Gabby: ‘Time and space as we know it no longer exists. We will be the first to see it, to explore it, to experience it!’ So is the mantra of The Indefensibles, as we go forth into Jeremy’s Dark Disney pick…
Jeremy: The Black Hole. A reclusive astrophysicist promises to pay five astronauts and their wacky robot sidekick $10,000 apiece if they spend the night in his haunted spaceship.
I should start by saying that The Black Hole was one of my favorite movies as a kid. I’ve probably seen it a hundred times – no exaggeration. I can be objective about it, but I love the hell out of it to this day.
Brett: So I kind of had the same problem as I did last time I watched this.
Jeremy: It’s, like, three or four different genres awkwardly crammed into one movie? The tone is all over the map?
Brett: No, that’s fine, if a little clunky in parts. It’s not as “exciting” as I wanted. I wanted Rollicking Space Adventure, but it’s not that kind of movie. It’s a Disney film and all that entails. It’s my own fault for thinking “Disney’s Star Wars” rather than just a Disney Movie set in space. It feels like a Disney movie, it’s even shot exactly like Treasure Island of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Nobody does that “Comedy Lighting in a Dramatic Movie” thing quite like Disney Live Action.
Jeremy: Yeah, there was probably some corporate synergy going on here. Some of the set pieces seem tailored for subsequent attractions at their theme parks – the tram, the shooting range, the meteor storm. (The rolling ball of death is one of my favorite shots in any film, by the way.)
Brett: It also feels like this is like a 2 1/2 movie crammed into a 90-minute bag.
Jeremy: I get that. Dr. Reinhardt’s mad scientist plan is revealed about halfway through. And it’s only in the last half-hour that the movie really gets going. The action scenes are pedestrian, even by ’79’s standards. And like Something Wicked, there’s a great, startling scene – the reveal of the robots actually being the crew, followed by Anthony Perkin’s death – right before the climax that the climax can’t top.
Despite some problems with the script (ESP with a robot?), I still enjoy the first half and how it gets all the pieces on the board. My favorite part of movies like Alien and The Thing are the early scenes before everything goes to hell – the setup, the mystery. Granted, the mystery is obvious here in a way it’s not in those movies.
I’m not the first to say this: The Black Hole is a haunted house movie in space. I love the long, lingering shots of characters exploring this gothic spaceship, accompanied by that moody John Barry score. The part of me that turns this on when I can’t sleep – that wants it to wash over me as I’m drifting off – eats this up.
Gabby: I find the vibe unique, which I like. At times, I was not entirely sure what I was watching. For instance, there is a section with a big red blob coming towards them and they escape through the ecosystem.
Jeremy: Those are meteors that the black hole is pulling in. The timing’s certainly convenient.
Gabby: Have you ever seen the Planet of the Apes film series? Other than the first one, I mean. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is my least favourite. That is one of those films where I didn’t know what I was watching. In a bad way. Whereas I kind of enjoyed this Black Hole flavour bag of nuts. Another film similar to Beneath, for me, in terms of the way I reacted to it, was The Mole People. The Black Hole is definitely not The Mole People. The Mole People, Dinosaurous and Jack and Jill are some of my least favourite movies of… all time.
Jeremy: I actually revisited Beneath the Planet of the Apes a few weeks ago. It was rough. I’ll leave it at that.
Brett: There is no single item that I can point to and say “That just doesn’t work” but it doesn’t all fit together. It doesn’t gel for me.
Jeremy: What really sticks out to you as not working?
Brett: B.O.B. didn’t work for me. They could have cut the robots and just made the movie half an hour longer. The mystery of the crew felt rushed, and having B.O.B. just take V.I.N.C.E.N.T. to the factory where everyone is transformed felt cheap. V.I.N.C.E.N.T. should have discovered the crew on his own. The shooting gallery bit didn’t seem to fit in the movie either, but at least it wasn’t very long.
Gabby: The shooting gallery was a part I did not enjoy, also. It was like watching trash bins made from tin have a game of bullet tag. On a different note, why does one of the robots sound like a hillbilly? I didn’t exactly get why some of the robots were without emotions, but V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and the cute southern robot had them.
One small issue I had is the overuse of sound effects for the space devices. It got on my nerves at one point. The reveal of what is behind the masks I found very effective, very good makeup design.
‘You mean we’re going into the black hole?’ ‘Yep.’ Yep! Sorry, I found that funny. The segment where they go through the black hole is disorientating with the use of sounds, thoughts and dizziness inducing circling close-ups – a good way to play with the unknown fear of what lies in store for them. Anyone else think that image of the robot on the mountain surrounded by red is inspired by Fantasia? That segment in Fantasia is one of the most terrifying things I ever saw as a child. If we talked about that and the Mickey segments on its own, that would be the film I would have picked. But the rest of that film comes with a whole bunch of things I really dislike.
Jeremy: The one thing I still enjoy about the shooting gallery scene is seeing Maximilian’s predecessor and the weird social structure the robots have. Here’s this older robot who’s now irrelevant and whiles away the hours being a bully at the local robot bar. It’s bonkers – but it adds to the house of horrors. If left alone, these robots would probably go on doing this forever. That’s chilling.
Back to V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and B.O.B. I can barely stand them as an adult. Roddy McDowall tries to make V.I.N.C.E.N.T. work. There was no way to make V.I.N.C.E.N.T. anything but insufferable with this script. They crammed R2-D2 and C-3PO into one character without understanding what makes those characters or their dynamic work.
Slim Pickens was a Disney regular, I believe. This movie has weird little nods now and again to westerns that really stick out. B.O.B. is the most glaring example of that.
Brett: Also, did anyone notice that the black bot was supposed to be twirling the guns, but was actually just twisting his wrists around?
Jeremy: You know, I’m not sure. You think I would be able to recall that, given how many times I’ve seen this.
Brett: Check that scene again, he’s just flipping his hands around. Each set piece works pretty well, the end is actually pretty exciting, but it feels old-fashioned. Had I not known this was 1979, I would have never pegged it as a Post-Star Wars movie. Granted, that’s a problem Disney movies had and would continue to have for some time. I think the old-fashioned feel is actually part of the charm now. Although the bit where Capt. Holland explains to Kate that he’s thinking of quitting because of a recent event where he was sitting in a guy’s house with a stun gun was a little weird.
Jeremy: Wait. What?
Brett: That was probably a bit from Jackie Brown, now that I think about it.
Jeremy: Doh! I get it. I’ve only seen Jackie Brown once at a press screening way back in the day.
Brett: Of all QT’s movies, that one is probably the most underrated. Which is a shame because it’s pretty good.
Gabby: Hold up. Jeremy, go watch that film again. Brett, pretty good? I have a poster of Jackie Brown on my wall. Jackie Brown is fucking great. I might be biased as it is in my top 10 favourite films. But honestly, that movie is so brilliant. On rewatches, you can see how well choreographed everything is; Sally Menke was an editing goddess. And I love you, Pam Grier. Pam Grier is the bomb. Pam Grier forever.
Brett: Anyway… I liked The Black Hole but I didn’t love it. And I kind of wanted to love it. All in all, though, this is one of those “everything works on paper” sort of things. It just flopped a little on the screen. Each piece works (save the shooting gallery) but it doesn’t come together into a complete package. I know I keep saying this, but I just wish this movie was a little longer. Give it a little more room and I think it does work. And the special effects were kind of stellar. One of the benefits of having money and existing in the late ’70s.
Jeremy: The effects hold up. If you’re a fan of optical effects, listen to Saturday Night Movie Sleepover’s podcast about this movie. They go into detail about all the technical innovations that came out of making this movie. The effects have a different look from what ILM was doing at the time. They’re quite distinctive. The production design is equally singular. Even if you haven’t seen this movie in years, you would never mistake it for another sci-fi movie made during the post-Star Wars boom.
Like Something Wicked, this probably isn’t scary for adults, but what did you think about how violent it is? And how much it leaned into the hellscape at the end, where we’re led to believe that hell itself lies within the black hole? It’s hard to believe this movie and Alien came out in the same year, because they’re both going for the haunted house vibe. Dr. Reinhardt could’ve been played by Vincent Price.
Gabby: I would have loved a bit of Vincent Price in this film! I thought the film could definitely be scary for kids. The hellscape leaning for one thing. But another is the way in which it twists and turns. Not knowing what you are watching as an adult might be confusing and maybe entertaining, but as a child that kind of thing could put you on edge and even frighten you.
Jeremy: Yeah, I grew up in a relaxed Christian household. Reinhardt’s descent into hell and the good guys possibly going to heaven blew my mind as a child (in the best way possible). This sequence and the mishmash of genres throughout the film expanded my ideas about what a story could be.
I loved how this movie scared me as a kid. As an agnostic adult, I’m kinda like, “Heaven and hell. That’s all you got, Disney?” 2001: A Space Odyssey this is not.
Brett: But at least their time warp sequence doesn’t carry on for 10 damn minutes.
Jeremy: True. And Reinhardt in hell is still a powerful image that works at a gut level. It’s all about the procession of souls marching below him. It’s somehow haunting and kinda dumb at the same time. And John Barry’s music…
Since this is my pick. I’d like to talk about the cast some more. Annoying robots aside, there are some strong casting choices here. Robert Forster is, like, extra laconic here, but I dig The Right Stuff vibe you get from him. He’s the guy who’s going to stay cool under pressure no matter what. You want this guy as your leader. Unfortunately, the character has nothing to do but stay level-headed.
Kate has her father, but that doesn’t go as far as it should because it’s obvious he’s dead. It’s interesting that Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Perkins end up having the most to do, dramatically speaking. What other kids movie is going to have a character do a 180 like Borgnine’s character, who suddenly panics and ditches everyone? Or have a likable, if misguided, character get an immersion blender through the chest?
Gabby: Robert Forster having nothing to do was a waste. I also kept thinking something would happen with Kate’s father. Like he would be one of the zombie masked people.
Jeremy: Exactly. She should’ve met what was left of her father.
Gabby: I am not sure about the blender, but we all have seen The Lion King right?
Simba, a baby lion, has a wise, kind father, Mufasa, who loves and cares for him. Mufasa is then plunged to his death on top of a cliff by his own brother who pretends to pull him up first, to really add to that horror, he is not only killed by being murdered and thrown from a cliff, but also totally trampled by a flock of wildebeest intended to kill him and his son. If that isn’t enough, we see the little lion go up to his father’s corpse crying for him to wake up. I mean I still cry like a baby at that scene.
Jeremy: For my money, Woody and the gang going into the inferno holding hands in Toy Story 3 trumps them all.
One last thought about Reinhardt. I like Maximillian Schell, but you know he’s cuckoo-crazy-bananas from the start. We needed to see more of the visionary and less of the madman before the third act. You’re left wondering, what does Anthony Perkins see in this guy? Also, here’s another shout-out to Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers, who turned me on to the idea that Perkins’ character is turned on by Reinhardt. I can’t unsee it now.
And, er, on that note, final thoughts?
Brett: For the most part the movie is fine. It’s a good movie, and I wouldn’t turn it off if I happened upon it.
Jeremy: One of my earliest memories is watching The Black Hole. Being scared, awed, and overjoyed by it. Sure, it’s a mess – but it’s my mess. I can’t overstate how much of an impression it left on me, how it shaped the stories I consume and create. Despite all the Disney touches, I miss the populist sci-fi films from this era like it (and, of course, The Empire Strike Back and The Wrath of Khan) which had a little more teeth.
Thanks for reading, everyone. We’ve got one more movie to go in our Dark Disney retrospective series, The Black Cauldron. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter and leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.