What a disaster. I have vague recollections of seeing The Black Hole (1979) way back when Disney first launched its cable channel. As might be obvious, my child brain did not have the same refined, cinematic sensibilities that I have today. As such, I do not recall finding the film as laughably bad as I did during my recent viewing. I remembered the two smaller robots, Vital Information Necessary Centralized LF-396, or V.I.N.CENT for short (voiced by Roddy McDowell), and his heavily damaged companion, Old BO.B. LF-28 (voiced by Slim Pickens). This last one’s official designation is BiO-sanitation Battalion, if that makes any difference whatsoever. Probably the reason why little else came to mind from back then is because while Disney was making this cheesy bit of science fiction junk, George Lucas was producing Star Wars. Ironically, the former now owns the latter. If nothing else, this makes it convenient for you to be able to do a side-by-side comparison between the two.
The disaster that awaits is apparent from the first minutes of The Black Hole, and I do mean minutes. The screen is black, but the film’s theme is being played in the, er, background. I guess they were going for something pertaining to the movie’s title, but the length of time this goes on for becomes distracting. It is more fun to speculate that they needed to get a little longer run time out of a surprisingly short feature, and so awkwardly tacked this on to the beginning. Or maybe they forgot to take the lens cap off the camera? Either way, when we can see again, we are shown the crew of the USS Palomino. These are Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster), first officer Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine), and V.I.N. CENT. They are returning to Earth as part of a mission to explore deep space when they encounter the largest black hole any of them had ever seen. Perched on the edge of the phenomenon’s gravitational pull is a large, mysterious ship, which they soon identify as the long-lost USS Cygnus. This is of particular interest to Dr. McCrae because it is the vessel aboard which her father served. Their cursory fly-by to inspect it seems to suggest that it is derelict, and nearly results in getting them sucked into the black hole. After some emergency maneuvers, they are able to coax their vessel back to the Cygnus, which lights up with activity upon their re-approach. When they dock, they are greeted by what seems to be a mostly empty vessel, aside from a few stray robots. Taking a few cautious steps further into the interior, they come across the vast inner hull of the ship, and board a cart that begins to take them towards what they believe to be the bridge. Once there, they find there is one other person aboard, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), who is also the captain. He is surrounded by a large bank of blinking computer lights that are manned by becloaked, virtually unmoving assistants. When pressed, Dr. Reinhardt says that he is the only survivor, that the ship had been disabled long ago, and that he had ordered the rest of the crew to return to Earth without him. Since then, he had restored the Cygnus to functionality, and built an army of robots to do his bidding, all while studying the awesome power of the black hole. The Palomino had arrived just as he was on the cusp of completing his calculations and taking a spin through the point of no return. His words about finding new universes sound like the ravings of a lunatic (they are), and manage to convince only Dr. Durant of their soundness. Since they are there, he invites them to come with him. When they refuse, he requests that once their repairs are made, that they linger long enough to capture his historic voyage and bring the data back to Earth. While repairs are made, we learn that not everything is as it seems. Captain Holland witnesses the drones performing a space burial (what else do you call it?), and Harry notices one of them limping in a human way. Adding to the suspicions in when V.I.N.CENT finds BO.B., who says that the drones are the human crew enslaved to do Dr. Reinhardt’s bidding, a fact confirmed by Dr. McCrae when she removes one of the faceplates. Hence, they decide to try to escape, though this, too, does not go according to plan. Earlier, Dr. Durant had been killed by Dr. Reinhardt’s main hench-robot, Maximilian, because it seemingly felt like murder. Then, Harry attempts to leave on the Palomino without the others, but is unable to control the ship and dies by crashing into the Cygnus. Further, Dr. Reinhardt has decided to go ahead with his trek into the black hole, but they are bombarded by meteors. Dr. Reinhardt is killed by falling debris on the deck as his ship breaks apart. Meanwhile, Captain Holland, Dr. McCrae, and V.I.N.CENT make their way to the Cygnus’ probe ship, hoping to use that to escape. Unfortunately, the pull of the black hole is too great, and they are forced to endure the Disney-style freak out of traveling through the unknown. They emerge somewhere, fly off somewhere else, and that is where this all ends.
Throughout The Black Hole, there are several colorful descriptions of the lingering threat of the nearby gravitational anomaly. It is called evil at one point, and compared to hell. Despite the ridiculousness of most of the material, I was at least slightly interested by this concept. Slightly. Space is a tricky subject for a Catholic. There are those that point to the possibility of life on other planets as definitive proof that God does not exist, as if one unknown could disprove what is supposedly another unknown. If we can agree on nothing else, we can all accept that space is infinitely big. So is God. Our tiny human brains, which come up with such falderol as this film, can hardly begin to conceptualize all that God is, though many have tried. The best attempt at proving the existence of God was by St. Thomas Aquinas (whose feast day I was born on, by the way). He did not compare Our Creator to space, but with Faith, like any other human endeavor, we must eventually accept that there are limits to our understanding. The only reason I am talking about this at all is because the sequence where what is left of the Palomino’s crew goes through the black hole features Dr. Reinhardt and Maximilian merging into one, and overseeing a vision of hell, while the crew travels through heavenly corridors (as in the angelic sense) before coming out the other side. It is interesting from a Faith perspective, but it makes no stinkin’ sense in the context of the film, aside from the vague references mentioned earlier. Neither are we given any idea of how the crew felt about the experience or where they are going in the end. This is probably for the best. Stick to what you do best, Disney, buying the greatest science fiction stories ever told, and I will stick to St. Thomas Aquinas.
If you want to watch a film that is so bad it is funny, then The Black Hole is available on Disney+. It is a slow burn until you get to the end, and by that point I was laughing myself almost hoarse. Actually, I am a little surprised that the Mouse is letting this turkey see the light of day. There is nothing objectionable about it, it is just awful. I would be less surprised if they found a way to gather all the copies of the film, and shoot them into a literal black hole.