Films

No warped space/time, just a time warp

THE BLACK HOLE Directed by Gary Nelson

Richard Corliss December 31 1979
Films

No warped space/time, just a time warp

THE BLACK HOLE Directed by Gary Nelson

Richard Corliss December 31 1979

No warped space/time, just a time warp

THE BLACK HOLE Directed by Gary Nelson

They're all here-the all-American spaceship captain and his good ro-

bot, the brilliant but mad scientist and his bad robot, the jive-talking teenager, the working-class malcontent, the token woman—cryogenically preserved from the Saturday matinees of your youth. Only now they’re wandering around inside The Black Hole, Walt Disney Productions’ most ambitious and expensive attempt to win back the mass audience that deserted its frail, whimsical comedies for the special effects of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Superman.

Basically, The Black Hole is a remake of MGM’s sci-fi epic of 1956, Forbidden Planet (which itself was a kind of remake of Shakespeare’s The Tempest): a team of astronauts, roaming the farthest reaches of outer space, meets a renegade genius who has created a highly sophisticated environment but who is tormented and ultimately destroyed by a creature that is really an expression of his own deformed ego. The message of both films is: knowledge is fine, but it’s more important to be nice. In The Black Hole, the evil Einstein is Dr. Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), his spaceship is the Cygnus and the threatening force is that new scientific supernova, the black hole—a dead star whose incredibly strong gravitational field collapses matter out of existence ... or into some unknown realm.

It’s a piquant premise for a sci-fi movie, and someday a good one will be based on it. The Black Hole isn’t it, partly because—for all its (pretty good) special effects—the movie is lots of talk and little action. Oh, there’s an okay gunfight at the Cygnus corral and a scene in which our heroes escape a runaway meteor which may make you jump if you can forget that they should have been turned to cinders by the meteor’s heat. There’s a roadshow R2D2 named V.I.N.CENT. who helps lighten the oppressive mood, and a mysterioso climax which will force middle-aged men all over North America to answer the question, “Daddy, what happened?” But most of The Black Hole is talk—stilted, poorly delivered, Mickey Mouse dialogue—that sounds as if it was lifted equally from NASA manuals and fortune cookies. (Anthony Perkins, as Dr. Durant: “How can one not be overwhelmed by the deadliest force in the universe?”) Blame may be shared by the director, Gary Nelson, the four authors of the screenplay (strong in possibilities but weak in moment-to-moment solutions) and a cast of some of Hollywood’s most notable bad actors, among whom Perkins and Ernest Borgnine deserve special citation.

What’s worse is what’s missing. It’s what used to turn a movie house full of kids and their captive parents into one big happy family in the dark: the Disney sense of humor. A $20-million budget seems to have inhibited the filmmakers—with that much money at stake you don’t kid around. Ah, but you do; you must. A sense of humor is the crucial aspect of a sense of humanity. Without it we would all go screaming into the black hole for there would be nothing of man worth saving. Except for V.I.N.CENT. and one or two of his robot pals, and Schell with his ham on wry, the new Disney film is peopled with automatons. No matter what its story means to tell us about the sterility of science and the tyranny of the computer, The Black Hole is executed with such impersonal craftsmanship that it ends up on the side of the machines.

Richard Corliss