Nostalgia often provides an especially thick coat of veneer on even the most execrable products of popular culture. None will understand the allure of those fragments in time except those who experienced these images while young, optimistic, and as yet unblemished by wisdom, cynicism, or cirrhosis. Among the most treasured films from my childhood is not the phenomenon that is Star Wars, but rather the quickie Disney knockoff, The Black Hole. Star Wars changed the way films are made with revolutionary special effects, and reinvigorated the sci-fi genre. And when I say reinvigorate, I mean several hacks thought “Hey, I could make that shit”, and proceeded to make shit. Metalstorm, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Ice Pirates, and The Black Hole all were released after Star Wars became one of the first real blockbusters, hoping to cash in on its success despite awful effects, poorly thought out set design, and acting charitably described as dinner theatre. This didn’t matter to my naïve eyes; the worse the film, the more ludicrous the props, the more the laws of physics were violated, the greater my fondness for it. A gargantuan set filled with trash and coked up thespians in leather beats a film consisting entirely of computer graphics and video game cutscenes.
Not that The Black Hole is utter crap – there was an interesting vision at work here, creating a somber and dark mood piece that seemed to focus less on action than a sense of isolation and impending doom. There also seemed to be a paranoid and fatalistic political subtext – more on this later. The film flopped, barely making back its production and marketing costs. This isn’t surprising given its gloomy tone and wildly schizophrenic ending. Still, such a disorganized and implausible work remains entertaining for the same reasons, and overall The Black Hole is elevated by its faults. Its strength remains its stunning sense of imagination, summed up in one word: Maxi-fuckin-milian. This supremely Satanic robot should have become an indelible sci-fi icon, what with a menacing cycloptic stare, and the insinuation that he, not the human who built him, was actually in command all along.
The plot is fairly simple – a crew of an American deep space probe stray near a massive black hole (a little too close – these things swallow entire galaxies) to find a giant ship floating effortlessly on its edge. This ghost ship, the USS Cygnus (named after the first discovered black hole) comes alive, luring in the intrepid explorers to explore its neo-gothic innards. It turns out that the Cygnus’ Captain, Hans Rhinehart, wants a sympathetic audience to record his mission to penetrate the hole with a giant phallus and inform Earth that he is, indeed, the HNIC. Rhinehart is played by Maximillian Schell, whose portrayal of a German lawyer defending the Third Reich’s actions in Judgement at Nuremburg remains one of the most impossible and exhilarating performances in cinema. Not only does he create a complex character with the part, but he makes a compelling argument in defense of a people who have always been the go-to for cartoonish cinema villains. In this film Schell is just a crazy German fuck who plays god in ways too obvious to be labeled metaphorical. Not only does he want to see the face of god as he passes through the black hole (presumably giving him the finger), but he also killed the entire crew of his ship and turned them into zombie slaves when they tried to mutiny. He also managed to build an army of robots who manage to exhibit worse marksmanship than stormtroopers, and are as menacing as vending machines.
Opposing Rhinehart and the awesomest robot ever is the crew of the Palomino: Robert Forster, who is a man among men and a B movie God; Ernest Borgnine as a self-interested dipshit named ‘Harry Booth’ with no particular function on the crew, Anthony Perkins as a nonspecific officer who is enamored of Rhinehart’s ambitions, and two other people who you wouldn’t notice if you ran them over. Also in the crew is VINCENT, a floating R2D2 voiced by Roddy McDowell, who gets the best lines in the script.
“To quote Cicero: Rashness is the characteristic of youth, prudence that of mellowed age, and discretion the better part of valor.”
Crew member: “You know what they say Vincent, All work and no play…”
VINCENT: “All sunshine makes a desert, so the Arabs say.”
Another helpful robot is the old, battered BOB, voiced by (I shit you negative) Slim Pickens. And I am sure that last item has sent you straight to your Netflix queue. As the crew uncovers the nefarious activities of Rhinehart, there are mostly feebly mounted gun battles and a deus ex machina meteor shower that wrecks the Cygnus and foils Rhinehart’s plans more than anything the Palomino’s crew ever could. The plot holes exceed the titular hole by several orders of magnitude, but all is forgiven as Maximilian deploys a windmill razor blade that guts Anthony Perkins with a satisfying “GLLAHHHHGLURRGGAH” and gets electrocuted. Though the shower of blood and entrails is nowhere to be seen, one must give a Disney film credit for giving the kids a little something to think about.
Throughout, the action fails to relieve a persistently somber tone. The cavernous and drab hallways, the zombified staff who silently pursue their menial tasks (BOB notes “The damage done to them is irreversible. Death is their only release.), a cowardly Ernest Borgnine shot out of the sky (when he tries to escape from the Cygnus with the Palomino, leaving the rest behind), and a gentle death scene where BOB’s ‘heart’ slows and stops preserve the depressive and oppressive mood. Even the death of Rhinehart is devoid of any sense of victory – he is crushed by a monitor, and as he calls for help, his guardian Maximilian indifferently leaves the room to prepare the probe ship for evacuation. That’s some cold shit.
There is some religious commentary throughout in the background, until the final sequence when religion is placed front and center. The Palomino’s crew succumbs to fate as the black hole sucks them in; this part is thankfully not explained very well, leaving you to your opinions. As they spin through the vortex, time seems to stop, and they are suspended in a sort of purgatory. Maximilian consumes Rhinehart fully, and he presides over a scene of hell (the traditional Christian version, anyway, with an endless apocalypse of fire and rock). Heaven, as usual, is poorly realized, with pajama-clad angels flying down a glittering hallway. These delirious visions confront the crew before they shoot out the other end of the black hole; a new universe, an infinite emptiness to challenge their efforts to build a world anew. Except that there is no food or water in the ship, and they would need to find another Earth sharpish or they would end up fighting over who is eaten first. It doesn’t make any sense, except as the passage of death, and being born again in an alternate universe.
The overt religious images don’t seem guided by any particular agenda; perhaps the director was in a way confronting his own mortality. More interesting is the political subtext dripping with paranoia and fatalism. The bleak tone and austere set design, combined with the ever-present zombified crew and creaky stormtroopers led by a dictator with a god complex would seem to suggest a subtext of cold war fears. I’m not so sure – though Schell makes a fascinating Stalin, I think of him as that German lawyer from Judgment at Nuremburg. With his misplaced genius he would make a strong argument for the rise of a unified Germany that would lead us all into a new world. At this time, there was a great deal of interest in the reunification of Germany, uncompleted until 1990. There was no reason to think that fascism was returning to that part of Europe, but the film seems preoccupied with this all the same. Rhinehart is brilliant and ambitious, but ultimately he has no control over what transpires. In fact, nobody seems to have much control over the course of the plot, all held in thrall to the black hole (itself signifying the forward march of history). More subconscious forces are at work in the film; it is Maximilian, after all, who is really in charge. When Rhinehart built him, his dark side was given physical form, and once unleashed could not be tempered. At one point, Rhinehart grabs one of the Palomino crew members and whispers “Protect me from him…” The fear is that once Germany is whole, that nobody could predict the monster it would become.
Interestingly, the American crew did very little to stop this behemoth, and depended upon chance to avert disaster. This is either a comment on how history sweeps us along despite our best efforts, or a symptom of a weak screenplay. The victorious Americans emerge unscathed from the fire, but are absolutely directionless. Perhaps this is the most telling subtext of all – though courageous, we aren’t as smart as we think.
Overall The Black Hole is a deeply flawed work, and certainly inferior to Star Wars. Nonetheless, I prefer the former for its flaws, its courage to be gloomy, and its lack of the traditional heroic archetypes that make Star Wars a more comforting form of entertainment. The nebulous ending and absence of any real victory leaves one most uneasy after the coda, and unease is an emotion that remains with you long after the credits have rolled.