“That Reinhardt sure loves to play God, doesn’t he?”
Justin’s rating: Not even enjoyment can escape this film.
Justin’s review: One of the reasons that I generally don’t like watching science fiction movies prior to 1980 is that a vast majority of them were ponderously slow and unexciting vehicles that seemed fascinated with their own visuals than pacing and story. Watching movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek: The Motion Picture felt like the last day of school before summer vacation — interminably long and without a point. It’s partially why Star Wars made such a wave, as that film sprinted instead of shambled, dazzled instead of bored.
While Hollywood tried to shift gears in the late ’70s and start delivering more of that Star Wars-like feel, there were still projects like The Black Hole that held to the old ways. Disney decided to throw a chunk of money into creating a space epic that would rake in those family dollars, but instead it ended up showing us how terrible A New Hope could’ve been in pretty much anyone else’s hands.
I remember watching this as a kid and being so underwhelmed that I never wanted to see it again. Of course, I didn’t foresee that I’d be a movie reviewer who would feel compelled to give it another shot. So was my initial impression wrong? Is there something edifying about The Black Hole after all?
Disney’s very first PG-rated film starts with the Palomino, a deep space research ship looking for signs of life. This is the kind of ship where everyone’s a family, there’s at least one Ernest Borgnine on hand, and people love dropping witty bon mots at every turn. Oh, and there’s a precocious robot named VINCENT who would like to sell kids a whole bunch of toys.
Nearly simultaneously, the crew stumbles upon the largest black hole ever discovered — and a long-lost spaceship named the Cygnus orbiting it. Incurring damage to their own vessel, the Palomino crew docks with the Cygnus to investigate. I should point out that the initial approach and docking accounts for over 15 minutes of runtime (that’s not even including the two-and-a-half minute orchestral overture played over a black screen), which should give you some example of the pacing issues this film has.
All is not well above the Cygnus (otherwise this would’ve been a much more boring, albeit shorter film). The only crew member on board is Dr. Reinhard, a slightly jovial mad scientist with a small army of killer robots at his disposal. He’s done something hinkey with his previous crewmates and wants to fly the Cygnus into the black hole to see, you know, what happens.
What follows is nearly an hour of very, very little happening. Just some back-and-forth between Reinhard and the Palomino crew, some threatening from the Cygnus robots, and a tour of the best sets that $20 million could buy back in 1979. Admittedly, this film looks fantastic, with great ship interiors and some ambitious outer space shots. But if you don’t have anything substantial to hang those good looks on, it’s as empty as, well, the center of a black hole.
Disney fully expected The Black Hole to be a massive holiday hit, but word quickly spread that this was a dud, and so the box office fizzled hard. I can see why. What didn’t entertain me as a kid failed to do the same as an adult, either as a mystery or a scifi spectacle. It’s a relic of an era that was already well and dead by the time this film came out, and there’s no need to resurrect it many decades later.