‘The Black Hole': The Worst Movie Ever Made?
Earlier this year, for some odd reason, a TMZ cameraman was stalking the famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The first question that the TMZ cameraman asked Tyson was about which movie Tyson felt was the most scientifically inaccurate. It’s almost remarkable how quickly Tyson answered this question. It was almost as if all time and space merged at the particular moment, because Tyson’s answer seemed to come before the question was even asked – as if the sheer weight of Tyson’s answer was so heavy that even light itself couldn’t escape. Tyson’s answer, “The original Disney movie, ‘The Black Hole.’ It was embarrassing!.”
“My issue with it,” Tyson continued, as he flails his arms with rage, “they not only got none of the physics right about falling into a black hole, had they gotten it right, it would have been a vastly more interesting movie. Somebody must have decided, ‘I know better than the scientists about how I should portray the middle of a black hole.’ They go into the black hole and it looks like Carlsbad Caverns, or something.” Tyson finally adds, “Don’t get me started about ‘Black Hole,’” which seems like a warning that’s too late at this point, ending with, “’The Black Hole,’ the original Disney movie, one of the worst movies ever.”
From a scientific standpoint, Tyson is correct -- human beings get sucked into the black hole as if they were sinking into quicksand and rescuing them is as easy as yelling, “take my hand” and pulling them out of danger. This is not the way an actual black hole operates. But ‘The Black Hole’ is far from one of the worst movies ever, but it's fascinating that Tyson believes it's one of the worst movies ever. (To be fair to Tyson, he probably hadn’t seen ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ at this point.) If nothing else, ‘The Black Hole’ remains a peculiar oddity because of, well, just how weird it is. Inside the black hole isn’t Carlsbad Caverns, instead its imagery is straight out of the fiery pits of Hell. (And remember, this is somehow a Disney movie.)
It wasn’t Tyson’s comments that inspired me to rewatch ‘The Black Hole’ (I doubt calling it one of the worst movies ever would inspire too many people to watch it), it was more of a recent post-‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ urge to rewatch some of these almost lost space-themed movies of the late-‘70s and early to mid-‘80s that were all influenced by the box office returns of the first three ‘Star Wars’ movies. In the sense that, maybe, post-‘Guardians,’ we’re in store for another round of these kind of movies (in fact, an updated ‘The Black Hole’ has been rumored for years) and, honestly, I can’t really tell yet if that would be a good thing or a bad thing. Though, it wouldn’t be the worst thing if another seemingly benign mainstream movie were as weird as ‘The Black Hole.’
Directed by Gary Nelson, who is best known for directing the original version of ‘Freaky Friday,’ ‘The Black Hole’ opens with the crew of the USS Palomino -- a ship that for some reason doesn’t have an artificial gravity system, which results in some very bad looking floating effects -- traveling through deep space, approaching a black hole. (As a side note, the crew sits around the controls of the ship in a circle as if they are all playing a game of Parcheesi.) OK, so far so good. Soon, the ship encounters some problems as they get closer to the black hole, during an ill-fated attempt to investigate the presence of long missing ship, the USS Cygnus, that is somehow not affected by the gravitational forces of the black hole.
It’s during this sequence that we find out that one of the crewmembers of the Palomino, Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), has ESP. We learn this in the most direct way possible, as the ship’s captain, Dan Holland (played by an almost “I can’t believe I’m in this movie” looking Robert Forster) barks at her, “Use your ESP to talk to V.I.N.CENT” V.I.N.CENT, it should be added, is the lovable robot on board the Palomino that looks like R2-D2 and kind of talks like C-3P0, only with a little more Roddy McDowall added in because V.I.N.CENT is voiced by Roddy McDowall. So, not only does McCrae have telekinetic powers, her powers are just referred to as “ESP” and she can use this “ESP” to talk to robots as they make repairs.
The cast of ‘The Black Hole’ is strangely eclectic and not made up of the first names that you might think of for a movie set near a black hole. Joining Forster, Mimieux and McDowall on the Palomino is Anthony Perkins as Dr. Alex Durant; a journalist named Harry Booth (who of course turns out to be a coward), played by Ernest Borgnine; and the almost out-of-place comic relief of Lieutenant Charlie Pizer, played by Joseph Bottoms.
With a damaged ship, the crew of the Palomino board the Cygnus, which might be one of the oddest spaceships in the history of cinema. The Cygnus sports scenic views of the black hole – I suspect the rent would be very high if the Cygnus were a New York City apartment – and dining rooms that resemble something out of Jane Austen adaptation. The only living survivor of the Cygnus is an eccentric man named Dr. Hans Reinhardt, who is played by Maximilian Schell, and owns a sinister looking robot who is also named Maximilian. (I do wonder if the roles had been switched and if it was Perkins who had played Reinhardt, would the sinister robot be named Anthony?)
Anyway, as it turns out, the only reason that Reinhardt is alone on this ship is that he turned all of the surviving crew members into robots, something that McCrae’s ESP didn’t discover during the second act of ‘The Black Hole,’ where not a lot happens, other than bickering between the crew of the Palomino over if they should leave sooner rather than later because the Cygnus is creepy. Only Alex Durant seems to like Reinhardt.
This changes after a burnt out old robot that looks like a poor man’s version of V.I.N.CENT (who is a poor man’s R2D2) named B.O.B. (voiced by Slim Pickens, of all people, which makes me wonder why anyone would build a robot that purposefully has a country twang) explains to V.I.N.CENT everything that Reinhardt has done to the former crew of the Cygnus -- you know, that whole making them all robots thing -- it’s after this revelation that things become odd.
V.I.N.CENT. uses ESP to contact McCrae and warn her about Reinhardt (at least her ESP is good for something; it seems less a way to read minds and more a convenient method of communication) and she explains what has happened to Perkins’ Alex Durant. Once it’s obvious that these two know what’s going on, Maximilian (the evil robot, not the actor) gruesomely drills a hole through Durant, which immediately kills him. (I must add that this is horrifying while watching as a child. I also learned that a book is not a good defense against an evil robot drill.)
It’s at this moment that Borgnine’s Harry Booth fakes an injury so that he can steal the Palomino, which leads to his death and the destruction of the Palomino, which crashes into the Cygnus -- causing the ship to slowly drift out of control toward the black hole. (Oh, yeah, remember there’s a black hole in this movie?)
The surviving members of the Palomino -- dodging glowing meteorites along the way in what is a fairly thrilling scene -- board an escape pod in an attempt to liberate themselves from slow, slow, slow descent into the black hole. The escape attempt was futile and the crew enters the black hole – which sets off a sequence that is inherently confusing to a six-year-old child watching this movie on cable television in the early ‘80s. This is the scene that makes Neil deGrasse Tyson so angry
In reality, as Tyson explains, a human being entering a black hole would be ripped apart in a process called spaghettification. (Here’s a picture of what someone might look like being spaghettified by a back hole.) In the movie ‘The Black Hole’ -- after a seemingly endless sequence focused on each crewmember’s face rotating, while we hear their echoed voices -- we witness Reinhardt and Maximilian involved in some sort of celestial dance, before the two eventually merge as one, in what looks an awful lot like Hell. Then an angelic looking being guides the crew of Palomino through some sort of computer generated hallway, before, eventually, the ship passes out of the black hole (we think) into who knows where … and then the credits roll. That’s it.
‘The Black Hole’ wasn’t a bomb (it made money, but underpreformed) grossing $35 million on what was kind of enormous $20 million, late-‘70s budget (as a comparison, the original ‘Star Wars’ was made on an $11 million budget). With 27 reviews, it currently sits at 44 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which honestly sounds about right.
I have a strange fascination with this movie that isn’t nostalgia based – I barely remember watching it as a child – but more as a cultural oddity that a movie this weird was made by Disney in an effort to capitalize on the ‘Star Wars’ phenomenon. And I suspect this is what leads to someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s frustration because black holes are fascinating, but this movie barely uses its unique and fascinating setting. The black hole might as well have been a scenic pond.
And why anyone at Disney thought that kids (who I can only assume is the target audience here) would come out of this movie thinking, You know, that made a lot of sense is beyond me. But, yet, it exists. And little did it know at the time that, 35 years later, the most famed astrophysicist in the world would call it the worst movie ever made. In a strange way, ‘The Black Hole’ should take a special kind of pride that it decided to be so weird and so esoteric that it somehow made Tyson this angry.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.