Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky concocts a mad plan to fly a spaceship through the heart of the plot hole in this movie.
Disney goes PG for the first time in a desperate attempt to outdo Star Wars. Buckle your seatbelts, because we are about to take a trip into the whirling maelstrom of terror that is…Maximilian Schell's voracious, eye-rolling performance as Dr. Hans Reinhardt in The Black Hole.
Facts of the Case
Somewhere at the edge of known space, the USS Cygnus waits, still as a bleached skeleton. Nearby, a hellish maelstrom swirls, a gigantic black hole. The Palomino stumbles upon the seemingly abandoned research vessel, and its crew, including intrepid Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster, Jackie Brown) and epigram-spouting robot Vincent (voice of Roddy McDowall, Planet of the Apes), investigate. Inside, they find a lonely, mad genius, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell, Judgment at Nuremberg), who is plotting to steer the Cygnus—and our heroes—straight into the black hole. Can the Palomino crew defeat Reinhardt's cruel robot servants and escape their horrible fate, before the crushing forces of the black hole destroy them all?
Wait, what is Slim Pickens doing in this movie?
No one said anything when Disney released a noisy, violent, Bruckheimerized film like Pirates of the Caribbean with a PG-13 rating. Why should they? These days, we think of Disney as a many-headed creature. It can market to toddlers and to tweens. It can reach the teenagers with horror films through its Dimension label and grown ups with art films through Miramax. The theme parks can accommodate Winnie the Pooh attractions and wilder fare like Mission Space that might—literally—kill your children if they ride.
What a difference a generation makes. Back in the mid-70s, Disney, barely treading water under the administration of Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller, had become a joke. Families increasingly found its G-rated fare stifling. Sure, movies like The Apple Dumpling Gang and Pete's Dragon were cute for kids, but numbing for everybody else. The bureaucracy within the company seemed intent on recycling the same old stuff and doing it as cheaply as possible.
But they tried. Even before the corporate coup that would eventually put Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg in charge (and they would end up getting all the credit for the turnaround), Ron Miller did try to change things. The Disney parks got roller coasters, and the movies got PG.
It is hard now to remember what a fuss it was when Disney went PG. I am sure the decision came in the summer of 1977, as the company watched kids pass over The Rescuers to line up again and again for Star Wars. What did this pulpy, glorified b-movie have that the respectable Disney didn't have? The men in the board room thought about it for a while. Let's see…it had robots. Kids like robots. And it had big special effects from those new guys at Industrial Light and Magic. And a touch of philosophy, so the kids could feel like there was something clever underlying the story. Oh, a couple of classy actors to give the thing an upscale feel. No Phil Silvers or Don Knotts. The Disney executives dutifully wrote down the formula, then handed it off to the movie division. Make us a Star Wars, they cried.
Actually, the movie studio was already busy trying to make its first horror movie, but the debacle that turned into The Watcher in the Woods is a story best left for another time. Anyway, The Black Hole hit theatres in 1979, and I remember rushing to see it the day it opened. The Disney name had me a little worried that it would be kiddie stuff, but those space ships looked very cool.
By the end of the film, I had mixed feelings. It was stiff, ponderous, often overacted. I thought the robots were too cute. The plot was too much like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a movie I loved but which had a much lighter touch. This movie—it was just…so…heavy. But man, those special effects were fabulous. But the whole PG thing? I couldn't see what the fuss was all about. A "hell" here and a "damn" there does not make this a grown-up movie. And the deaths were bloodless.
In the years since, I have caught bits and pieces of The Black Hole on television, but I have never managed to catch the whole thing since its original release. I am glad of that, because I am curious to see what modern kids, used to faster editing and less pedantic fussiness in their action movies, might make of a film that is paced more like 2001 than Star Wars.
The plot is pure gothic novel: let's escape the mad magician who lives in the spooky castle by the edge of a great abyss. By itself though, the familiar nature of the story is no problem. The concept of a black hole, particularly as visualized by Disney's special effects team, lends itself to a certain gothic eeriness. But director Gary Nelson takes creepy to mean numbingly slow and overwrought. Apart from a few striking moments—the Cygnus lights up as the Palomino approaches, that famous rolling fireball tearing through the ship during the film's climax (a scene that makes no logical sense, but it looks cool)—the movie is too intent on showing how "important" it is to be much fun. Hell, there is even an overture of John Barry's lovely, swirling score playing before the start of this Disney DVD, as if we are about to watch Lawrence of Andromeda.
Kids today though are not likely to see The Black Hole as much of an epic. The film is too much of a throwback to an earlier age—maybe the 1950s in its similarities to Forbidden Planet—rather than a contemporary adventure. The jerky, stumbling robot stormtroopers (oh, wait, can I call them that?) look like they goose-stepped out of a Doctor Who episode, and the cutesy lead robots (Vincent, Slim Pickens's Bob, and even the red Bakelite-textured Maximilian, Reinhardt's chief minion) resemble Happy Meal toys.
It is clear that the Disney writers (Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day, with a few others adding story ideas), whose credits were primarily television westerns, really do not know much about science fiction. So they go with what had been done before. That means mostly 20,000 Leagues (mysterious and gigantic ship and its megalomaniacal captain), Forbidden Planet (the obsessive, self-destructive genius with delusions of grandeur v. handsome Americans, plus comedy relief robot), and 2001 (outer space is a doorway to inner vision, as evidenced by the film's opaque climax). They throw in clichés like "walking a tightrope between genius and insanity" and "this is a death ship" without a trace of irony. Try not to think too hard about the physics in the movie either. The climax by itself (including a character flying through space without a suit on) will make you cringe. Again, this is a gothic tale dressed up in space suits. The black hole here is not science: it is like a magical portal.
You would think that the writers would have spotted the western elements in Star Wars, but they seemed too fixated with making this movie a "classic." Television director Gary Nelson (who also helmed Freaky Friday for Disney) is equally in over his head. The scale of the Cygnus, all exhibition halls and windows, overwhelms the characters, making it hard to care whether or not they get sucked into the event horizon. Efforts at serious drama (a robot funeral, for example) are overwrought. But the awkward comedy relief (Slim Pickens as a broken down robot; Vincent's endless quotations, meant to capture the feel of C-3PO's babbling) keeps reminding us that this is a Disney movie from the 70s. The pieces don't fit comfortably. At least Disney's next science fiction experiment, Tron, would have the advantage of tapping into the cyberpunk zeitgeist. The Black Hole looks backwards rather than forwards.
The cast seems to be having more fun than I remember though, particularly Anthony Perkins as the geeky scientist who gets emotionally drawn to the dominating Reinhardt and Ernest Borgnine, wearing a baggy sweater he probably brought from home and looking like he just wants to crack open a beer, as a reporter (!) traveling with the Palomino crew. Robert Forster, as the Palomino's captain, doesn't get much to do but look grave, and Yvette Mimieux (a psychic bonded to Vincent) is there because, well, they needed to add a girl and couldn't figure out where else to put her. And I swear, I kept forgetting Joseph Bottoms (as a hot-shot young officer) was even in the movie, given how little he has to do.
Ultimately, the whole show is really about Maximilian Schell. I could easily make some pun here about his performance chewing up more matter than the black hole outside, but you could come up with that one yourself. It is all true though. To put it mildly, he is way over the top here, trying to outdo every mad scientist who ever came before him. He might bite Captain Nemo on the forehead and snap Dr. Morbius in two, if you put them all in a steel cage match together. When he stares portentously out into space and utters a line like, "Something caused all this. But what caused…that cause?"—I thought I would crawl under my sofa and weep with laughter.
The source material for this Disney DVD release of The Black Hole does show some dirt and is a bit soft in places, and there is a considerable amount of grain in the first reel, but this is not surprising considering the film's age. Extras consist of an exhaustingly long trailer and a pretty good featurette on the film's production. Harrison Ellenshaw talks about his father, legendary effects designer Peter Ellenshaw, and how father and son contributed to the making of the movie. He also admits that the cryptic, religious ending was a last minute improvisation. It did leave audiences baffled back in 1979, but you have to give Disney points for trying something a little more "adult" and not wrapping up the ending in a neat package. Or maybe they were just hoping that the open ending would spell franchise. It didn't happen.
Of course, in retrospect, what Disney missed in its efforts to create a series of summer movie blockbusters to compete with Star Wars was the merchandising. Do you remember stores stocked full of Black Hole and Tron toys? No? I don't either. Today, Disney would not miss an opportunity to push toys. Try and escape the pirate-themed bric-a-brac at your local Wal-Mart. You are probably more familiar with Johnny Depp's face than his own mother, but nobody made an Anthony Perkins action figure in 1979. (Imagine the possibilities though!)
I was so dearly hoping that The Black Hole would hold up better after all these years. After all, Tron, Disney's other science fiction piece of the period, has mellowed into a fun celebration of old school video games and 80s utopian visions of cyberspace. However, the only real novelty in The Black Hole in 1979, its special effects, are now badly dated. And the movie lacks…fun. That is why it never became another Star Wars (or even Tron). Star Wars had comedy relief robots, recycled plot elements, and big special effects, but it was also fast-paced and exciting. 20,000 Leagues benefited from Walt Disney's ability to balance the action and the humor. Even 2001 was deeply ironic at its core (although much of its audience at the time didn't get the joke).
That is the hole at the heart of The Black Hole: a sense of humor.
The Black Hole is guilty of sucking all the fun out of the room.
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Scales of Justice
• "Through the Black Hole" Featurette
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