The Black Hole (1979)

Director: Gary Nelson

Starring: Maximillian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowell, Slim Pickens

Written by: Jeb Rosebrook, Gerry Day, (story) Bob Barbash and Richard Landau.

Running Time: 98 mins

Original cert: A

Original UK release: 18th December 2013

The Black hole is a curiosity. Disney’s first foray into science fiction, jumping on the Star Wars bandwagon is as far removed from anything that Disney had done up to that point. The film was the first from the studio to be classified a PG certificate (or A in the UK). It has all the ingredients that children would love from a space adventure, cute robots, laser fights, big crafts and yet it had a cast of supporting stars from the past, an incredibly wordy script full of techno-babble and an ending so bizarre that it was a mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey and religious philosophy.

The USS Palomino, a research ship, comes across a black hole and sitting on the edge is a missing ship from years before, the USS Cygnus. As Palomino gets closer, it becomes damaged and has to dock on the Cygnus, where the crew discover a vessel almost completely run by cyborgs, led by the mysterious Dr Hans Reinhardt. Reinhardt allows his visitors to hear the tale that the crew escaped leaving only him on board but what they don’t know is that Reinhardt has a plan to enter the Black Hole and he needs the Palomino to monitor his journey. Then the crew of the Palomino makes a startling discovery that could end up with them all dead.

For a film made in 1979, the effects are somewhat dated now but at the time they must have seemed state-of-the-art. The one thing that does impress is the size of the sets, as the Cygnus is a huge craft, the characters are literally running the length of them. Also John Barry’s score plays a vital part. Sounding like a reject from a Bond film, it still is pretty stirring stuff as Barry’s distinctive use of music does work well with the size and scope of the picture.

What doesn’t work quite so well is the story-line  It’s starts off with plenty of promise: research craft discovering missing craft sitting next to a Black Hole, the most dangerous thing in space. There’s even a moderate amount of excitement as the crew battle to save their ship from being sucked into the hole. It’s once they enter the Cygnus that the film starts to fall flat. A very long and wordy sequence in which Reinhardt lays down his plans and tells of what happened seems to bring the film to a grinding hold. It’s a similar misfortune that happened to Star Trek – The Motion Picture. long, drawn out scenes that don’t exactly move the action along.

We then get a strange shoot-out between robots with the cute pair of V.I.N.C.E.N.T and B.O.B taking on the best robot shooter in a target practice game where the bad robot seems to want to cheat. I’m sure it was place there to entertain the younger members of the audience but it seems completely perfunctory.  V.I.N.C.E.N.T, a smart-alec robot (see C3PO), spends his time spouting proverbs to prove his point (and voiced with an air of superiority by Roddy McDowell) and B.O.B, a Texan robot all beaten up and broken (see R2-D2) and voiced by legendary western star Slim Pickens, seem to be both the comic stooges and the voices of reason in an otherwise crazy world.

Once everything is established, plot wise  we then get a final 30 minutes of random laser shoot-outs between the humans and the robots while Reinhardt becomes more manic, heading to the hole. Will the crew of the Palomino escape in time? Will they all survive? Why does it suddenly become like out-takes from 2001? And what is that somewhat sleazy shot of Reinhardt and his pet robot Maximilian all about?

The cast of actors, all familiar faces but only in secondary roles (apart from Anthony Perkins) who struggled to shake Norman Bates away, all seem to feel slightly awkward reciting the manuals to a 70s computer but this isn’t a film about acting, it’s a family sci-fi romp.

It was fun viewing it again after so many years but it has become a relic in a world of ever growing technology. Star Wars managed to stand the test of time but this hasn’t. In fact, watching it again, I am amazed that, as a kid, I enjoyed it or made any real sense of it. If you have never seen it before, you might find it a slice of nostalgic nonsense but don’t go looking for a second Star Wars. Intermittently fun but that middle second just drags the hell out of it.


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