This is a science fiction film about the crew of a deep space exploration ship, U.S.S. Palomino, who, on a search for habitable planets, stumble upon a derelict vessel sitting at the edge of a black hole.
Kate McCrae, one of the crew members, recognizes it as the long-lost U.S.S. Cygnus because her father served aboard it, and has been missing and presumed dead since its disappearance.
At first, the Cygnus seems abandoned, but soon springs to life, lights flickering on and defense systems activating. The explorers are quickly conducted to the bridge, where they meet Dr. Hans Reinhardt, a brilliant scientist, who explains that he alone remained aboard after the ship became disabled. He ordered the rest of the crew to return to Earth, and is saddened to learn they did not make it.
Reinhardt has kept the ship running with a crew of robots that he has built, led by one sinister machine called “Maximillian.” The crew of the Palomino is duly impressed with what Reinhardt has accomplished, and assures him he’ll be hailed as a genius when he returns home with them.
But Reinhardt has other plans. Over the decades that he has waited at the edge of the black hole, he has been making calculations and running experiments, and become convinced that he can pilot the Cygnus into it and emerge somewhere else. He plans to conduct this experiment soon, and invites the members of the Palomino to act as observers. Until then, of course, he is happy to have them as his guests.
While Reinhardt is undoubtedly brilliant, it’s clear there’s something strange going on aboard his creepy, nearly-deserted ship. The captain of the Palomino witnesses the hooded robot crew performing something akin to a funeral ritual.
(I couldn’t find a good still of this scene online. The above was the best I could do, but it doesn’t do it justice. It’s super-eerie.)
Meanwhile, the Palomino‘s science officer, Dr. Durant, is gradually becoming just as obsessed with the beckoning void as Reinhardt is, and seems to be falling under the sway of the charismatic scientist. This culminates in a great scene where McCrae is trying to reason with him to return to the Palomino, and suddenly Reinhardt appears looming over them both, intoning the lines from the Book of Genesis:
And darkness was on the face of the deep. And the spirt of God moved upon the face of the waters.
(By the way, this verse is also used in “Fact of Existence” by Noah Goats, another story about a creepy spaceship run by a crew of robots built by a mad scientist. It’s a great piece of philosophical science-fiction, and I’ll never pass up a chance to hype it. We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming.)
Yes, if you hadn’t figured it out already, Dr. Reinhardt isn’t altogether on the level. He’s been concealing some important facts, which I won’t reveal here, but which you can probably guess.
The end of the film is a series of shootouts with Reinhardt’s robot crew, followed by an unexpected meteor barrage which tears the Cygnus apart even as Reinhardt, going full Captain Ahab, remains fixated on the black hole.
And yes, they do go into it eventually. What happens? Well, I’ll discuss that a little later on. For now, I want to summarize that this movie has almost all the elements I like in sci-fi: a creepy abandoned vessel in deep space, vaguely occult atmosphere, and battle robots with laser guns. And it weaves these elements into a fairly interesting story.
So, as a concept, I’d give The Black Hole an A+
But concept is only half the battle. What about the execution?
(For some reason, this makes me think of an apocryphal story about football coach John McKay.)
Seriously folks, as good as the basic idea of The Black Hole is, the actual translation of it to the screen leaves a great deal to be desired.
First of all, apart from Maximilian Schell as Reinhardt and Anthony Perkins as Durant, the acting is pretty bad. Most of the actors deliver their lines as if they’d learned them phonetically.
Then, there are the robots. Not the cool, bipedal evil robots; those are great! No, I mean the two little floating robots who serve as the comic relief:
These things are so annoying, and their cartoonish look clashes with the aesthetic of the rest of the film. I don’t understand why they are here.
Wait a minute; yes, I do! They’re in this film because it was the Walt Disney Company’s attempt to cash in on the popularity of science-fiction movies following Star Wars.
But the thing is, this movie otherwise doesn’t really feel like Star Wars, which was a fun space operatic romp. Until the third act, this is harder sci-fi; more Trek than Wars, and thus the robots feel out of place.
About that third act… that’s where everything goes to hell, in more ways than one. As the Cygnus collapses, so does any pretense of scientific realism or logic. Let it suffice to say that, if I could ask the director of the film, “Is there oxygen in outer space?”, I am not at all sure what kind of answer I would have received. It looks more like a hurricane than a black hole at that point.
Once through the black hole, things get weirder. If the rest of the film was Walt Disney’s Star Trek, this part is Walt Disney’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s no dialogue, just a series of weird images, evoking both Heaven and Hell, before a final extremely ambiguous and unsatisfying ending.
I’ll give it this: the Hell image is very striking. There are a number of references to Heaven, Hell, and God in the dialogue, including the Bible verse quoted above, and I’m almost tempted to read the film as a religious allegory of some sort. But I’m not qualified to do that. (Patrick Prescott is. So, Pat, if you’re reading this…)
My grade for the execution of this fantastic concept is a C-, and that’s being generous. It’s disappointing, because the film could have been so much more. It’s enough to make me wish for a remake with some of the flaws ironed out, but of course with its steadfast commitment to looking forward and boldly experimenting, Disney would never consider bringing an old property out of mothballs for a quick buck.
Earlier this week, Lydia Schoch asked me where I find the things I review. Obviously, I mostly review books, not films, but this is as good a place as any to answer this question. To put it simply, I look for stuff that’s weird. In this case, I saw a video on YouTube about The Black Hole and it sounded interesting. Especially because it’s a film by a big studio, with recognizable actors, and yet I’d never heard of it before.
Of course, I can’t always count on the YouTube algorithm to serve me up a gimme like that, especially when it comes to books. For those, I’ll sometimes just search Amazon for keywords that sound interesting to me, and see what comes up that has relatively few reviews. Another technique is to pick a famous book, then try to find out what other, less-famous books are like it, and read those. For example, say you want a story about a boy at a school for wizards who must learn magic to confront an evil sorcerer. You might find the 1991 novel Wizard’s Hall, by Jane Yolen. I have not yet read this book, but maybe someday.
Above all, when I look for things to review, I try to make them random. Of course, they are not truly random, as any scientist will be quick to tell you. But they are at least, I hope, a road less traveled by.
Lastly, I try to keep my search for interesting media informed by three quotes. The first is something Natalie Portman says in my favorite movie, Jane Got a Gun:
You might want to see a day where the sun don’t just shine on your story. Because there is a whole world out there of other people’s tales, if you just care and listen.
The second is a dialogue from the 1988 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, when the great detective explains to Henry Baskerville why even a seemingly trivial matter is worth investigating:
Holmes: “I think it is worth troubling about, as a matter of fact.”
Baskerville: “You do? Why?”
Holmes: “Because it’s inexplicable.”
Baskerville: “Good… That’s good.”
Holmes: <Jeremy Brett smile.>
Books lead on to books, and sometimes in strange ways. They all seem to be connected somehow.
Keeping these words in mind always helps me remember to look for the unexpected connections and the weird little rabbit holes that lead in interesting directions.
That’s probably a longer answer than Lydia wanted, but I found it a fun question to ponder. Of course, it could be I’m a nut like Dr. Reinhardt in The Black Hole; too obsessed with the bizarre for his own good. But hey, he was the best character in the whole show, so maybe that’s not all bad.