One tends to assume the impossible trip through a black hole would be pretty marvellous. Whether it takes one to another dimension populated by minotaurs or the bookshelf of one's daughter's bedroom, black holes in fiction always tend to deliver lucky travellers somewhere, or somewhen, weird, the phenomenon exciting the imaginations of many writers and filmmakers. In 1979's The Black Hole, Maximillian Schell is willing to throw away his career and his conscience for the chance of going through but this is really a movie about two robots voiced by Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens, an actually not atypical live action Disney film about cartoonish non-humans in a human world. Part unsuccessful Star Wars imitation, part kiddie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film has some mild, average Disney charm.
It's kind of fascinating how much this movie feels like Herbie or Pete's Dragon, not just because these movies had different writers and directors but also what would seem to be entirely difference premises. Somehow, the shadowy forces at Disney, throughout decades, ensured almost every single movie they released would in some way be exactly the same.
Maybe children are sensitive to subtler distinctions. I remember finding The Black Hole a bit spooky when I was a kid and I can appreciate even now some of its foreboding imagery, like the huge skeletal hull of Schell's ship which seems as though it may have influenced the look of 1997's Event Horizon, another black hole film.
The beginning of the film introduces the crew of an exploration ship called the Palomino, played by Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins, Joseph Bottoms, Ernest Borgnine, and Yvette Mimieux. With them is a helpful robot with big cartoon eyes named Vincent (McDowall). They come across Schell's seemingly abandoned ship and decide to risk taking a look inside where they find the living Dr. Rienhardt (Schell), who'd been given up for dead by Earth authorities, and his army of slick new robots. Also on board is "Old Bob" (Slim Pickens), a robot the same model as Vincent who looks like he's been picked on quite a bit by Reinhardt's creations.
Vincent and Bob prove they're both still better shots than the voiceless machines. The main theme of the film gradually becomes family pride--I guess you could even say racial pride--as Vincent and Bob's competition with the new robots turns into their struggle to keep their human friends alive when the new robots start trying to kill them.
In the end, there ends up being something pathetic about Pickens' robot, at the point of death, urging McDowell's to always remember, "We're the best!" I found myself wondering, what does it mean that these two fictional sentient entities are smarter, more skilled, and more compassionate than these other fictional beings? Divorced of any real life counterpart, Vincent and Bob exhibit in lonely, naked form human pride in belonging to a particular group. I suppose I could mock it, I have no real respect for pride, except it's so sad, probably because it's part of such a narrow perspective. I see Vincent and Bob as being slightly trapped, certainly immature. As the friendly cartoon characters they are there for the children, the principal audience, to identify with.
Action sequences reveal the film's attempt to conform to the Star Wars model, they fail for several reasons, chiefly because we never care very much about the human characters and because composer John Barry's attempt to emulate John Williams thoroughly misfires. As Robert Forster struggles to save Yvette Mimieux from killer robots, Barry's music sounds like an awards ceremony. Obviously the director wanted something like the fanfare in the prison break sequence in A New Hope but Barry crucially failed to match tempo to action and Forster and Mimieux's disconnected, concerned parent demeanour lacks the eager and nervous adrenaline of young Han and Luke.
What about the hole itself? The makers of the film knew they had to take us in but they probably would have been better off avoiding it. It's a montage of strange imagery like the end of 2001 but somewhat crudely combined with relatively conventional imagery of Christian Heaven and Hell, draining the moment of any inspiring mystery.