By any reasonably objective standard, Gary Nelson’s The Black Hole is an extravagantly bad film, combining some of the worst excesses of two separate SF film-making lineages. And yet it is one I find it very hard to dismiss. I suspect this is partly because I first saw it on its original release, when I was very young, and as a result I have that special fondness for it born of nostalgia. Then, a few years later I bought a second-hand copy of Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation, which I read and re-read many times and which has coloured my perception of the film ever since.
Foster does a huge amount to both expand the story of the film and its characters, and fix some of the more egregious holes in the screenplay, and watching the film again now I’m often struck by just how much of what I remember of it isn’t on the screen at all – he puts in a romance between two of the lead characters, for instance, of which the only sign in the finished film is a very chaste handclasp. So I have to be careful when attempting to summarise the plot, to only include stuff which is definitely on screen.
Some time in the future, the research starship Palomino is returning to Earth when it encounters the black hole of the title. But the crew of six (two pilots, two scientists, a journalist, and a cute robot) find the hole makes less of a demand on their attentions than the presence very close to it of a giant starship from a previous generation: the Cygnus, presumed lost for decades. The Cygnus seems immune to the titanic gravity of the hole, but the Palomino is not and during its investigation the smaller ship suffers severe damage to its life-support systems.
The Palomino is forced to dock with the Cygnus in search of replacement parts and the crew discover it is not a dead ship: the original commander, Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) is still very much alive and in control of a variety of obedient and dangerous-looking robots of his own manufacture. But he seems the perfect host, if a little eccentric, and offers them his hospitality while they carry out repairs. He even offers them the secret of the anti-gravity field which allows him to defy the gravity well of the black hole.
However, mysteries begin to accumulate: the Palomino‘s captain (Robert Forster) witnesses the Cygnus‘s robots apparently carrying out a funeral, for instance. And when Reinhardt reveals his ambition to take his vessel through the black hole into the universe beyond, and one of the original Cygnus robots tells the visitors exactly what befell the original crew, it becomes apparent that they are in very dire straits indeed…
The Black Hole was part of the first wave of big-budget studio SF movies to come out as a result of the massive success of Star Wars, along with other fondly-remembered probably quite bad films like Flash Gordon and Moonraker. It does try to stick closer to the Star Wars template than most of the others, though – the three leads consist of a wily old spaceship captain, a demure and slightly posh woman, and a young hotheaded pilot, all played by relative unknowns, while the other key roles are filled by distinguished character actors (Schell, Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Perkins). The laser gun battles of the third act and John Barry’s score are also aping Lucas’s baby.
And yet, at the same time The Black Hole is also looking back to an older tradition of cinema SF: the austere, brooding movie-of-ideas, as exemplified by 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is not a bright or particularly colourful movie, jokes are fairly thin on the ground, and Reinhardt in particular is much given to out-loud existential pondering about the nature of the universe. You might even say it was a bit morbid and pretentious.
The two styles smash together and produce something very peculiar: a movie which tries to get the science right and include mature, dark ideas, but in which the most memorable and lively characters are a bunch of robots (voiced, uncredited, by Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens) and which is largely resolved by laser gun fights. (The most moving scene in the film is not the death of any of the human characters but the final shutdown of one of the robot characters, which should tell you something.)
This in itself would not necessarily make The Black Hole a bad film, but the extent to which the storyline unravels in the final third (things just happen, for no adequately explored reason except that they advance or resolve the plot) does. Why does Reinhardt’s hench-bot suddenly decide to kill one of the visitors? Why is Reinhardt so bothered about silencing his guests, given he’s planning to leave for another universe anyway? Why does the Cygnus‘s attempt to travel through the hole result in such rapid and disastrous failure? None of this is really gone into in any detail.
It’s particularly bemusing as, to begin with, this looks like a lavish movie which is making a genuine attempt to get the science right – the zero-G conditions in effect on the Palomino are well-achieved (one of things not explicitly touched upon is why they have gravity on the Cygnus). But by the conclusion, while the movie is no less lavish, the scientific accuracy has degenerated to pitiable levels: the interior of the black hole is a peach-coloured cloud within which characters can float around, unencumbered by space suits, without sustaining any apparent harm.
And having gone into full-on kid-friendly laser battle mode twenty minutes or so earlier, the conclusion sees the movie snapping back in the other direction and having its own go at the ‘star gate’ sequence from 2001. Except that here it’s doomy rather than transcendental with a strong, yet baffling, religious element: the black hole is a gateway to hell, apparently, which is ruled over by… well, let’s just say it makes about as much sense as anything else.
(Foster fixes all this stuff in the novelisation, rather impressively, at the cost of completely changing the end of the story and making it considerably less conventional. One is slightly surprised he was allowed to get away with it.)
The cast do the best they can with all of this, although the dourly intellectual tone of the proceedings means that no-one can really give an eye-catching performance except Schell (that said, McDowell is predictably good as the voice of the epigram-loving robot). The production designs are excellent when it comes to the ships and the friendly robots, less impressive when it comes to the opposition (a bit too obviously action-figurey). And I do have a very soft spot for John Barry’s score. He’s trying to be John Williams and really not managing it, but the opening theme has a sweeping majesty to it, even if the music for the action sequences is ponderous when it should be rousing. Even here, though, his contribution should not be dismissed: that the climactic duel of the robots works even as well as it does is almost entirely down to Barry’s music.
I know this film is really not very good. I know the reason why I am the only person I know who can’t see the strings holding up the robots is that I’m the only one who isn’t actively looking for them. I know this film is the result of a collision between two different sensibilities, and that the results are not especially accomplished in any department beyond possibly the production designs. But first I saw this movie when I wasn’t engaging with films with my brain, but solely with my heart and my imagination, and it managed to carve out a place in my affections that it has never quite lost. That’s not much of a reason for liking The Black Hole as much as I do, but it’s the only one I can offer.