It’s 1979. My life had been forever changed the moment that Star Destroyer flew over my head in “Star Wars.” After that I started watching every bit of science fiction I could get my hands on at Applause Video. Battlestar Galactica. Buck Rogers. Star Trek. Anime. And then lo and behold my favorite movie studio, Disney, decided to put out a science fiction film!
As a kid, I loved this movie! But in truth, I didn’t understand it very much. How could I? The movie is riddled with adult themes and situations. I don’t understand the ending even today. Did Reinhardt end up all alone on a mountaintop in Hell? Sure looked like it. But who cares when you’ve got awesome robots, laser gun shoot-outs and kick-ass spaceships flying through space? Sign me up.
As I look back on “The Black Hole” and its many scientific flaws (We have discovered a few things in 30 years of active astronomy after all.), I still find that it’s an entertaining story with plenty of SF elements to keep the fans satisfied. Here are a few things that I just love about this movie:
- The cast! Are you kidding me? How could one movie possibly consolidate any more A-list Hollywood actors in one shot (Remember, this is 1979’s A-list.)? Anthony Perkins???? Ernest Borgnine!? And I don’t know what the execs at Disney had to say/do to get Maximilian Schell, a winner of the Academy’s Best Actor Award, to perform in an SF flick, much less as the mad scientist/bad guy! SF fans got a treat when Yvette Mimieux from “The Time Machine” (still the only movie to honor Wells’ story properly) joined the cast as the camera-staring psychic (back when we still just called it ESP).
- The robots! Talk about another casting win! Roddy McDowall (come on, SF fans … THE GUY from all the Planet of the Apes movies) and … I have to laugh even while I type this … Slim Pickens (THE GUY who rode a nuclear bomb in Dr. Strangelove) as the voice of your favorite little droids. Did you know that V.I.N.CENT actually stood for something? (“Vital Information Necessary CENTralized”) I didn’t, although I did know B.O.B. stood for “BiO-sanitation Battalion,” but the translation got lost in Slim’s thick accent. The robots saved this film from being the slow dirge that it was, and the laser battles that V.I.N.CENT participated in were the best parts of the film. Their quirky dialogue was just awesome and remains awesome decades later. McDowall was just born for roles like this. His voice is perfect. I don’t understand how any kid my age could not be terrified by Maximilian. That robot was BAD-ASS to the bone. He gutted Norman Bates! It took me years to watch that scene without closing my eyes, that robot was so damn scary. Even today I still get a kick hearing Schell bark “Max-ih-milian!” with that thick European accent.
- The spaceships! Yeah, there were only three of them, but they were cool because they were human. The probe ship was something straight out of 1930’s SF magazine covers. The Palamino was cool because it was the first spaceship since “2001: A Space Odyssey” that combined zero-G and normal gravity into an environment that you just wanted to float into and play. The Cygnus made a great stage for the rest of the story, although it’s a pretty damn big ship for mankind’s first deep-space mission, almost like it was a generation ship of some kind. Perfect grounds for a sociopath like Reinhardt to dominate so completely. The creepy robots were okay, and the mindless drones had cool outfits that I wish I’d had for Halloween. I don’t really understand how the crew could end up so screwed, but crazy things happen in space when crazy people are placed in command.
- The laser guns! Not one, but TWO barrels! Two lasers at once! Charlie busting through the door and shooting from the hip like a cowboy? Yes. Yes, please. Too bad they never made a toy out of that. Speaking of toys …
- The toys! Tom and I got almost all of the action figures (I doubt we bought Booth, that loser reporter who thought he could fly a spaceship.), and we played with them until the paint started to peel off. I think we had 3 V.I.N.CENT toys. I remember using the Maximilian robot toy as a spaceship (turn a robot on his side and he becomes a spaceship!) until those wings on his heels broke off. Countless hours of fun.
- The bubble gum/cards/stickers! Kids today won’t know about this, but back in the 1970-1980’s we could go to the local convenience store and pick up a small pack of trading cards for our favorite movies. The cards had pictures of characters, scenes or ships from the movie, along with a sticker and a stick of rock-hard, bland, pink bubble gum that lost all its flavor in two minutes. Heaven. I can still remember the bubble gum smell that stuck on the cards. The stickers from “The Black Hole” stayed on the side of my wooden furniture for years.
- The music! John Barry’s themes are amazing, even if they are incredible simple and tend to drag along like a funeral dirge (intentional, given the background of the whole movie is a light-sucking hole in the space-time continuum). The mood is set from the first note. This is not going to be an action-packed, swashbuckling movie. This is going to be a pensive, serious, thoughtful exploration into just how crazy deep space can be. A black hole is no laughing matter. It will destroy the sun! Even still, after all these years, I still love to listen to that music and get drawn into the world of this movie.
I, for one, am glad that Disney decided to purchase LucasFilms rather than to try to make SF movies again. Even still they did manage to make a movie for kids my age to enjoy while we waited for “The Empire Strikes Back” to come out. Tied into all the other great SF shows and movies of the early 1980’s, you have to admit this movie packed a ton of great stuff together that make it a worthwhile 2 hour roller coaster ride in outer space.