In the year 2130, an exploratory spaceship, the U.S.S. Palomino, is returning from a deep space exploration mission. The crew consists of: Captain Dan Holland, First Officer Lieutenant Charlie Pizer, journalist Harry Booth, ESP-sensitive scientist Dr. Kate McCrae, the expedition's civilian leader Dr. Alex Durant, and the robot V.I.N.CENT ("Vital InformationNecessary CENTralized").
During its journey, the Palomino's crew is alerted to the existence of a nearby black hole and, near it, find a derelict ship somehow defying the hole's gravitational pull. The ship is identified as the long-lost U.S.S. Cygnus, a ship McCrae's father, Ensign Frank McCrae, served aboard when it was reported missing. Deciding to investigate, the Palomino encounters a mysterious null gravity field surrounding the Cygnus. The ship is then damaged when it drifts away from the Cygnus and into the black hole's intense gravity field. The Palomino manages to move back to the Cygnus and finds itself able to dock with it.
The Palomino crew encounters an android crew and Dr. Hans Reinhardt, a prominent scientist and the Cygnus's commander. They also meet Reinhardt's second-in-command, the hulking robot Maximilian. Reinhardt explains that after his ship encountered a meteoroid field and was disabled, he ordered the crew to return to Earth, but Kate's father (Ensign McCrae) chose to remain aboard and has since died. To the incredulity of the Palomino's crew, Reinhardt reveals that he intends to fly the Cygnus through the black hole. Only Durant believes it possible and asks to accompany Reinhardt on the trip.
The rest of the Palomino crew grow suspicious of the faceless drones' human-like behavior: Booth sees a robot limping and Holland witnesses a robot funeral and discovers the Cygnuscrew's personal items in the ship's living quarters. Old B.O.B. (BiO-Sanitation Batallion), a battered earlier model robot similar to V.I.N.CENT, explains that the faceless drones are in fact the crew, who mutinied when Reinhardt refused to return to Earth. They have since been lobotomized and "reprogrammed" to serve him. McCrae's father had led the mutiny and was killed. Using telepathy, V.I.N.CENT tells Kate the truth about what happened. When Kate tells Durant, he removes the reflective faceplate from a "robot" to reveal the face of a crew member. Durant tries to flee the bridge with Kate, but Maximilian kills him, contrary to Reinhardt's wishes. Reinhardt takes Kate prisoner, ordering her to be taken to the hospital to be lobotomized.
As the process begins, Holland finds and rescues Kate, along with V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. Meanwhile, fearing the situation is escalating into dangerous territory, Booth panics and attempts to escape alone in the Palomino. Reinhardt orders the craft shot down, but the weapons fire sends the ship crashing into the Cygnus, destroying its port-side anti-gravity forcefield generator. A meteor storm then destroys the starboard generator. Without its null-gravity bubble, the Cygnus starts to be torn apart by the black hole.
Reinhardt and the Palomino survivors separately plan their escape aboard a Probe Ship used to study the black hole. Maximilian goes to prepare the probe ship shortly before Reinhardt is pinned by falling debris. His lobotomized crew stand motionless as he struggles. Maximilian confronts the others and fatally cripples Old B.O.B. moments before he is crippled by V.I.N.CENT and drifts out of the ship. Holland, Pizer, McCrae and V.I.N.CENT reach the probe, only to discover it's stuck in the gravity field of the black hole. It then goes through the black hole and plunges across the hole's event horizon.
In a dialogue-free epilogue, the travelers exit the hole and, possibly viewed through Kate's ESP vision, enter Hell and then Heaven, Reinhardt and Maximilian merge and stand on a high rock overlooking a burning, hellish landscape – possibly the remains of the Cygnus – populated by robed figures resembling the drones. Next, a floating, ethereal figure with flowing long hair passes through a cathedral-like crystal arched tunnel. The probe then emerges from a white hole in another universe and is seen near a star and planet. The last shot shows the probe flying toward the planet.
- Maximilian Schell as Dr. Hans Reinhardt
- Anthony Perkins as Dr. Alex Durant
- Robert Forster as Captain Dan Holland
- Joseph Bottoms as Lieutenant Charlie Pizer
- Yvette Mimieux as Dr. Kate McCrae
- Ernest Borgnine as Harry Booth
- Tom McLoughlin as Captain S.T.A.R. ("Special Troops/Arms Regiment")
Comic book adaptation
In 1980, Whitman Comics published a four-issue comic book series based on the film. The first three issues adapted the film, but the fourth and final issue, which carried the title Beyond the Black Hole, was an original story tracking the survivors as they explored the new universe.