1979’s The Black Hole does just about everything right. It’s chock-full of great actors giving compelling performances. It has plenty of memorable scenes and imagery. John Barry’s score is hauntingly beautiful throughout. It offers several iconic robot designs. And it has a fantastic mystery that is resolved in the most devastating way possible.
So why do I feel so hollow every time the end credits roll?
I want to love The Black Hole, but something prevents me from doing that. For this reason, I have to ask: is The Black Hole a good movie? Let’s go through its positive and negative qualities to get to the root of the film and discover the answer to this question.
Perfect Cast – Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowall, and Slim Pickens are the biggest names associated with this film, but there are no weak links in the cast. Every character feels fully fleshed out and imbued with some real depth. Their personalities really shine through in all of their interactions with each other, and you always get a sense of dread when one character is hiding something or not telling the whole truth.
Set Design – The U.S.S. Cygnus comes across as a giant tomb in space. It’s beautiful yet foreboding, futuristic yet medieval, and dead yet pulsating with life. Every set in the movie feels larger than life, and it conveys the massive scale of the spaceship and the personality of the man who commands it.
Devastating Mystery – The Black Hole is one of three great science fiction films from 1979 that managed to weave a complex mystery. The other two are Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien. The identity of V’ger is pretty interesting, and the alien’s origin was explored in later films in the series with disappointing results. But the mystery at the heart of The Black Hole remains the simplest and arguably most effective of the bunch. It is truly devastating when you learn what happened aboard the Cygnus years ahead of the heroes’ arrival.
Action Sequences – The movie takes its sweet time getting to a proper action sequence, but all of that buildup makes for a satisfying experience watching the good guys destroy evil robots, outrun asteroids, and outwit enemies. Every action sequence is etched into my brain. They’re all well executed and they’re often quite fun, which is helped a lot by the music.
John Barry’s Score – From the opening notes of the score, you know you’re in for an ominous ride. I can’t say enough good things about the music. The heroic themes are great, but where the music really shines is when it’s highlighting the dark wonder of space and the secrets of the Cygnus.
Robot Designs – Maximilian, V.I.N.CENT, and B.O.B. are three of the best designed robots I’ve ever seen in any film. There’s something warm and inviting about V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B.’s design while Maximilian is a silent, malevolent presence in every scene where he appears. I especially love the moments when V.I.N.CENT and Maximilian go toe to toe, like David and Goliath. That friendly looking robot packs quite a punch.
Questionable Science – This movie plays fast and loose with scientific concepts. For example, characters refer to rocky objects in space as “meteorites” when they should refer to them as “meteoroids” because they haven’t crashed down on Earth or “asteroids” because they are so large. The vacuum of space is often seen as more of a nuisance than a cold reality. When there’s a breach in the hull, sometimes it blows all of the air out of a room (albeit slowly) and sometimes it is ignored. Characters fly into space without spacesuits and receive no harm. I do like the wirework, though. It really sells the low-gravity environments. But one last thing: the titular black hole is treated as a wormhole rather than a giant space compactor. Granted, that is one of the film’s primary conceits. All physical laws break down inside a black hole, so no one really knows what happens inside one. If the film had been a bit more realistic leading up to the point where the surviving heroes travel through a black hole, I could have forgiven its leap in logic more easily.
ESP – I don’t mind suspending my disbelief for the Force or magic or things like that as long as they feel like an organic part of the story. But I don’t buy the use of extrasensory perception in The Black Hole. The film establishes an ESP connection between a crewmember and V.I.N.CENT as a way to quickly convey key information between them at pivotal points in the plot. But it comes across as a lazy crutch to move the story forward, especially since it’s only paid lip service and never made a big deal of. A lady can communicate telepathically with a robot. Is no one impressed by this? If they’re not, I’m not.
Unexplored Ideas – There’s an intriguing moment that occurs right after Maximilian brutally murders a kindly crewmember in cold blood. The villainous Dr. Hans Reinhardt, who created Maximilian, approaches the ESP lady who watched it all happen and says, “Protect me from Maximilian.” What does he mean by that? Is Maximilian pulling the strings? Is it a manifestation of Reinhardt’s evil intentions? Is it out of control and a threat to Reinhardt’s safety? Why would a creator be afraid of his creation? This one line raises so many questions. We get a partial answer at the very end of the film when the robot seemingly engulfs its creator, but this idea could have been explored in so many other interesting ways. It feels like a missed opportunity. I suppose that’s the main problem with the movie. It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of life, the universe, and everything, and it never delivers satisfying answers. Some movies, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, can get away with failing to find solid answers to deep questions, but this film can’t. So many profound ideas, so little time.
The feeling I’m left with at the end of The Black Hole is a desire for more. I want more information. I want to know the fate of the crew. Did they find a habitable planet? Will they ever be able to return to Earth? I want to understand what happened to Reinhardt and Maximilian. Are they in Hell? Can robots go to Hell? Is Hell inside a black hole while Heaven awaits on the other side of one? So many unanswered questions.
I suppose that the fact that I’m left wanting more means that the film is good. After all, I wouldn’t care about the answers if the film was terrible and insulted my intelligence for thinking about it. My interest is piqued, and I yearn for answers that match the depth of the questions asked in this film. So yes, The Black Hole is a good movie. I just need to be in the right mood to take the plunge into it.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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