At the mystifying end of Disney’s The Black Hole, a small probe ship sails through the titular tunnel, and the special-effects whizzes throw everything including the kitchen sink at us. The ship seems to pass through hell and then heaven, with accompanying images of damnation and salvation. And millions of nine-year-olds, like me at the time the film came out, experienced their first acid trip by cinematic proxy.
The Black Hole was certainly shinier sci-fi eye candy than anything else at the time — even Star Wars had a monochromatic black-on-white visual scheme, and this was five months or so before the decidedly richer Empire Strikes Back arrived. Revisiting the film tonight on DVD, I gave the plot a miss — as I must’ve done when I was nine — and focused on the movement and sound. The Black Hole was directed by one Gary Nelson, a TV veteran and, it’s safe to say, not exactly a visionary. He’s a competent if impersonal journeyman handed the keys to a project Disney had been developing since before Star Wars.
No, the movie was really made by Peter Ellenshaw (who designed the production and supervised the miniature animation), his son Harrison (who handled the mattes), cinematographer Frank Phillips, and composer John Barry, whose theme music lends this space odyssey the obsessive aural gyrations of Vertigo. These artists have pooled their considerable gifts to turn an overplotted good-vs.-evil play into, well, a piece of artwork — or at least pop art. The elongated ship where much of the movie unfolds is a sticklike riot of beams and tunnels and tubes, like some mad horizontal architecture. The Black Hole can’t create or sustain any sort of mood, but that ship does. And John Barry’s looping, heightened score, like a James Bond soundtrack gone dizzy, lends the movie an epic flavor.
So we have an elegant, if stubbornly unexciting, popcorn-muncher that flips into a chin-scratcher, with a crew of mostly bland heroes (only Anthony Perkins, as a scientist in fluttery thrall to the genius of a madman, brings something genuine to the proceedings). As in other hardware epics, the robots — the rather smug V.I.N.CENT (voice by Roddy McDowall), the chewed-up Old B.O.B. (voice by Slim Pickens), and the mute, evil Maximilian — are the only ones with personalities.
The heroes board the much bigger vessel of the aforementioned madman (Maximilian Schell), who wants to be the first to enter a black hole and come out the other side, or something. His entire human crew is gone, but that’s okay, because he’s got a bunch of robots working for him. I think you’d have to be nine years old not to figure that out, though it takes psychic Yvette Mimieux half the film to twig to it. Eventually it all comes down to our heroes going pow-pow with their laser blasters at the similarly armed robots, who clatter and fall fairly amusingly when hit. The pre-black-hole money shot, when a gigantic meteor crashes through the ship and narrowly misses the heroes, was probably more impressive when I was nine and goggling at it on the big screen.
Hard to believe it’s been twenty-eight years. Some of you — hell, some of my colleagues here — haven’t been alive that long. Just today, an acquaintance was telling me about watching an old war flick he’d loved as a kid; now all he saw was the same stock aerial footage repeated over and over, and he thought the movie was terrible. Well … okay … The Black Hole has no aerial stock footage. It has justifiably acclaimed visual effects, which still impress in the pre-CGI context of 1979. But I’m afraid that’s all it has.