Looking back at Disney’s The Black Hole

Through a connecting wormhole in time-space, Mark travels back to 1979, and an encounter with the definitive power of the universe...

The Black Hole

Being stung by the box-office success of Star Wars and no sure-fire hits on the books since Jungle Book (1967), Disney decided to produce its own space opera and spawned The Black Hole.

Director Gary Nelson got to lavish $20 million on this production, at the time the most money Disney had ever spent on a film in their entire history. With Disney’s track record for fantasy film and distinctive design, surely they’d deliver something memorable?

I’ve watched this movie again before I wrote this appreciation, and it’s a distinctly odd experience.

The plot is straightforward enough: The Palomino, a ship returning from deep space exploration encounters a black hole, and while they’re observing it they see a huge spacecraft suspended above it, the long lost Cygnus. The crew of the Palomino dock with the Cygnus, which turns out to have only one living occupant, the mercurial Doctor Hans Reinhardt. Can they solve the mystery of how the ship defies the enormous gravitation pull, where the crew went, and can they survive the black hole?

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In researching this piece I’ve read a few reviews of this movie, some written when it was released, that talk about how wonderful the effects and design work are. I’m not sure why they said these things, because, with a few notable exceptions, none of those aspects are wonderful in the slightest. Undoubtedly, the best effect is the black hole itself, made using a slow motion illuminated inky vortex of water, although annoyingly in one scene in the movie it appears as a background to the characters on the Cyngus who comment how mesmerising it is, except they’re looking in the wrong direction. Given it’s the title of the movie, it might have been cool to try and make the black hole an actual character, as such, but like so much here, it’s just a colourful backdrop to dramatic events.

Everything in this story is entirely 2D, like it was conceived as an animated adventure where the simple characters could be placed on more eye-catching backgrounds when things got boring. But even then The Black Hole just doesn’t have the visual impact of contemporary movies like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) had.

I also take exception to the spacecraft design, which is abysmal. One reviewer loved the Palomino because it was so ‘realistic’. Err? To my eyes, it looks like a camping stove! The Cygnus takes its architectural inspiration from the Eiffel Tower with an internal layout and structure that have no detectable engineering logic. The worst vehicle, however, is the probe they used to escape at the end, which looks like it was borrowed from Tintin: Explorers On The Moon. When the shooting script said ‘dark shapes on a dark background’ someone in the production design should have piped up, but no one did; as a result some of the optical matting on this project is exceptionally poor.

The design team also gets an ‘F’ for the robots, which considering that they followed the likes of those in Silent Running and Star Wars, make even Robbie the Robot look like the height of sophistication. VINcent is like a large colourful toy meant to amuse children, and with both him and Bob they made almost no effort to hide the wires that make them float. From an aesthetic viewpoint I admired the evil robot Maximilian more, although I remember being disappointed to discover that he was made of fibre-glass when VINcent drills into him at one point in the proceedings. Given how beautifully conceived and execute the Star Wars droids were, these aren’t even worth describing as pale imitations. It’s interesting to note that so thrilled were Disney with how these characters turned out that neither the brilliant voice talents of Roddy McDowall or Slim Pickens are actually credited at either the start or end of this movie.

The robots and odd overall visual concept hint at bigger problems with the project overall, in that is seems to have been something that was formulated by committee rather than directorial vision. That’s exactly how the script feels, but it isn’t helped by most of the characters in this story being madder than a box of snakes. Actually, from a critical standpoint almost every personality in this is either insane to some degree or acts without any judgment whatsoever. Ernest Borgnine’s ‘Harry Booth’ steals the Palomino and attempts to leave everyone else trapped on the Cygnus despite his character not exhibiting any significant treachery before this act, and without having the actual skills to navigate the ship alone. While the audience mulls the craziness of that, he’s killed when the out-of-control Palomino strikes the Cygnus.

But it’s not just him; all the crew of the Palomino leave their ship and go onto the Cygnus without any idea what they’re walking into. Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) is the universe’s most naïve person and Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux) has the power of telepathy but forgets to use it the majority of the time.

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But the three-ring circus master of ceremonies is Maximilian Schell as Hans Reinhardt, who makes King George III look mildly confused. Given that he’s quoting the bible, and dressed like he was expecting an invite to the ambassador’s ball, you expect him to be unstable, but he’s a complete saucer section short of a Constellation class cruiser. I’d love to know what direction Schell was given, because in some scenes he’s a galactic Moses and in others he’s Dick Dastardly. In one memorable moment when seeing the efforts of his sad looking robots he slaps his head repeatedly which I took as his personal homage to The Three Stooges. Given how good an actor Schell can be, his performance here isn’t an inspiration for others unless they’re fans of farce.

But as unintentionally amusing as characters like Reinhardt are, in retrospect the biggest issue I have with The Black Hole is its complete tonal inconsistency. The design of the robots and the characters of VINcent and Ol’ Bob are obviously playing to a young audience, yet other parts are a Faustian nightmare, and the ending is a spiritual message or warning that most children just wouldn’t follow.

The ending now makes less sense to me now than it did when I first saw it thirty years ago. The bit where Reinhardt and Maximilian fuse together and are trapped in the event horizon, hell, I sort of follow, but the angel and the repeating gothic arch lost me entirely. The probe comes out of a white hole and they fly to a nearby planet, to do what? It’s like they entirely ran out of ideas, or thought that science fiction films need an ambiguous ending. If I’m honest it didn’t matter much. By that point I didn’t care what happened to the survivors of the Palomino, so more explanation would have been wasted. People demand sequels when they care about the characters, and I’ve seen no online petition for one here.

But the strange ending does beg the question: exactly who is this movie made for? It’s like Disney looked at every science fiction movie ever made, picked all the things they liked and threw them in the mixing bowl in the belief that it would make something desirable if mixed energetically enough.

What it demonstrates to me is that those at Disney who green-lit this project just admired the money Lucas has made with his ‘space movie’, and looked no deeper into why Star Wars was actually successful. In contrast The Black Hole is a rather pitiful effort that lacks any great imagination or vision. It also manages the seemingly unconceivable ability to make the dialogue George Lucas assaulted those who acted in Star Wars with seem natural and fluid by comparison.

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Yet even with these flaws I try to look for the redemption in all movies, and The Black Hole has two bright stars rapidly circling its event horizon. The first is a wonderful wire-frame CGI title sequence, which at the time was the longest computer sequence ever used in a movie. My only disappointment with this is that after delivering this imaginative start those who created this didn’t contribute anything further in way of display animations or technical readouts.

The other highlight of this production is the fantastic John Barry composed music, and it’s one of his unique ventures where he actually composes a full thematic overture. For me, Barry’s theme captures the inevitable pull of the singularity marching everything and everyone to its ultimate doom. Whenever I hear the music he wrote later for Moonraker, there seem many signature items that come from this score in particular. I’m not sure I could watch the movie again soon, but the music I could certainly suffer more than a few times.

Thirty years later The Black Hole strikes me as an unsubtle metaphor for how in the late seventies Disney as a creative force had gone completely awry, lost connection with its core audience and thought that aping others was the way forward.

From this low point they did go on in the next few years to release some genuinely interesting fantasy movies including the Paramount co-produced Dragonslayer (1981), Tron (1982), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) and Flight Of The Navigator (1986). I’d like to feel that at some point the pieces of this particular movie, had been joined in a different way, it might have been a classic, but alas, that wasn’t the movie they created. It stands now as a monument to what happens when people don’t understand their own failures and the successes of others.