The Hole Truth
It's that time of year again, with no major releases troubling cinemas in the build-up to Christmas, and so as usual I think it would be appropriate to cast our eye over a film from years go by. As you may know, I do love me a bit of knockabout sci-fi action from the late 1970s, and so I thought that, for our retro review this year, it would be nice to have a look at Gary Nelson's 1979 film The Black Hole. This was a Disney movie, part of the first wave of major studio releases looking to cash in on the success of George Lucas' original stellar conflict movie (that sort of thing doesn't happen these days, of course), but – as we shall see – it also takes inspiration from other, and perhaps slightly surprising, sources.
Close examination of the movie suggests it may be set in 2130, with the spaceship Palomino coming to the end of a long and apparently fruitless search for extraterrestrial life. In charge is Robert Forster, assisted by Joseph Bottoms and an uncredited Roddy McDowell (McDowell is voicing the ship's robot), while taking care of the science are Anthony Perkins and Yvette Mimieux. Also on board is Ernest Borgnine, playing a reporter, because you can't have enough film star heft in the character parts, I suppose.
When the ship happens upon an enormous black hole they are understandably fascinated and wary in equal measure, but the discovery of a much larger ship from Earth, the Cygnus, which has been missing in space for decades, prompts them to investigate further – for one thing, the Cygnus appears to have the inexplicable power to resist the gravity of the black hole, and for another, Mimieux's character's father was serving on the ship when it vanished.
However, the ship is damaged on its approach to the Cygnus and is forced to dock with it in order to look for vital spare parts. The ship, initially dark and unresponsive, proves to still be occupied, by its original commander (Maximilian Schell) and various robots under his control. He is initially a gracious host, telling them of how the ship was damaged and abandoned by the crew, but an antique stores robot (voiced by Slim Pickens) tells a different tale: the Palomino crew are in terrible danger, and not just from the rip in the fabric of the universe just outside the viewport...
So, as I say, this is one of the first big-budget stellar conflict knock-off movies, and it does a good job of trying to look lavish by the standards of the day. There are some big sets on display, some fairly lavish set-pieces, and some notable talent both in front of and behind the camera. It is also diligent in hitting all those stellar conflict marks – we have some loveable robots, a leading trio composed of a grizzled old veteran, a keen young dude, and a slightly posh woman, and lashings of ray-gun battles in the third act.
All pretty much as you'd expect for this kind of movie (even if some of the special effects do look rather primitive compared to other films of a similar vintage). However, there are other things going on here, and some of them are frankly baffling. Prior to 1977, most studio SF movies struck a fairly gloomy, even dystopian note, occasionally incorporating a not-especially-rigorously-thought-through cosmic mysticism if the writers had been watching 2001: A Space Odyssey recently.
The weird thing about The Black Hole is that – consciously or not – it appears to be trying to not just knock off George Lucas but also Kubrick and any other SF directors from the early 70s it can possibly manage. It has those cute robots and ray-gun fights with action-figureish baddie robots, but also a lavish extended dream sequence depicting the black hole as the gateway to hell, complete with burning landscapes and armies of damned souls. The Cygnus has a recreation area where all the robots can hang out and relax by playing games with each other, while just down the corridor is a room where human beings are given lobotomies by laser beam and transformed into mindless living zombies. There is, to say the least, something tonally very peculiar about this film.
It also has the distinction of having been named as the most scientifically inaccurate film in history by noted American boffin Neil deGrasse Tyson. And he has a point, as there are some very strange things happening at certain points. Not throughout the film, though – again, you get the sense of watching something stitched together from a number of wildly different sources. The early scenes on the Palomino include – at some expense and inconvenience, I would imagine – a fairly serious attempt to depict operating in zero gravity, but this is all forgotten once everyone arrives on the Cygnus. This is nothing compared to the climax of the film, of course, which reveals that the interior of a black hole is a sort of pink fog in which people can float around without spacesuits and suffer no obvious ill-effects.
Despite all of this, The Black Hole is a film for which I must confess a certain fondness, partly because of the baffling juxtaposition of cutesy sci-fi and utter stygian darkness, partly because – on its own crazed terms – the story hangs together reasonably well, partly because of John Barry's score – trying so very hard to be John Williams – and partly because I was, for many years, much more familiar with the novelisation than the actual film. This was the work of Alan Dean Foster, top man in the film tie-in world for many years – there is a conspiracy theory that he didn't just ghost-write the novelisation of the first stellar conflict movie (it is credited to George Lucas), he actually wrote the screenplay, too.
Here, Foster works incredibly hard to explain all the peculiar things in the movie so it actually coheres as a piece of credible SF, up to and including changing the ending completely. One of the pleasures of the classic tie-in book was that it was invariably written from the shooting script, not the final cut, giving you a little more insight into the story. If that was the case here, then it is doubly appropriate we consider The Black Hole right now, as the movie is apparently meant to be set at Christmas (the time of year it was released), thus making its tone even more peculiar (if that is actually possible).
This is supposed to be a time for charity and generosity, and I have never had any difficulty in being both charitable and generous towards The Black Hole. It is, as they say, a bad movie, but for me it is a Good Bad Movie, and refreshingly unpredictable. It's hard to envision Disney releasing something so inventively odd nowadays, anyway.