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A Child’s Vision of Hell: The Black Hole, posted by Enrique G

I originally wrote this for my own personal blog, which I’ve revived.  But it seemed like it belonged here too.

I had been wanting to write more but couldn’t really think of anything else to write about today until I saw the news in my FB feed that Ernest Borgnine had died at the age of 95.  The man had a very long and distinguished career as an actor, winning an Oscar in 1955.  He had more notable roles than the one I’m going to talk about, but my earliest memory of him as an actor was from the 1979 Disney movie The Black Hole.

Star Wars is the sci-fi that imprints on most geeks my age, and there’s no question it left its impression on me as well.  But the first time I saw The Black Hole, it stuck with me in a way I could only put my finger on with the passage of time.  It’s one I wound up picking up out of the discount bin on DVD from Best Buy one day just to go back and check it out and despite its flaws it still holds a special place in my heart because of the things I recognize in it now that I couldn’t as  kid.

Ostensibly a variation on Shakespeare’s The Tempest (and given that Strange Brew is a reworking on Hamlet, it makes me wonder just how much Shakespeare I was exposed to unwittingly as a kid), The Black Hole begins its story on board the USS Palomino in the middle part of the 22nd Century.  A deep space explorer, the Palomino comes across a black hole in a heretofore unexplored part of the galaxy.

The Palomino’s crew consists of Capt. Dan Holland (Robert Forster); Lt. Charlie Pizer (Timothy Bottoms); Dr. Alex Durant (Psycho‘s Anthony Perkins); reporter Harry Booth (Borgnine, with a character name that makes me giggle because it’s the name of an ex-GFs nephew); scientist and ESP expert Dr. Kate McCrea (not making the ESP part up); and their AI/robot companion V.I.N.CENT. (voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowell).  The nature of their mission is never properly explained, but once the black hole threatens to fuck their shit up I’m not entirely sure it matters much.

After a mishap near the event horizon of the black hole causes damages to the Palomino, it detects a ship that seems to be standing in open resistance to the black hole’s overwhelming gravitational pull.  Even more surprising, the ship is the USS Cygnus.  Long thought to have been lost or destroyed on a deep space mission, the Cygnus not only is impervious to the black hole’s pull but showing signs of life as well.

The Palomino docks with the Cygnus and the crew makes contact with the Cygnus’ current commanding officer, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell, employing what I like to refer to as the “Pac-Man on speed chewing up scenery” school of acting).  Dr. McCrea really wants a face-to-face with Reinhardt, as her father was a member of the Cygnus’ crew when it went missing so many years prior.  The Palomino crew is escorted to Reinhardt by a large, red, menacing robot named Maximillian (no relation to the actor :-p).

Reinhardt informs everyone that he is the sole survivor of the Cygnus’ crew.  He has crafted Maxmillian and a litany of other robots to keep the Cygnus fully functional as he prepares the ship to embark on the greatest voyage mankind has ever seen: into, through and beyond the black hole to whatever lies past.  He offers the Palomino safe haven on the Cygnus until the Palomino can be repaired.  They can then document his journey from this side of reality and relay news of Reinhardt’s genius back to Earth.

The Palomino’s crew is torn by the offer.  Durant has a serious science hard-on for Reinhardt, and is impressed by the tech Reinhardt has fashioned to make such a trip possible.  Booth as a writer loves a good story and finds the Cygnus ripe with possibilities for a great one.  McCrea isn’t sure what to do, given her personal connection to the Cygnus.  But it takes a revelation from a robot of V.I.N.CENT.’s model type named B.O.B. (uncredited voice work from the great Slim Pickens) to make everyone on the Palomino realize just how twisted Reinhardt is in pursuing his vision.  It also changes the stakes for what everyone wants.

This movie has a curious place in Disney history.  It was the first Disney film ever to garner a PG rating, and it earns it (at least in the context of the movies of the time).  It was one of the first Disney movies I can remember where someone dies on screen.  At least two people actually, with one pretty horrifically and it’s an open question about the demise of a third (spoiler alert will come with that later).  And there’s some weighty themes and disturbing images connected to Reinhardt’s master plan.

The movie also suffers horribly (especially in the HD age) from some horribly dated special effects.  The sentry robots that serve as Reinhardt’s security force/army are pretty silly looking today, and the “laser” fire from various battle scenes leaves a lot to be desired.  You can also see the wires a lot of the time when V.I.N.CENT. and B.O.B. fly around (they levitate by some unexplained means).

That said, for the visual weaknessesThe Black Hole possesses in some scenes it more than makes up for in others.  Frankly speaking, I think the model work on the Cygnus and to a lesser extent the Palomino stands with anything released from the 1960s on.  The Cygnus in particular is stunning.  Combined with exceptional matte paintings and it creates the illusion of scale that makes me smile even now almost 30 years later.

And despite Schell hamming it up so bad Jews keeping kosher may need a warning on the box, the rest of the performances range for mediocre-decent (Bottoms as Pizer and Perkins as Durant) to actually somewhat nuanced.  Well, for a Disney film.  That would be Forster, who I still have trouble connecting from this movie to seeing him wooing Pam Grier in Jackie Brown as an adult; and the aforementioned Borgnine who just really gave his all in everything he did.

And then there’s the voice work of McDowell and Pickens as V.I.N.CENT. and B.O.B.  When I first saw this in 1979, I only had the vaguest knowledge of Planet of the Apes, and no clue who Cornelius was in it.  And I’d never heard of Dr. Strangelove.  Amazingly, I might have seen Blazing Saddles at that age, but never would have connected Taggert to B.O.B.  As an adult hearing their voices in these two roles just makes me laugh, and maybe love them a little more.  I wanted V.I.N.CENT. to be real back then and I wanted him to be mine even more so than R2D2 or C-3PO.

If only because I could understand V.I.N.CENT. more than R2 and he wasn’t as whiny as 3PO.

At the same time, as much as I loved this movie it also creeped the hell out of me.  I can’t explain why without getting extremely spoileriffic so this is your one and only warning.  If you’ve seen the movie, nothing here is news to you but for the odd person who might check it out I’d suggest just seeing it before coming back to these last couple of paras.


This is a Disney movie, so you know the bad guy can’t win.  Reinhardt gets his comeuppance when he’s crushed by a giant display screen as the Cygnus is in shambles from an asteroid cluster that gets sucked in by the black hole, which also devastates the ship.  He calls to Maximillian for help, but Max pursues the agenda set out by his programming (I presume) which is to try and complete the mission with the probe ship that provided the relevant info for the Cygnus to plot its course.  Eventually Maximillian gets beaten by V.I.N.CENT. and is left a non-functional husk

(boo-yah!  Shorties will fuck your shit up, motherfucker! No wonder I attached myself to V.I.N.CENT.)

Reinhardt gets a last scene where it’s obvious he’s shuffling off this mortal coil and then we get this weird montage of scenes where Reinhardt’s body is adrift in the void and comes in contact with the husk of Maximillian.  Next thing we know, Reinhardt is somehow INSIDE of Maximillian and standing atop a mountain amidst a fiery pit with armies of the “robots” that are in fact zombified members of the Cygnus crew that Reinhardt used to keep his dream alive.

Back then, I didn’t get what I was seeing and just thought the images kinda messed up.  The first time I saw the movie, I do remember vaguely having nightmares connected to those images.  Maximillian creeped me out to begin with, but seeing him with Reinhardt INSIDE of him messed me up even more.  Never mind the zombie crew walking off into nothing with flames leaping all around.

It’s only when I picked this movie up and watched it for the first time in a quarter century as an adult that it finally registered to me that this movie may have earned that PG rating because it was the first time Disney had shown an actual depiction of hell on screen.  That’s the only interpretation of that scene that makes any sense at all, and it absolutely blew my mind that I had never realized that before.  Granted it was the first time I’d thought about The Black Hole on any level since I ever really thought about movies and what they mean.  But still it was a serious, “WHOA DUDE!!!” kind of moment.

That also made me look at the final scene when the surviving Palomino crew members find themselves involuntarily thrust into completing Reinhardt’s mission in a completely different light.  Are they visiting another galaxy? Another plane of existence?  Have they actually died and are really seeing heaven?  Who knows.

It almost makes me wish I smoked pot or took acid just to see if there isn’t another level there I can conceive of in a rational state of mind.  But that it could still give me a “holy shit!” moment almost 30 years later?  In what was ostensibly a kids movie when released (albeit in retrospect, kinda a fucked up one)?

Well, that’s just a nice added feature :-).

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