Near the end of The Black Hole, the ship is assailed by “meteorites”. At least that’s what the robot informs the characters. But any astronomy pedant or child who watched Cosmos knows that a meteorite is the chunk of rock that survives its fall through the atmosphere of a planet. A bunch of bright orange rocks flying around in outer space are something else entirely. Then one of them hits the ship and neatly turns into a ginormous bowling ball that threatens to roll over our heroes. Raiders of the Lost Ark will be along to do it right in two years.
What’s so startling about Disney’s 1979 answer to Star Wars is how utterly uninspired it is, how it’s rooted in the same flat presentational filmmaking Disney had been doing since the advent of Technicolor. Staged lighting, bright colors, ponderous pacing, staid acting, obvious dialogue. The only bright spot in this dark hole is the design of the Cygnus, a derelict — or is it? — ship discovered by the crew of the Palamino. The Cygnus is a dark oddity laced with intricate ironwork, a skyscraper turned sideways. When it lights up, it blazes like the Eiffel Tower on a winter night. What a marvelous ship, swallowed up by a monstrously bad movie.
But then you get inside the Cygnus and it looks like a sound stage in Burbank. This was the same year Ridley Scott’s Alien took us inside the Nostromo. And here we are watching actors plod along concrete floors, past plywood walls, busy with garish avionics without any sense of style, as if they were cut from construction paper. At least Star Trek had a vision of how the future might work. The Black Hole just has patches of color. The robots with their lifeless button eyes look on like something made for a school play.
The story is obviously 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, complete with the eponymous black hole as the climactic whirlpool. Here is a mysterious captain, played by Maximilian Schell looking more homeless than mysterious, with mysterious motives and a mysterious crew manning a mysterious ship. Our intrepid protagonists arrive and get held hostage. A woman is added for the mysterious captain to leer at. “Are you interested in black holes?” he asks her. It sounds dirty. That must be why it was Disney’s first PG rated movie. “Some cause must have created all this,” he later muses at an inopportune time, “but what caused that cause?” During The Black Hole’s finale, its answer to Kubrick’s mind-bending journey is a laughably literal presentation of hell and heaven. Here is Disney, making sure it’ll play in Peoria, as 70s cinema transitions into the 80s.
The pacing and editing are inept, there is no energy anywhere, and the actors are as boring as the production design. When Ernest Borgnine turns bad guy, he actually sweats. It’s about twice as much effort as any other actor will expend. By the way, did Anthony Perkins always sounds like he was doing a Kevin Spacey impression? It’s an uncannily good impression, but it seems like such an unoriginal way to spend a career.
The music crests absurdly while Yvette Mimieux, as sexy as any mom in a Disney movie, is getting rescued. The evil robots literally wrap her in tin foil — I’m telling you, it’s actual tin foil! — so they can laser her brain or something. Then Robert Forster comes along and gamely rolls around with a guy in a robot costume, which isn’t unlike Bela Lugosi with the rubber octopus in Bride of the Monster. Meanwhile, a musical fanfare is playing prematurely — hey, soundtrack, what if Forster doesn’t prevail against the robot costume? — with all the glorious blaring of a triumphant processional through the streets of Ancient Rome. “Elephants for Caesar!” the soundtrack declares. Then cut to a scene of someone tapping his finger, bored, literally waiting to push a button. Hold. Hold. Hold the scene. Hold. Was Disney not aware that pacing had been invented?
But at least it’s better than Event Horizon.