The Black Hole (1979). Film review of the sci-fi movie starring Maximilian Schell

the black hole 1979 film meteor

Science fiction

2 stars film review fair passes the time

Film review by Jason Day of The Black Hole, the Disney science fiction movie about astronauts who discover a lost spacecraft and its crazed captain. Starring Maximilian Schell and Anthony Perkins.

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Whilst on a deep space voyage the crew of the Palomino unexpectedly happen upon a black hole. Perched some distance from it is the desolate and seemingly disabled USS Cygnus, a mighty spacecraft which vanished from trace 25 years before, tasked with finding new life in the galaxy.

On further investigation, the crew find the Cygnus very much operational, lorded over by captain Dr. Hans Reinhardt who has spent the past quarter century obsessively researching and preparing his vessel to enter the black hole and uncover the mysteries of life, space and time.

Sensing madness was in the offing, his crew long since jumped ship, leaving Reinhardt to create loping, passive, somnambulant robot to toil for him as feudal peasants.

The Palomino crew soon uncover dark secrets about what happened and must fight to escape Reinhardt’s ambitions as a deadly meteor strike threatens to engulf them.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

Film poster by Killian Eng. Insta: @kilianeng

In a recent review, I praised to high heaven a science fiction movie – Dune (1984) – that, when first released, met with derision and bafflement from critics and audiences alike.

In my critique I pointed out its many positive aspects (and its many faults) but more than anything, with its back story, highlighted how incredibly difficult it is and how long it can take to get a movie from an initial idea/story through production and in to cinemas.

Disney’s The Black Hole, a vain attempt to cash-in on the huge success of Star Wars (1979) had a similar journey but alas, despite a production value that rivalled Dune’s, it remains utter shite.

You see, what always makes a movie work is the writing. If you don’t have a half decent set up, story and characters, you’re on an expensive hiding to nothing. The Black Hole is a good example of this.

The movie spent five years in pre-production going through various script iterations, the basic premise of which was to be a disaster movie on the scale of The Towering Inferno (1974) and eventually to incorporate the concept of black holes, then a hot and contentious topic of conversation in astrophysics circles.

Disney sent people on fact finding trips to get to the nib of those conversations which, according to their loud marketing guff, had resulted in a movie with a conclusion that was so mind-blowing, even the producers didn’t understand it.

Note to anyone working in PR or marketing, be careful when making such claims because you may well need to back them up.

With The Black Hole, such claims were never really needed. Critics rightly scoffed at them when it was fairly obvious that, after a few paltry SFX, mad Schell descends to hell and the pure Palomino crew are escorted by angels through heaven and returned to mortal life.

The script should be the life and soul of a movie, but with The Black Hole it’s the living end. Could a film have more unmouthably, plummy and pithy platitudes for its cast – of only workmanlike but solid performers – to pitch? Here’s a few ripe examples of the cast describing the titular phenomena, which resembles a ride down a blue water filled toilet flush:

  • Right out of Dante’s Inferno!
  • The most destructive force in the universe. Nothing can escape it, even light
  • It’s a monster, alright
  • A rip in the very fabric of space and time
  • The deadliest force in the universe
  • That long, dark tunnel to nowhere.

OK, we get it! Black Holes are bad! Jeez, Louise, the script is as abandoned, rickety, stricken and fusty as the Cygnus and Reinhardt. A shame it isn’t also as mute as his crew.

Amongst its other misfires, is the Extrasensory Perception that character Kate (Yvette Mimieux) shares with a robot, voiced by Roddy McDowell but with Bambi-big eyes. FFS, this is a joke too far.

On to the better stuff and there are good – even great – things about The Black Hole.

Firstly, Schell cuts a genial, geriatric Captain Nemo figure in the lead role as a mad space man. With his manic sarcasm and high intellect, it is a delightful turn, far better than James Mason in the same role in Disney’s superior 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). He’s less showy than Mason, more quiet, psychologically shaded, but no less dangerous. Fabulous stuff from the great man, who was the first German to win an Oscar for Best Actor (for Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961).

Secondly, to commended is the stunning, epic production design of the mighty, gloomy, expansive USS Cygnus from Brit Peter Ellenshaw, who more or less retired after his work here, which saw him nominated for a visual effects Oscar.

The special effects are rather wobbly, Disney wanted to borrow the tech George Lucas had employed in Star Wars but it never happened. Ingenious Disney wizards developed their ow, rival version – valiantly as it turned out, because the results really weren’t all that.

But Ellenshaw’s sets ensured that the odd stunner eeked onto the silver screen, in particular the gripping meteor shower, that saw one crash rip into the Cygnus and almost obliterate the fleeing cast.

Meteor madness! The cast of The Black Hole (1979) flee molten mayhem.

Finally, but certainly not lastly, is this movie’s saving grace. The one thing about it that elevates it above not only other sci-fi’s but most other movies ever made – the score.

John Barry is the composer for The Black Hole, a man whose name will live forever as the guy who created the James Bond theme, although he created many other memorable pieces (he won eight Oscars and was nominated for 21 in total).

For me, the one oversight in his career is his incredible score for The Black Hole. One thing to mention from the outset here is that Barry employs an overture. A hallmark of epic cinema – thing about Ben Hur and Doctor ZhivagoThe Black Hole was one of the last movies to feature this film intro.

It’s a discombobulating thing to experience because the beginning is a thoroughly stirring and rousing, national anthem like piece of militaristic pomp.

It takes a swiftly sinister turn before giving way to the creepy, spine-tingling, ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ chills that literally propel this movie into the echelons of great cinema (fleetingly of course). Barry gives us a piece of aural delight that thrilled then and still hits the mark more than 40 years later. Why it never received an Oscar nod is beyond me.

BTW, gay critic’s joke about actor Joseph Bottoms – I thought he was a top! lol

Cast & credits

Director: Gary Nelson. 1hr 38 mins/98 mins. Walt Disney Productions. (PG)

Producer: Ron Miller.
Writers: Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Barbash, Richard H. Landau.
Camera: Frank V. Phillips.
Music: John Barry.
Sets: Peter Ellenshaw.

Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowell, Slim Pickens, Tom McLoughlin.

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