Theological Themes in “The Black Hole (1979)”

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I am finally returning to my movie reviews focusing on theological and philosophical themes. I had planned months ago to return to writing them, but they fell to the side as I wrote other posts. All that time these continued to nag me. This is an interesting topic for me which I love to ponder and discuss with people. I knew I needed to continue these posts. They take a long time to write, however, and so they may be slow in coming.

I loved The Black Hole when I was a child. I even had some of the action figures. It is not a high-caliber science fiction movie like the original Star Wars trilogy, but I think it may still be under appreciated today.

Plot Summary
The opening credits show a graphical representation of how space and gravity are viewed according to the General Theory of Relativity. Space is a fabric, and gravity is an indention in that fabric. The black hole appears as an incredibly deep indention in that fabric.

The story begins with the robot VINCENT onboard the USS Palomino announcing a course correction because of a black hole. He displays an image of it on the holographic projector.

The rest of the crew comes to the bridge. Captain Dan Holland says it is the most destructive force in the universe. Kate McCrae says a professor predicted that black holes would devour the universe.

VINCENT then detects a ship near the black hole and notes that it has not moved since he detected it. They search the ship database and identify it as the USS Cygnus, the same ship on which McCrae’s father served. When their mission to find habitable life was declared a failure, the Cygnus was recalled. The captain Hans Reinhardt ignored the recall, and the ship was never seen again. Journalist Harry Booth says that Reinhardt considered himself a legend and refused to admit failure

The crew wonders how the Cygnus, which they believe to be uninhabited, resists the black hole’s gravity. They decide to investigate. As they approach, they feel gravitational turbulence from the black hole, but when they are near the ship the gravitational turbulence ceases. All lights on the Cygnus are off as the Palomino passes it.

After they pass the Cygnus, the Palomino is caught in the black hole’s gravity and is pulled toward it. VINCENT goes outside to fix a blown hatch. While he is outside they lose radio contact and so McCrae contacts him with her ESP. His tether breaks, but he is able to avoid being pulled into the black hole. Their life support system is damaged, and so they look for a place to land on the Cygnus. Lights all over the Cygnus then turn on. McCrae believes she sees people onboard. When they land they have normal gravity.

Pizer remains on the Palomino while the rest of the crew explores the Cygnus. When they first board the ship their weapons are destroyed by lasers. They eventually find their way to the bridge where they meet Reinhardt and his aggressive robot Maximilian. They bridge also appears to be run by robed robots. Reinhardt informs McCrae that her father is dead, and that his death was a great loss. He informs the Palomino crew that the Cygnus was disabled by meteorites. He told the crew to abandon ship and return home while he remained onboard with McCrae’s father. He created the robed robots as companions. Sentry robots then escort Pizer to the bridge.

Reinhardt explains that he developed anti-gravity to keep his ship in position so that it is not pulled into the black hole. Maximilian then escorts Holland, Pizer, and VINCENT to get supplies to repair the Palomino. While they are gone, the rest of the crew continues questioning Reinhardt. He compares his mission with that of Christopher Columbus. He then shows them his power generator which is sufficient to power all of Earth.

Booth leaves the group to investigate the ship on his own. He finds a robed robot maintaining a large arboretum. When it leaves the room it limps. On his way back to the Palomino, Holland witnesses some robed robots performing what appears to be a funeral for one of their own kind. He then informs Pizer who speculates that some of the crew may still be alive. They conclude that the sooner they leave the better.

Back on the bridge, Reinhardt suggests that the black hole may lead somewhere rather than nowhere. Doctor Alex Durant expresses admiration for Reinhardt’s accomplishments and desires to remain for a while. Reinhardt suggests discussing it over dinner.

While the crew is on its way to dinner with Reinhardt, VINCENT joins some sentry robots in their target practice room. He challenges the lead sentry robot STAR to a match. He defeats STAR and causes one blast to hit his chest. STAR then shorts out from rage. BOB tells VINCENT to meet him in parts storage.

At dinner Reinhardt requests no more unescorted travel on the Cygnus. When Booth mentions that the Cygnus was once reported to have an arboretum large enough to feed the entire crew, Reinhardt comments it is now only large enough to provide food for himself.

Reinhardt then explains that he plans to travel into the black hole – “in, through, and beyond” (0:45:07). When Booth says that is crazy and impossible, Reinhardt says “The word ‘impossible’. Mr. Booth, is only found in a dictionary of fools ” (0:45:25). He assures the Palomino crew that the course he has chosen, and his anti-gravity technology, will allow him to safely navigate the black hole. He believes the journey will allow him to discover “the ultimate knowledge” (0:49:37). Maximilian tells Reinhardt that the probe ship is about to dock, and so Reinhardt leaves the dining room.

BOB then meets secretly with VINCENT. He rearms VINCENT’s lasers and tells him the Palomino crew is in danger. He shows VINCENT the hospital and tells him the robed robots are what remain of the Cygnus crew – physically human but now more like robots. Sentry robots discover them, and VINCENT is forced to destroy the sentries.

While VINCENT and BOB are talking, the Palomino crew in the dining room discusses whether or not Reinhardt is insane. They also discuss strange behaviors in the robed robots and question what truly happened to the Cygnus crew. Booth says the robots feel like people. Holland says they should leave, but Booth wants to take the Cygnus home. VINCENT then contacts McCrae telepathically and asks to meet Holland on the Palomino.

Holland, Pizer, and Booth go to the Palomino while McCrae and Durant continue talking. Durant expresses admiration for Reinhardt’s possible discoveries in the black hole and says he wants to go on the voyage. Reinhardt then enters the room. He gives Durant his mathematical formulas and asks him to monitor the flight into the black hole.

BOB tells Holland that the Cygnus crew mutinied when Reinhardt ignored his recall. Reinhardt killed McCrae’s father, and the remaining crewmen were turned into the robed robots – humans with no will. VINCENT tells Holland that he was forced to destroy two sentries. He recalls McCrae and Durant to the Palomino through his link with McCrae. Durant wants to remain onboard. McCrae urges him to leave. Booth, fearful of what happened to the Cygnus crew, urges the captain to launch the Palomino and leave.

VINCENT then telepathically tells McCrae about the Cygnus crew. She tells Durant. He removes a robot’s mask and sees the human face underneath. When they try to run away, Maximilian kills Durant, and Reinhardt tells sentry robots to take McCrae to the hospital. He tells the Palomino crew that Durant and McCrae chose to remain onboard, but VINCENT informs them of what happened to them. Holland and VINCENT, guided by BOB, rush out of the ship to rescue McCrae as the Cygnus moves closer to the black hole. Sentries discover their destroyed counterparts and inform Reinhardt who tells Maximilian to “liquidate” the Palomino crew.

Holland, VINCENT, and BOB destroy the sentries in the hospital and rescue McCrae who was beginning the process to become another robed robot. They fight their way back to the Palomino. When they cannot reach it Holland tells Pizer to take off without them. Pizer leaves the ship to help them while Booth fakes an injury so that he can remain. When they reach the Palomino, Booth is launching it. Reinhardt orders Maximilian to shoot it after which it crashes into the Cygnus.

The remaining Palomino crew then runs toward Reinhardt’s probe ship. While they are en route, a meteor shower being pulled in by the black hole batters the Cygnus. The crew fights sentries as they flee through the arboretum. The Cygnus suffers serious damage from the meteors. Reinhardt sends Maximilian to prepare the probe ship and is then pinned under a fallen view screen.

When the crew is near the probe Maximilian shoots BOB. VINCENT defeats Maximilian, and BOB shuts down. As they board the probe, the Cygnus is breaking apart. After they launch, they realize that its computer has been programmed to take them into the black hole.

What follows is a series of disjointed images and voices as the probe flies through a tunnel in space. Reinhardt, who is floating outside of the Cygnus, merges with Maximilian and stands on a rock peak in what appears to be Hell with the robed robots below. A robed man (not one of the robots) flies through a crystalline hallway. The probe exits the black hole, presumably on the other end of the tunnel, and flies toward a light that looks like a sun emerging from behind a moon.

Theological Themes

The Black Hole makes numerous references to Christian theology. When VINCENT first displays the black hole on the holographic projector, Harry Booth says, “Right out of Dante’s Inferno!” (0:03:50), referencing Dante Alighieri’s classic representation of Hell in his Divine Comedy. Pizer responds that whenever he sees a black hole he expects “to spot some guy in red with horns and a pitchfork” (0:04:16) by which he means Satan, building on Booth’s reference to Hell.

Later when the Palomino crew is on the bridge of the Cygnus they arrange to make repairs to the Palomino. When VINCENT attempts to enter the elevator to get the necessary parts, the much larger and more menacing Maximilian blocks his path. Neither one back down. When Reinhardt sees the standoff, he says, “Now what does that remind me of? Oh yes, David and Goliath. A classic confrontation. Only this time David is over-matched” (0:29:38). In 1 Samuel 17, David defeats the giant Goliath with a stone thrown from his sling, thereby demoralizing the Philistine army and emboldening the Israelite army. Reinhardt’s biblical reference proves to be more appropriate than he realizes at the time because, like David, VINCENT later defeats Maximilian in their final confrontation.

While Holland, Pizer, and Booth meet VINCENT and BOB on the Palomino, Durant and McCrae discuss Reinhardt’s plan. McCrae asks Durant if he wants to accompany Reinhardt, to which he responds, “On a glorious pilgrimage straight into what may be the mind of God?  Yes, I do” (00:55:00). Reinhardt, who had quietly entered the room, quotes Gen. 1:2 (KJV): “and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (00:55:08).

Reinhardt then gives a record of his formulas to Durant and says he is “ready to embark on man’s greatest journey” (00:56:38). McCrae says it could be man’s riskiest journey. Reinhardt responds, “The risk is incidental compared to the possibility to possess the great truth of the unknown” (00:56:44). He explains that “long-cherished laws of nature” do not apply there. Durant asks about life, wondering if it ceases inside the black hole as well.  Reinhardt simply says, “Life? Life forever” (00:57:06).

The theological content up to this point is clearly grounded in  the commonly understood aspects of the Christian theological tradition. Most of the closing sequence, however, is more difficult to understand. When the remaining Palomino crew launches the probe ship in an attempt to escape the black hole, they realize that the probe has been programmed to fly into the black hole. McCrae says, “Let’s pray for the genius” (1:28:52), another reference to Christian theology. What follows, however, is far less clear.

The closing sequence (beginning at 1:30:38) is a mix of swirling images and sounds with no clear explanation. Matte Effects Supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw says in “Through the Black Hole” (12:05), in the special features on the 2004 DVD of The Black Hole, that no end for the film had been written when it entered production. In answer to what is on the other end of a black hole, Ellenshaw suggested that the camera pull back and show McCrae looking up at God almost touching Adam in Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel.. This idea was scraped. The idea which was placed in the movie came late in production. The team thought it should be ethereal and show a struggle between good and evil with miniatures and fire. Ellenshaw is not sure what the end means, but he thinks it looks good.

The last time the merged Reinhardt and Maximilian appear they are standing on a rocky terrain with fire in what appears to be Hell. Considering the references to hell and Satan at the beginning of the movie, that is a reasonable assumption. One could ask, however, why the robed robot crew are also in hell.

This also leaves the question of where the Palomino crew goes. The robed man flying down the crystal hallway could be a reference to Heaven. The probe exits the black hole and flies toward a light. Placing them in Heaven would provide an appropriate contrast to Reinhardt/Maximilian’s fate in hell.

It does seem likely that the closing sequence portrays images of Heaven and Hell, and closing references to Heaven and Hell would fit well to the opening reference to Dante’s Inferno. Nonetheless, this interpretation is uncertain. If the rest of the production crew, like Ellenshaw, did not understand it, then one could question whether or not they intended to portray Heaven and Hell. Maybe they left the ending intentionally vague to provide a sense of mystery. Maybe they wanted both – vague references to Heaven and Hell and a sense of mystery.

How do you interpret the ending of this movie? Feel free to leave comments. This could be a fun conversation.

 

 

About henrywm

I am a graduate from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology. I am interested in Christian theology and church history. I also enjoy science fiction and stories which wrestle with deep questions.
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