Disney’s main entry into the post-Star Wars sci-fi frenzy was a sure thing. The 1979 film The Black Hole had everything it needed: a comparatively huge budget (an estimated $20 million), monumental special effects, a can’t miss cast of A-listers, a cute robot, a story with a solid hook into some weird science that had been getting a lot of press and a perfectly-timed release date. The fact that it was Disney’s first PG-rated film had generated some buzz and the ad campaign was a grabber. It could not miss. It simply could not miss. It was a guaranteed Christmas blockbuster.
Except that it wasn’t. The $20 million sci-fi action extravaganza only brought in a paltry $35 million in the end. So what the hell went wrong with The Black Hole?
Well, pretty much everything, beginning with the script. When you see four writers connected to a script, you know you’re in trouble.
Given that only one of the four had any even passing experience with science fiction, they conveniently lifted the core story from Forbidden Planet and moved it a bit to the left. A deep space research ship, the Palomino, encounters another ship in what appears to be an impossibly stable orbit around a black hole. Not only was the ship in question, the Cygnus, presumed lost years earlier, as it happens the Cygnus’ first officer was also the father of the chief science officer aboard the Palomino. Remarkable coincidences aside, the really amazing thing was that the Cygnus somehow had the anti-gravity capabilities to prevent it from being sucked into the black hole.
After boarding the Cygnus, the crew of the Palomino finds its sole human occupant is a mysterious scientist overseeing a crew of robots. Over time his dark past and the fate of the previous crew are revealed, as are his plans to dive the ship into the black hole to see what happens.
Unfortunately, until the latter gets underway in the final minutes of the film, not a whole lot happens. Despite all the news coverage black holes had been receiving in the late ‘70s, nobody even bothers to explain what they are, how they’re formed or what they do, it’s just that big bathtub drain floating there outside the ship’s window making everyone a little antsy. Aside from the mad scientist, none of the characters has much of anything resembling a personality. They sure do talk a lot though, but only seem capable of speaking in stilted clichés like, “The right time to go into the black hole is now!” and “If there is any justice at all, the black hole will be your grave!” and “When I volunteered for this mission I never thought I’d end up playing straight man to a tin can.”
Script in hand, Disney then brought Gary Nelson aboard to direct. Up to that point Nelson had been almost exclusively the director of TV dramas and the occasional miniseries. He had no experience with science fiction and had certainly never worked on a massive special effects film before.
Then there was the cast, which was unquestionably five-star down the line. Maximilian Schell (as the mysterious and creepy Dr. Hans Reinhardt), Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, even Slim Pickens and Roddy McDowall providing uncredited robot voices. All of them excellent and deeply talented actors, but not exactly a group with a lot of drawing power among The Black Hole’s target audience (“Robert Forster? What’re we waiting for? Grab your bike!). And here they seem mostly uncomfortable, wandering about these monstrous and expensive sets with little to do except spout clichés.
But none of that really mattered. People didn’t go to these films to hear subtle dialogue, they came to see robots and lasers and spaceships and crap blow up. And as far as the special effects are concerned, the production got a little boost.
The original plan for The Black Hole had been to rent a Dykstraflex computer-controlled camera from ILM, but when that turned out to be too expensive, the engineers at Disney set about designing their own (which they dubbed ACES), and in the end it actually worked better. So now the crew had a computer-controlled camera of their very own to handle the big exterior shots and all was well. That was about as far as Team Black Hole’s good luck went.
A lot of the other effects they had in mind for The Black Hole didn’t really work so well for one reason or another and had to be modified, rethought or abandoned completely.
Among the things that didn’t really end up on the screen the way it had been originally imagined was the cute robot, VINCENT (voiced by Roddy McDowall). Clearly a pandering effort to combine R2D2 and C3PO into one convenient package, VINCENT was a small, supposedly charming dome-headed robot with a supercilious British accent and an endless supply of quips, another sure thing when it came to merchandising the film. Since the expressive electronic eyes with which the robot was to be equipped didn’t really work, it was instead given large, square, painted-on googly eyes that left VINCENT looking like a Playskool toy. In a film in which little else is happening, watching a giant Playskool toy struggle to be charming didn’t help matters (though the close-ups it receives while sending psychic messages to Yvette Mimieux are pretty intriguing).
Ultimately, the single deadly mistake made by the filmmakers of The Black Hole was that they at once tried too hard and pandered too cynically. They clearly went into the project thinking grand-scale special effects were all they needed, that audiences weren’t there for any other reason. By focusing so obsessively on the futuristic ship interiors and the robots and the blinking lights and the big kabooms of The Black Hole’s last 15 minutes (most of which didn’t pan out anyway), they seemed to completely forget little things like “story” and “character.” Even when things finally do start blowing up in The Black Hole, we know and care so little about the people onscreen that it feels as slow and drab as the rest of the picture.
According to astrophysicists, at the event horizon of a black hole time comes nearly to a standstill. Well, that’s where most of The Black Hole takes place and that’s pretty much what it feels like. And after getting out of the theater, few viewers felt compelled to storm the nearest toy store in search of those VINCENT action figures.