Rewatching The Black Hole

Rewatching The Black Hole August 8, 2016

I just rewatched the science fiction movie The Black Hole, to introduce my son to it. I was particularly eager to see what I myself thought of the ending, and indeed whether it meant what I had interpreted it to mean when I watched it in my youth. And I wondered what my son would make of it, including whether the special effects that were so impressive in 1979 would have stood the test of time.

Black-Hole-CygnusReligious themes permeate the movie from start to finish. Right near the beginning of the movie, Harry Booth says the black hole they have encountered is “straight out of Dante’s inferno.” Charlie Pizer says that every time he sees one of those things, he expects to see a big guy in red with horns and a pitch fork.

For those interested in ethics and artificial intelligence, the movie does very interesting things with robots and the possibility of the distinction between humans and robots being blurred in both directions. I had forgotten about the moments when Kate McCray communicates with the robot VINCENT using ESP. Charlie, and captain of the Palomino Dan Holland, in their conversation when VINCENT’s tether breaks as he is making repairs outside, treat the robot as one of the crew, although still not in the same way they would another human being. VINCENT himself talks about how humans used robots of his type in Project Black Hole to send ESP messages back from probes. Dr. Rheinhart, on the other hand, refers to VINCENT when addressing Maximillian by saying not to pick on small people. Yet he refers to having made “companions of a sort” to keep him company – ironically then referring to people that have been reduced to something closer to mere automata, although the fact that they hold something with “all the reverence of a human funeral” suggests that the transformation is less than complete. Harry looks into the reflective faceplate of one of the seeming robots, and talks about Rheinhart liking to play God. Much later in the film, Dan and Charlie risk their lives to save BOB.

Rheinhart also compares the face-off between Maximillian and VINCENT to the Biblical story of David and Goliath. VINCENT himself later mentions hating the company of other robots. BOB shakes nervously so that he rattles, while STAR  is an arrogant show-off who cannot stand to lose. And yet Alex Durant scoffs at the notion that Rheinhart would have programmed his robots to feel emotion. Science fiction movies often seem not to realize that they are depicting robots with emotions, even while depicting human characters as assuming that robots lack such characteristically human features.

Rheinhart offers a new power source capable of providing all the energy needed on Earth as evidence that the ends justify the means. He says that his plan to journey through the black hole will bring him to the place of ultimate knowledge. Alex says that Rheinhart will solve the one remaining mystery, a pilgrimage that might lead into the mind of God. Rheinhart then comes in and quotes from Genesis, and expresses his hope that through the black hole is a place where the laws of physics do not apply, and thus life unending. Rheinhart also says at one point “Some cause must have caused this – but what caused that cause?” After Maximillian kills Alex, Rheinhart asks Kate to protect him from Maximillian.

There is a consistent element of poetic justice in what befalls characters who act selfishly. Maximillian shreds through the scientific notes Alex is holding – the things that have led him to want to remain with Reinhardt on the Cygnus – before the blades plunge into him, killing him. Harry takes off in the Palomino on his own to try to save himself, and inadvertently saves the others. Reinhardt is surrounded by a crew that he has enslaved and which can no longer respond to his pleas for help after a large screen falls on him. As the remaining Palomino crew escape the Cygnus on a probe ship, only to discover that it has been programmed on a course into the black hole, they hold hands and in the last bit of spoken dialogue, pray that Reinhardt was a genius, whatever else he may have been. And then finally, we get a close up of Kate’s eye and then see Reinhardt first in hell, trapped in the body of Maximillian, and then his spirit freed to travel along a heavenly passageway. Is this supposed to be understood as simply what happens to him, what Kate senses with her ESP, or what she imagines? She had earlier said that if there is any justice, the black hole will be his grave. Perhaps it is simply poetic justice – he hopes to find life everlasting by entering the black hole, and ironically does, albeit precisely as a result of dying – not to mention dying before fulfilling his dream of entering the black hole, and so perhaps we are supposed to think of him as having discovered in death that what he lived for was misguided, and what he sought lay close at hand all along? Here is the scene in question, in case you don’t remember it:

I also watched the mini documentary feature on the DVD, “Through The Black Hole,” and was struck by the fact that the ending of the movie had still not been decided when they began production, but one idea was to have it feature the main characters looking at God on the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel – a mysterious, spiritual ending. Apparently the novelization by Alan Dean Foster did something slightly different than either the originally-planned ending or the movie, but with no less spiritual implications than either.

It is a rarity for the villain in a movie to be punished in hell at the end of it – and hell apparently also proves to be temporary, making the film theologically provocative for certain viewers. In all these ways, The Black Hole stands apart from all other sci-fi that I can think of, and most other movies (although apparently I need to see Event Horizon, which was presumably inspired by The Black Hole, and which I have never seen). The Black Hole is obviously a film worth discussing if you are interested in religion and science fiction.

Is it safe to assume that everyone reading this blog will have seen this movie, and loved it when they were young? Have you watched it since? Did you find that it stood the test of time? Were you surprised at just how much religious themes were woven through the entirety of the movie, and not just the ending? How do you feel that its story and the spiritual themes in it compare to the more recent Interstellar, for instance?

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I haven’t seen the movie in a long time, but it never occurred to me until you suggested it that the “heaven” scene was for Reinhardt. I thought he was stuck in the “hell” scene in Maximillian’s body while the crew of the Palomino traveled through heaven.

    • If you watch the ending, from hell there is what seems like a heavenly passage, and someone’s spirit floats by, and it isn’t clear whose else’s it could be than Reinhardt’s. The Palomino crew, on the other hand, seem to make it through to a white hole and into space, whether another universe or another part of our own.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Right. I guess I had interpreted the heavenly figure as an angel, but the whole sequence is what the Palomino crew observes until they come out the other side. They enter the Black Hole, travel through these transdimensional realms, then come out the other side.

        I’m not saying that’s correct. I’m just saying that’s how the ending stuck with me as a kid. I’d love to watch it again, especially looking at it from this angle.

        • And of course you may be right. I suspect they didn’t give us a clear view of the entity precisely so that the sequence raised possibilities rather than provided answers. I presume that the reason we get to hell and heaven via a zoom in and zoom out on Kate’s eye is for a similar reason. Are we seeing places that exist within the black hole? Or beyond it? Or something Kate imagines? Or something she senses from another plane of existence through her ESP? All those interpretations are possible, and the ambiguity seems deliberate.

  • I’m happy to think that I can recall my initial reactions upon seeing this movie for the first time in the theater. I loved the movie poster. I couldn’t stand the film score as the main motif was repeated over and over again. The laser effects were good, the robots just too silly. And when I saw the ending it struck me to ask myself, “Why are the good people sharing Hell with the bad guys?” Would there be some good Heavenly light awaiting them? It never came and I left the theater really befuddled.
    I would have ended the picture with a blast of white light coming off the screen to blind the audience for a few long seconds. And then let them think about what just happened. “The film broke!” would probably be their first reaction, then later discussion.

    • Mark0H

      The good people do not share hell with the bad guys. You need to watch it again.

  • John MacDonald

    “Science fiction movies often seem not to realize that they are depicting robots with emotions, even while depicting human characters as assuming that robots lack such characteristically human features.” I am reminded of DATA in Star Trek The Next Generation and the episode about whether Data should be decommissioned (turned off), or whether he is sufficiently human to warrant the same rights and protections a human person has. It reminds me of the abortion debates regarding whether a fetus is a person or not.

    • John MacDonald

      Here is a brief clip from the episode I mentioned of “Star Trek The Next Generation: The Measure Of A Man.” In the clip, they are trying to determine whether DATA, an android, is sentient or not and hence whether he deserves the right to choose whether scientists can experiment on him or not (possibly killing him): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJF-IRbTh0Q

      • texcee

        I love this episode. My favorite scene is where Picard is defending Data and says, “Our mission is to seek out new life. Well, THERE IT SITS!”

        • John MacDonald

          Here is my favorite quote from “Q” about being an explorer:

          Q: If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.

          • “The Measure of a Man” is an episode that I require students to at least watch part of in the course.