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18 May, 2006

Review: The Black Hole (1979)

This was one of my formative cinematic experiences when it was first released.  Though a Disney film, with overly cute robots, it's also the first Disney film to have received a 'PG' rating, and my parents may have been slightly misled about its suitability for an eight-year old child.  At that age it rather scared me, and I still remember it with visceral unease, but seeing the film was also a landmark event probably determining my subsequent interest in sci-fi (another was reading Robert Westall's 'Futuretrack 5').

In hindsight, it's a very Gothic film, both visually (the cathedral-like spaceship Cygnus, the silent, robed 'undead' and the lighting/colour scheme) and in the overall bleak melancholy. A major theme is the acceptance of death and the aftermath.

Having watched it for the second time last night, over 26 years later, I found that my memory had exaggerated the 'trippiness' of the ending and consequently the fear it inspired (though I recalled the scene leading into it with perfect clarity – and heart-in-the-mouth anticipation). I'd also missed/forgotten the blatent religious imagery of that sequence.

Disney's investment in the post-'Star Wars' sci-fi boom is reflected in the big-name cast, featuring Maximillian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster and the voices of Roddy McDowall & Slim Pickens (who famously rode a nuclear bomb in 'Dr. Strangelove'). At least the first two were probably cast because of their somewhat sinister manner and associations. I've always though there was something creepy about Ernest Borgnine, too.

John Barry's eerie, slightly grandiose score didn't soften the impact on the childhood me, either. One other, unrelated, observation after hearing it again: the music doesn't remotely fit the action in key scenes. I wonder why.

The special effects, in terms of miniatures, matte painting and even CGI were excellent for the time. The IMDb reports that (though clearly influenced by 'Star Wars') they were ground-breaking and nominated for Academy Awards.

Good cast, atmosphere, visual design and effects. To that, I'd add that the overall story and concepts are excellent.


The screenplay, including the script, and the acting drastically undermine the good points. I won't itemise the instances of bad science, but hardcore sci-fi purists would have... problems. The plot is annoyingly abrupt, as if natural development has been compressed to fit the available space and time. A bit like entering a black hole – nah; it can't have been deliberate.
Far worse, the dialogue is hideously stilted and delivered in a seemingly-amateurish manner. Apparently, nearly all of the spoken material was re-recorded after filming, which can't have helped; many lines do sound as if being read rather than really acted.
However (again), that's merely an acknowledgement of the weak aspects, and I do think the story and overall 'feel' more than adequately carry the film as a whole.

So; seriously flawed and far from a classic unless one has a prior emotional attachment, but still worth seeing.

Incidentally, it was slightly embarassing to realise last night that when I was playing childhood games which involved imagining sticks to be guns (precisely the sort of games the spoilsport adult me wouldn't approve of), the image I had in my head was the guns from 'The Black Hole'!


As a kid I remember being totally freaked out at the ending. First I was just shredded thinking they all died, and then when they survived... well I didn't know what to think quite frankly.

I'm amazed they made this and expected kids to even remotely understand the ending of the film. There's NO way this movie gets made today. Not as a PG movie anyway. Supernova 2, maybe.

That being said, I love this movie. The only drawback for me at this point is that the picture quality on the DVD is so clear that you can see the wires being used to move the robots around. That was a crushing sight.

Posted by dvdguy at May 19, 2006 01:21 PM
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