A research vessel finds a missing ship, commanded by a mysterious scientist, on the edge of a black hole.
Walt Disney’s “The Black Hole” is probably my favorite post Star Wars movie that plays in line as a sort of rip off but really isn’t. It’s pretty much a forgotten classic among Sci-Fi films of the late 1970’s. It was Disney’s first PG motion picture and it is deep, gripping and has at it’s core a very interesting and allegorical tale to tell about the corruption of power and knowledge. It succeeds in retaining class and even humor in the best light and is a technical marvel to behold because of the amazing work of Peter Ellenshaw. The film is widely overlooked because of it’s release right on the heels of Star Wars but at it core it’s a dark and symbolic tale that often fascinates and terrifies. It tackles major topics of the futulity of playing God and our place as mere mortals in the Universe. Through it’s groundbreaking technical feats and it’s resonant storytelling, The Black Hole stays with the viewer long after seeing the film. It was my pleasure to re-watch this intense, fun and thrilling movie right before submitting this review and it held up very well. Some things are a bit dated and a few scenes come across a tad hokey because of some corny dialog here and there but it doesn’t detract terribly from what makes The Black Hole really work. I used to believe that audiences didn’t really get The Black Hole since I felt what they were all looking for was another Star Wars. Not true. I’m happy to admit that many Sci-Fi movie lovers hold The Black Hole is very high regard and the movie has garnered an immense following and much respect. It is in all intents and purposes an Oldie but Goodie.
American Television and Movie director Gary Nelson, who was responsible for Freaky Friday (1976) and Allan Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold, helmed The Black Hole in 1979. The movie was written by Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day (Yellow Rose and Columbo) with a few other writers attached to help solidify the story. With a budget of 20 Million dollars it was the most expensive film by Disney at the time. The Effects team tried to get some Special Effects equipment from George Lucas’ ILM at the time but could not afford the equipment. This led to the team having to improvise and come up with their own types of technology and computer controlled Camera for Motion Control and such when shooting Models. This was smart of Disney to do even if it was unintentional. It resulted in Disney putting out some impressive effects sequences that are spellbinding to watch nowadays, It has a very unique look that separates it from movies made with more money to spare. Disney was a bit worried at the time that they could not compete with the efforts put out by ILM for Star Wars but they decided that they would take that risk and the pride of being a Disney release alone gave the film team the moral boost they needed.
The Black Hole begins with a somewhat dated but still cool looking computer rendered “Black Hole.” Accompanying that sequence is John Barry’s rousing opening main theme that is sweeping, moody and adventurous all at the same time. After the credits end we then see another beautifully done star field that literally chokes the frame and enter left is the slow moving Starship named USS Palomino. There is a brief VO exchange before we move into the ship between V.I.N.C.E.N.T. (from here on known as just “Vincent”) voiced by Roddy McDowall ( Legend of Hell House )and Anthony Perkins ( Psycho ) who plays Dr Durant. We then get brought on board to the wonderful looking set of the interior bridge of the Palomino where Robert Forster as Capt. Holland, Joseph Bottoms as LT Pizer, Ernest Borgnine as Harry Booth and Yvette Mimieux as Dr Kate McCrae all gather to see what Vincent has discovered. It appears that a gigantic Black Hole has been found and that a large ship is nearby able to withstand it’s huge gravitational pull. After spending some time trying to identify the ship they come up with the USS Cygnus which disappeared and happened to be the very ship that Kate’s father served on before they all went missing. Booth, remembering his history gives us a briefing regarding the captain of the Cygnus and his crew. They decide to go in and investigate why and how the Cygnus went missing and lost contact.
Once they move in the Palomino becomes damaged due to a Nullifying field that surrounds the ship. With the help of Vincent they get the ship in good enough shape to dock safely with the Cygnus. On board they discover an android crew and the enigmatic and eccentric Captain Reinhardt played with amazing menace and mood by the great Maximilian Schell ( John Carpenter’s Vampires, Deep Impact ). The crew also comes upon the hulking and very dangerous looking robot “Maximilian” which is Reinhardt’s second in command. Reinhardt enlightens the crew of the Palomino by telling them that the Cygnus was hit by a powerful meteor storm and became unable to return to earth. He tells Kate that he ordered most of the crew to leave but that her father was one of the very few that chose to stay but has since passed away. Meanwhile, Durant offers to help Reinhardt investigate the Black Hole. The rest of the crew, though, start to witness strange things aboard the Cygnus like weird robot funerals, the drones acting a bit human like (one even has a limp) and spotting personal effects of the crew within the living quarters. During these strange happenings Director Nelson builds up tension, suspicion and dread. The robot drones are acting funky and little by little the Palomino crew starts to wonder. Durant, blinded by his servitude to Reinhardt fails to notice and turns a blind side to what may be happening. Vincent, on the other hand gets some more info regarding the nefarious Reinhardt from a broken down and like-able robot like himself called Old Bob. Bob tells Vincent, with his southern drawl, that the drones are actually what has been left of the crew. Bob ( voiced by iconic actor Slim Pickens ) continues to let Vincent and the Palomino crew know that Reinhardt went mad and had the resisting crew turned into vegetables and minions. Then Maximilian took over and kept the drones in charge. The crew found out about Reinhardt’s plan to go into the Black Hole and not return back to earth after the mission’s completion.
The Black Hole displays depth, style and is a feast for the eyes. Schell is amazing to watch and listen too. He delivers great lines with Shakespearean intensity like: “Some cause must have created all this, but what caused that cause?” or this one: “The word “impossible,” Mr. Booth, is only found in the dictionary of fools.” Forster, Bottoms and Mimieux are all capable but Borgnine steals a few scenes while Perkins plays his Dr with the straightest of intentions. The film will forever be overshadowed by the mythos of Star Wars but it has it’s own soul. Within the prime story lays some intense subject matters that is brought to the fore brilliantly by Gary Nelson and his storytellers. Nelson shows off his wonderfully designed sets, robots, costumes and the stylized action all comes across as mature but innocent at the same time. One scene with a meteor crashing and rolling through the Cygnus stands out as an amazing feat in combining different styles of FX. There are great optical FX, wonderful miniatures, mattes, cool sound effects ( I love the sound the lasers make and the buzzing electronics throughout the Cygnus) and last but not least the Black Hole itself is a monstrous character “Right out of Dantes Inferno” like Booth claims at the start of the film. The movie is well conceived, idealized and has a unique look. Almost impressionistic in parts. Nelson made sure that the symbolism and adventure are tweaked to maximum effect here and he succeeds on all levels. The Black Hole is good Sci Fi too. There are theories, situations and plenty of dialog that is smart and not too hokey. The exchanges between Vincent and Old Bob are fun and light but when we find out more regarding the true intentions of Reinhardt the 2 robots become important and are not wasted. There are cool laser gun battles, explosions, robot on robot violence and some cool stunts throughout. Disney made sure that this film, though blatantly overlooked by many, had a once in a lifetime style, look and delivery. The movie never took off and had no sequels but there are timeless themes all about the movie that are satisfying and engrossing.
The finale to The Black Hole is indeed enigmatic and full of poetry and has a message. It is open for debate what exactly that message is but it’s a fun and thrilling ride that we take in order to get there. It has a quick pace and in it’s own inimitable style it succeeds in telling a good story that is a bit ahead of it’s time. I would even venture to say it is the most thought provoking Sci Fi tale since MGM’s “Forbidden Planet.” Don’t miss this one gang! I highly recommend it and it is by far my favorite Disney film. Enjoy!
The Black Hole (1979)