Space movies were all the rage in the late 1970s. Everybody wanted to capitalize on the success of George Lucas’ Star Wars (see my earlier post about 1978’s Starcrash). By “everybody,” I mean EVERYBODY and Disney certainly did not want to be left in the lurch. The problem is, the only script they had was for a film modeled after 2001: A Space Odyssey and was much more about concepts and pathos than action and adventure. Add to it a strange cast of older actors and some silly-voiced robots and you have one of the weirdest, most delightful failures in history. I’m speaking, of course, of 1979’s The Black Hole.
The Black Hole is just such a strange film. It takes place in the year 2130 as an Earth research vessel in deep space comes across a black hole – outside of which, (and somehow not getting sucked into it) is the Cygnus, a ship belonging to a long-lost scientific expedition.
The crew of the ship attempt to make contact and begin to be pulled into the big sucky hole, when they get in the vicinity of the Cygnus and stop. Somehow, the Cygnus is creating a force to counteract the massive gravitational pull of the hole. Once aboard the Cygnus, the crew finds that every member of the scientific voyage is gone, save for Dr. Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), who has been alone for years with only his specially-designed robots to aid in his continued research. His ultimate goal: to fly the Cygnus into the black hole to finally see what’s on the other side.
The crew become skeptical Reinhardt’s story and eventually find that he killed his original crew when they tried to mutiny, and turned them into his drone cyborgs. The crew must then find a way off of the Cygnus without running afoul of Reinhardt’s soldier robots or his massive bodyguard robot, Maximilian, before they all fly through the eponymous dark void.
That’s a pretty dark premise, for sure, but this is a Disney movie, so it can’t be too dark, right? Incorrect, friends.
The Black Hole has the distinction of being the very first Disney movie rated PG, and likely would be rated PG-13 if it were released a few years later. To say nothing of the prevailing ominous tone, there are some downright shocking images. For example, when it is finally revealed that the drones are the former Cygnus crew, one of the drones’ silver faceplate is removed to reveal a semi-dead zombie face with black eyes. There’s also a scene where Maximilian, the floating, red enforcer bot, eviscerates a person, though there’s no onscreen blood. Characters die in Star Wars, but not from getting their guts torn out by spinning robo-blades. And, of course, there’s the ending where the characters go into the black hole and the baddies end up in a sort of robot hell.
The cast of the film doesn’t really spell comfort for young, impressionable children. Where Star Wars had heroic young people like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, The Black Hole had Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Perkins, and Yvette Mimieux. One of the heroes was Norman frigging Bates! The action hero in the film is Robert Forster who does a pretty good job, but always seems like he ought to be driving a fast car in New York rather than flying a spaceship in a sci-fi movie. Maximilian Schell, with his wild hair and uni-bomber beard, makes for a truly terrifying villain. And, not for nothin’, but German accents are 12-times more frightening than James Earl Jones’ heavy breathing.
So, it’s dark. We get it. But, Disney must have felt that to effectively capitalize on Star Wars, they needed some kind of good robots to model toys after for the kids to buy. Enter what is clearly supposed to be R2-D2 and C-3PO rolled into one: V.I.N.CENT, voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowell. V.I.N.CENT (or Vital Information Necessary CENTralized) floats around helping with various ship activities, but has these big, cartoonish eyes designed solely for cuteness purposes. Also, he apparently has the ability to communicate with Mimieux’s character via ESP. Isn’t that convenient? Aboard the Cygnus, V.I.N.CENT finds a wrecked and disused yet still functional robot of an older design than he. This robot is called “Old B.O.B,” which evidently stands for “BiO-sanitation Battalion.” Way to try with that one, makers of the film. He’s voiced by an uncredited Slim Pickens. Why in the name of Isaac Asimov’s asshole would they make a robot sound like an old-west-type cowboy? It makes absolutely no sense. McDowell is one thing, as he has a suitably snippy yet refined tone, but Pickens is completely ridiculous. Between all the robots and the wanton murder of people, this movie cannot decide on a tone.
So the script is kind of a mess, though the story is interesting, and the characters and actors are a bit off, but there are definitely reasons to love this movie, namely the special effects, production design, and score. All are fantastic. There’s a great deal of model work and matte paintings to give the space effect and they’re truly some of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s no wonder The Black Hole was nominated for Best Special Effects at the Oscars, in the same year as Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the eventual winner, Alien. This movie also contains the very first instance of CGI in film history, in the form of a green grid during the opening credits, but it most certainly led to the work done on Disney’s 1982 film, TRON, which used computer graphics extensively.
The production design is immense and intricate. Both the main ships have very distinct styles and looks, with the crew’s main ship, the Palomino, being much homier and welcoming than the Cygnus which has enormously tall ceilings and dark, ominous corridors. The score by five-time Oscar winning composer John Barry is haunting yet majestic. It’s also noteworthy that Barry did the music for twelve James Bond films, including Moonraker, which came out the same year, and Starcrash, of course.
The Black Hole has a great many problems, but also a large amount of things to admire. It’s one of the most atypical movies you’d ever hope to see with just about everything about it causing some form of confusion. It’s a kids’ movie that ends in hell, and that’s pretty much the coolest thing there is.