THE BLACK HOLE: Two Cents…to the Stars! – Roundtable Review [Two Cents]

Two Cents is a Cinapse original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team curates the series and contribute their “two cents” using a maximum of 200-400 words. Guest contributors and comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future picks. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion. Would you like to be a guest contributor or programmer for an upcoming Two Cents entry? Simply watch along with us and/or send your pitches or 200-400 word reviews to [email protected].

The Pick: The Black Hole

To celebrate the much-anticipated second half of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune, we are going to be exploring the stars this month. That’s right, a whole month of films that take place in the far reaches of space. This week we are looking at 1979’s The Black Hole, a film from the Walt Disney Company that was attempting to blend sci-fi and disaster films.

Featured Guest

Nathan Flynn

Disney’s The Black Hole (1979) stands as a peculiar entry in the realm of 70s sci-fi cinema—a blend of ambition and misstep that, despite occasionally being boring, I find oddly captivating as a mood piece. It gracefully aligns with films like Ad Astra, Silent Running, Moon, Sunshine, and perhaps the most stoned movie ever made, Star Trek – The Motion Picture, as a worthy representation of a sub-genre I am defenseless against: “slow space.”

Disney’s failed attempt to capture the popcorn pulp fun of Lucas’s Star Wars and the cerebral depth of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is an admirable corporate endeavor to mix oil and water, which undeniably falls short but not without its merits. There’s an undeniable visual grandeur to the production design, complemented by a sumptuous John Barry score, stunning cinematography, and special effects that still hold up almost half a century later.

The Black Hole boasts a stellar and bizarre cast of character actors, with Maximilian Schell as an evil doctor, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster, and robots voiced by Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens. Another fascinating aspect of The Black Hole is its moments of pure horror amidst the family-targeted cosmic spectacle, most notably a robot murder scene that is laser-printed into my brain.

In the end, The Black Hole is the kind of fascinating Disney misfire that we don’t get anymore. It possesses an excellent atmosphere and tremendous visuals that are well worth a watch for everyone who is constantly reminded by their bank statements that they are still subscribed to Disney+, even if it just serves as a good audio-visual substitute for Ambien when the late night insomnia hits.

Small Footnote: When I was a kid, I had a picture book novelization of this movie and it ends with the villain becoming a composite being with the robot in literal Hell. Interesting to consider.

The Team

Frank Cavillo

Released during the studio’s infamous “flop” period, The Black Hole is a perfect example of Disney’s lackluster era when many of its animated and live-action efforts were met with little to no enthusiasm from both critics and audiences. Admittedly, The Black Hole had a lot working against it; it’s devoid of an entire first act, its science feels wonky, and it’s far talkier than any “space adventure” should be.

But there’s something so oddly playful about The Black Hole that makes it difficult to fully to dismiss too. The movie has a collection of great actors seemingly having fun, while some of the script’s plot turns do prove effective. The sets and effects, while instantly dated, have a fun pop feel to them, and manage to give The Black Hole a much needed playfulness that’s serves as a great contrast to some of the more melodramatic moments.

In the immediate post-Star Wars era, the cult status of a movie like The Black Hole was all but guaranteed. Still, it’s hard not to applaud the studio’s attempt to want to innovate through the movie’s effects, score and darker story elements. If The Black Hole was not the successful space odyssey many were hoping it would be, it remains a bridge between traditional studio craftsmanship and the future of moviemaking.

(@frankfilmgeek on X)

Jay Tyler

It is easy to identify precisely why The Black Hole was a disappointment on release. Released a mere two years after the original Star Wars, but a year before Empire Strikes Back, it clearly is attempting to capitalize on the space adventure promise of that surprise smash hit. However, it hedges its bets slightly, and makes a more adult version of space exploration, with no clear-eyed optimism to ground it, and instead presents a much more cerebral and at times very slowly paced and contained story.

This gives the whole film a darker, more somber tone, especially when you get the climatic back half which essentially is an escape film as things go off the rails. This isn’t a film about fighting back against oppressive forces, or discovering yourself amidst the stars while escaping home. This is a movie about man’s obsession with the unknown, poking in corners that it has no business in, and the damage that hubris produces. To this end it has more in common with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Heart of Darkness than it does the cheap but thrilling space serials.

However, if you can get on The Black Hole’s wavelength, it has a lot to offer. For being a product of Disney’s wilderness years, it is legitimately unnerving at parts. This is in large part to a hammy but incredible performance from Maximilian Schell as the unhinged Hans Reinhardt, obsessed with discovering what lies beyond the titular black hole. His performance shifts between charming, unnerving, and then completely unraveled, a bellowing menace out of his mind. He embodies the best of a truly iconic villain at the center of this sort of story, so much so his magnetism blows our ostensible heroes off the screen.

It would be overkill to call The Black Hole a hidden gem in the recesses of the Disney vault. The front half is a bit too sleepy to really grab you, but if you can get through the slow parts, the escape portion is genuinely thrilling and occasionally surprisng. It helps that it relies heavily on practical, innovative effects for much of its runtime, and thus still looks great even if some of its production design is a bit primitive and of its time. And that back half pays off the patience you put into the first, with legitimately unnerving sequences and an ending that is both baffling and strangely hypnotic. Worth a watch, but know that you have to eat your greens before you get to the dessert. 

(@jaythecakethief on X)

Upcoming Pick in Two Cents…To the Stars!

John Carter

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