Looking back at Disney’s The Black Hole

It was Disney’s earliest attempt to replicate the success of Star Wars. Here’s our look back at the rather weird sci-fi odyssey, The Black Hole...

Before The Black Hole, Disney’s live-action output consisted of breezy stuff like Freaky Friday, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo – the kind of flicks you could take your grandma to see without fear of scaring her to death. The arrival of Star Wars in 1977, with its motion-control special effects, colourful characters and sprawling universe, suddenly made Disney’s family fantasies look somewhat quaint.

Released a little over two years after Star Wars, The Black Hole was Disney’s attempt to try something new; it was an epic space opera which rode the crest of George Lucas’ astral wave. In the final analysis, though, The Black Hole is a strange fusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s metaphysical ponderings and cute robots, of pulp whimsy and flickers of violence which, for Disney, were mildly shocking at the time – it’s little wonder that The Black Hole was the company’s first PG-rated production.

The Black Hole opens aboard the USS Palamino, a small, exploratory spaceship inhabited by a group of stock sci-fi archetypes. There’s Robert Forster’s square-jawed man in command, Captain Dan, Anthony Perkins as the shifty Dr Alex, Joseph Bottoms as a fresh-faced Lieutenant Charlie, Yvette Mimieux as an idealistic Dr Kate, and in a moment of casting madness, Ernest Borgnine as cowardly journalist, Harry. There’s also Vincent, a small, floating robot which looks a bit like Cartman out of South Park. Voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall, he talks almost entirely in annoying aphorisms.

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On its homeward leg of a deep space mission, the Palamino stumbles on another ship, sitting deserted and precariously close to the edge of a gigantic black hole. Recognising it as the Cygnus, a gigantic vessel which vanished years earlier, the Palamino’s crew decide to investigate – spurred on by the revelation that Dr Kate’s father was one of the Cygnus’s inhabitants.

The Cygnus is a quite impressive creation, and like a less claustrophobic ancestor of the Event Horizon in Paul W S Anderson’s 1997 film of the same name. Apparently deserted, like a sci-fi Marie Celeste, the Cygnus is full of long corridors and expansive atriums. Eventually, our heroes stumble upon a section of the ship that is still inhabited: its huge bridge, where the sinister Doctor Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell, who channels all the energy of a pissed-off geography teacher) holds court with his army of spooky humanoid robots.

Reinhardt explains that the Cygnus had encountered a meteor shower, and that he selflessly remained behind while the rest of the crew were packed off back to Earth in escape vessels. Over the 20 years that followed, Reinhardt has busily constructed an army of robots to do his bidding, invented an all-powerful renewable energy source, and for his crowning achievement, plans to fly the Cygnus directly into the black hole to discover what he terms “the ultimate knowledge.”

On further investigation, Captain Dan and his colleagues discover just how nuts Reinhardt really is. The Cygnus crew didn’t bail at all – Reinhardt merely turned them into cyborg slaves. Realising that he’s been undone, Reinhardt decides to start the voyage into the black hole early, leaving Captain Dan with little time to figure out an escape plan.

At the time, The Black Hole was the most expensive movie Disney had yet undertaken. With its then hefty $20 million budget in mind, it’s a wonder what the studio’s executives must have thought when they sat down to see what all that money bought them. The opening scene alone contains a passing reference to Dante’s Inferno and a quote from Cicero – heavy stuff for a family movie – and there’s a gloomy, portentous atmosphere to The Black Hole which is quite at odds with its child-eyed floating robots and lengthy pew-pew laser battles.

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Director Gary Nelson was a veteran of such popular TV far as Gunsmoke, Gilligan’s Island and Happy Days, while his first film for Disney was Freaky Friday, the fluffy Jodie Foster body-swap comedy. The Black Hole was therefore Nelson’s first attempt at an effects-heavy science fiction movie, and he doesn’t seem to have much of an affinity for the genre; it’s a movie that comes to life as a series of striking still images rather than as a compelling story, and for every eye-popping vista and beautifully-lit piece of production design, there’s perhaps two lifeless scenes of terrible dialogue or weightless action.

Take a look, for example, at the sequence where the main characters first step onto the Cygnus’ bridge. After a long skulk through long corridors, we’re suddenly confronted with a quite astonishing establishing shot of hooded, monk-like robots silhouetted against huge red and blue spheres.

It’s a beautifully composed, striking scene, and one that would still cause jaws to drop just a little even in a modern film, I suspect. Then the film’s lone female goes and calls out, “Hello! I’m Kate McCrae!” And just like that, the tension’s lost.

The entire film follows this same pattern of visual beauty and frustrating stupidity, and in many ways, its faults exemplify the sci-fi genre at its worst. Its script is pretentious rather than intelligent, its characters little more than cyphers. There are long, dull scenes in which Vincent the robot meets a battered version of himself called Old Bob, voiced by an uncredited Slim Pickens, and the two indulge in what is in essence an endless bout of clay pigeon shooting.

These sequences are only matched in length and tedium by the ones where the human characters engage in debates about exactly what Reinhardt’s up to. When Anthony Perkins cries, “What basis do you have for these macabre accusations?”, it’s impossible to repress the titters. Then there’s Maximillian Schell’s humdinger, “Something caused this. But what caused the cause?”

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Even at 90 minutes, The Black Hole feels like a long movie, partially because so little happens. It’s obvious from the moment we see Reinhardt’s army of robots that they’re the enslaved human crew, yet it takes Captain Dan and his friends almost an hour to make the same discovery. Most frustratingly, there’s another great sequence in the final act, where Borgnine’s character whips the eerie, mirror-like mask off one of the robots to reveal a wizened human face beneath. Logically, this should have been the scene which illustrated the robots’ true identity, but it isn’t – this was revealed a few minutes earlier in yet another dull slab of dialogue.

It’s obvious, too, that the Cygnus has to descend into the black hole sooner or later, which means that we’ve little else to do other than wait for the event to finally happen. And when it finally occurs, the movie switches gear again, as Star Wars laser battles give way to a 2001-style psychedelic freak-out. Again, it would be fascinating to see what Disney’s executives  – and general audiences – made of all this, as weird flickering lights bathe the screen, Reinhardt’s tumbling form fuses with that of his evil robot creation Maximilian, and is seen presiding over an infernal landscape which appears to be hell itself.

When the movie concludes first with a vision of hades, then a trippy pursuit of an angel through a celestial tunnel, and finally a wordless shot of the Palomino floating towards a solar eclipse, one can imagine wide-eyed little kids wandering out of cinemas in 1979 and innocently asking, “Daddy, what the actual fuck?”

If you can get over the dialogue, absence of characters or real drama, there are still things to admire in The Black Hole. The special effects and Frank Phillips’ cinematography probably deserved the Oscars they were handed. John Barry’s orchestral vortex makes for an appropriately ominous soundtrack. And just when you can feel your brain shrivel from sheer boredom, the movie hits you with a striking image that makes you sit back up in your seat.

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I can still remember, aged about eight or so, watching The Black Hole on television one Christmas morning. The bit where Anthony Perkins is shredded by a robot’s whirling death blades left me utterly shaken.

It’s the odd glimmers of creativity like these that made The Black Hole both a modest success (it made about $35 million, so it wasn’t the flop some have suggested) and a modest cult favourite – Disney are even going to remake it, with Tron: Legacy’s Joseph Kosinski at the helm.

You can sulk through parts of The Black Hole, quietly noting the ever-present wires used to hoist the actors through the zero gravity sequences, perhaps tutting at the awful dialogue (“On a glorious pilgrimage, into what might be the mind of God!”) and dead-eyed performances, but there’s still something intriguing about the atmosphere the movie generates.

The central image of the spaceship floating like a splinter in the black hole’s eye is an irresistible one, and the desire to find out what lies beyond the dark point at its centre just – only just – carries the film through its most boring moments.

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