movie. Barring Maximilian Schell’s bug-eyed mugging as Reinhardt, the cast of The Black Hole is uniformly bland—Anthony Perkins seems on the verge of coma—but it’s the robotic character of V.I.N.CENT who remains The Black Hole’s sour note. Like the Herbie The Love Bug of robots, V.I.N.CENT is formulated to appeal to kids, from his big, cartoonish eyes to his faux-R2D2 shape. In spite of that, he’s not lovable at all. Voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall, V.I.N.CENT is annoying, supercilious, condescending, and at times downright cruel. Even worse is B.O.B., a doddering, damaged old robot (voiced by Slim Pickens, also uncredited) of the same make as V.I.N.CENT—only B.O.B. is an earlier model, presumably manufactured when people preferred to buy robots with hideously sad expressions fixed on their faces.

While rewatching The Black Hole, the thing that blew me away in 1979 now simply blew: the ending. It’s bad. Very, very bad. Up to that point, the movie moves along at a sluggish clip, but at least it makes sense. Then, out of nowhere, it gets metaphysical. In a nutshell: Everyone enters the black hole; shit gets trippy; the two bad guys become one bad guy; they go to hell; a spirit floats into heaven; the good guys shoot out the other side; cue bombastic John Barry score. The camera lingers overly long on vague shots of ethereal weirdness, as if staring at them long enough might reveal mind-shattering, soul-altering truths.

The Black Hole opened the same month as Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There are many parallels between the two films, most of which involve the looming influence of a far superior work, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like Kubrick’s masterpiece, The Black Hole and ST:TMP seek to capture the grandeur of infinite space through balletic, meditative cinematography, all while tackling philosophical questions about consciousness and existence. (The Black Hole’s casting of Pickens, Kubrick’s atomic cowboy in Dr. Strangelove, could not have been a coincidence.) The problem is, The Black Hole and ST:TMP mimic much of 2001’s vocabulary without grokking the poetic psychedelia at the heart of Kubrick’s vision. Instead—during The Black Hole’s climactic sequence when everyone gets sucked through the black hole—Nelson zooms in on a Silly Putty-stretched eyeball and passes it off as profound.

Before I sat down to revisit The Black Hole, I assumed it would be silly and dull. In that sense, it didn’t let me down. What I didn’t anticipate was how excruciatingly pretentious it is. In the film’s first few minutes, Ernest Borgnine’s character—his name is not important; he’s the old guy who gets down to brass tacks and cuts the crap—breaks character while he’s gawking wide-eyed at the black hole. At that moment, he feels compelled to say, “My God… it’s right out of Dante’s Inferno.” (I half-hoped he would finish that sentence with “…it’s full of stars.) Even the gruff, no-nonsense member of the team is forced to spout literary references in rarified tones.

Then Reinhardt, gulping down more scenery than even the black hole could stomach, equates the cattiness between V.I.N.CENT and Maximilian as a biblical conflict on par with David versus Goliath. V.I.N.CENT, for fuck’s sake, cites Cicero by name. The characters all feel puppeteered by a self-important script that can’t be bothered to understand them—any more than it can understand that black holes, you know, probably shouldn’t be colored red.

Looking back, there’s one benefit The Black Hole gave me as a kid, besides showing me that you should always root for the evil robot. It prepared me for the spectacle and surreality of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I didn’t wind up seeing 2001 until I was a teenager. When I did, it reminded me of The Black Hole, only reverse-engineered so as not to suck.

Watching The Black Hole again after all these years wasn’t nearly as hellish an experience as it was the first time around. I kind of wish it had been. I wasn’t whisked away to some far corner of the galaxy where heaven and hell might be real places, or God and Satan actual beings. I wasn’t prodded to ponder the nature of life, the universe, or anything. I wasn’t confounded or frightened or even nostalgically comforted. I was, however, taught a lesson, one I couldn’t have possibly comprehended when I was 7: When you gaze long into The Black Hole, The Black Hole doesn’t really return the favor.

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