by staff writer Michael Brown
Welcome to a movie review of a different sort. Not a new release, but an older film. I’m going back in time for this one. So strap in as I engage the Temporal Drive to head into the past to review one of my particular favorites and likely one you’ve never heard of …. Disney’s The Black Hole.
The year is 1979. Notable science-fiction movies released this year: Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi/horror tale Alien; Star Trek: The Motion Picture; Meteor, about a joint United States/Soviet effort to save Earth from a meteor strike; Battlestar Galactica; Mad Max, the sequel to Mel Gibson’s post-apocalyptic The Road Warrior; and on TV, at least across the pond in England, Tom Baker continues his role as the Fourth Doctor on Doctor Who.
The country is in the middle of a space race of another sort. Two years ago, an upstart USC grad student of film production named George Lucas breathed new life into a dying science fiction genre. After watching the premiere and subsequent re-releases of 1977’s Star Wars, Hollywood’s film industry began to realize that good stories could be told within the genre, instead of the lackluster science fiction films of the 1960’s, during which time westerns took the top spot at the box office.
Everybody who was anybody hopped aboard the train and tried to capitalize on Star Wars’ success. Among them, Walt Disney, who would put themselves ahead of the pack technologically because of The Black Hole. But as spectacular as it should have been, Disney’s cash cow fell short.
The story: The year is 2130 and it’s Christmas Eve (which you don’t know unless you read the novelization, which makes an excellent companion piece). The crew of the Earth ship U.S.S. Palomino is returning home after a failed five-year mission searching for habitable life in outer space. The crew consists of Captain Dan Holland, Lieutenant and first officer Charlie Pizer, journalist Harry Booth, ESP-sensitive scientist Dr. Kate McCrae, civilian expedition leader Dr. Alex Durant, and the robot V.I.N.C.E.N.T. (Vital Information Necessary CENTralized). After an automated course correction, the crew discovers a massive black hole, the largest ever encountered, and proceeds to investigate, also finding a seemingly derelict spacecraft perched at the edge of the black hole and defying its incredible gravitational pull.
Disappointed and disillusioned by their fruitless journey, they jump at the chance to investigate the spacecraft, finding themselves in a null-gravity field surrounding the huge derelict ship, now known to be the long-lost U.S.S. Cygnus. The Palomino drifts out of the null-gravity field and is damaged by the intense gravity from the black hole but manages to limp back to the Cygnus, which reveals itself to not be as derelict and abandoned as originally thought.
Allowed aboard to effect repairs, the crew meets Dr. Hans Reinhardt, scientist and commander of the Cygnus. Aided by a crew of faceless humanoid drones and his menacing-looking robot Maximilian, Reinhardt has been alone for 20 years, having sent his crew back to Earth and studying the black hole intending to fly his ship through it. He asks the Palomino crew to monitor his flight as they complete their repairs. But when the Palomino crew uncovers the horrifying truth about the Cygnus crew, Reinhardt intends to take them all with him on his mad voyage.
With that story and the technology Disney would create for it, it should have been a blockbuster, yeah?
Star Wars had put computer motion control miniature effects on the map. Disney had wanted to rent equipment from Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas’ special effects shop, but ILM was being unreasonable about renting their equipment to a rival studio and Disney wasn’t going to get it in time for their production schedule. They needed to come up with something new. And Disney’s engineers had an ace up their collective sleeve.
Or, rather, A.C.E.S.
The superior and revolutionary Automated Camera Effects System had the ability to scan a matte painting with the same camera motions used to shoot miniatures. And they would need it. The Black Hole contained over 500 matte painting shots, an unprecedented amount and more than was used in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back combined. Also, in a film full of firsts, this would be Disney’s first film to not have an All-Ages rating. It was rated PG. They wanted to make “darker” films that appealed to teenagers. The Black Hole would eventually lead to the creation of Touchstone and Miramax, places where Disney could make those darker and more serious films that wouldn’t fit in the Disney scheme.
The movie’s opening credits sequence featured the longest computer graphics shot that had ever appeared in a film. The moving holographic image of the black hole itself on the Palomino‘s bridge deck was considered state-of-the-art for special effects at the time. Disney even assembled a top notch cast that included Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowell, and Anthony Perkins, famous for his role as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Yet still, The Black Hole would, well, suck to its critics and fans. What happened?
Disney was paranoid that they would be scooped by a last minute copycat. With so many sci-fi projects going on around them, the use of a black hole in someone else’s film would undermine their project so the production became top secret. With 20 million dollars at stake, Disney’s special effects department became a closed set and was separated from production and the two departments had few, if any, communication. Which resulted in some control issues. Vincent was originally planned to have mechanically pixellated eyes that would show a range of looks but the technology failed on the first day of shooting. Black buttons were glued on instead so the actors wouldn’t have to wait. Later, the special effects department had no recourse when actors refused to wear space suits they thought looked silly. Rather than lose time resolving the issue, the scene was filmed without any space suits at all.
In fear of alienating the kid audience that Disney was going for, Old B.O.B (BiO Sanitation Battalion) is trotted out and killed, similar to Bambi’s mother and Old Yeller. Most people cringe at Old B.O.B, a battered robot whose helmet is bashed in to look like an old prospector’s hat.Veteran Disney actor Slim Pickens supplies the voice of the hokey Houston with a thick drawl and protruding wires which are visibly seen throughout the film. Even his crooked eyeballs yearn for a hug.
Somehow he fits in with a Western element threaded throughout the film that features a flashy sharpshooter robot named S.T.A.R. who has to waggle his laser pistols before holstering them to mimic a wild west gunslinger. It seemed like Disney wanted to mash previous successes together and add some science fiction for good measure.
Scientific dialog is often flubbed or just wrong. Reinhardt’s energy source that allows him to defy the hole’s gravity looks an awful lot like stuff from Forbidden Planet made decades before. The black hole itself is represented as a big swirling drain that leads into hell. Science is thrown out the window, and the laws of physics vary from one scene to the next. Between laser shootouts with stiff-legged sentry drones, the heroes make their way across a catwalk while a giant rolling meteor bears down on them. At the climax of the film the actors make their way across the exterior of the ship (without space suits), as the Cygnus turns into a set of flaccid rubber girders and window panels made of painted fabric that flap in the breeze.
The ending was so top secret it hadn’t even been written yet. But after several different tries, the actual ending , dramatic and pretentious,was really hard to follow and had fans scratching their heads. So many continuity errors had crept into Disney’s extravagant sci-fi blockbuster, their most expensive film to date, that it became little more than B-movie stuff and beneath any serious discussion of critics and fans.
But maybe the biggest blow came from a direction that even paranoid Disney couldn’t anticipate. Only two weeks before The Black Hole was scheduled to hit theaters, Paramount Studios dusted off a canceled TV show that had originally been produced by comedy legend Lucille Ball. Paramount’s film would launch a juggernaut franchise that would span the next two decades with nine films and four television series and even lead to the creation of a Paramount television network: Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Despite its horrible reviews, flawed special effects, and a story that closely resembles 20000 Leagues Under The Sea, or maybe because of them, I love the thing. Adore it, even. So much in fact that a teenage Michael Brown dropped allowance money on it when he found it for sale at the bottom of a stack of VHS tapes at a local flea market. And I bought it again when it was released on DVD. As a kid, I even had the Read Along Story record and book that came out alongside it. But it maintains a small cult following, primarily it seems of those kids-turned-adults that saw the film in theaters on its initial release. Admittedly, I was one of those kids and the scene of the Palomino crew running across the bridge with the meteor heading straight for them, threatening to T-bone them, was the scene that excited me as a kid and is the scene I like most even now.
And the film is full of potential and ripe for a remake, which was first announced by Disney back in 2009, and more recently, in April of this year, the writer of the Alien prequel Prometheus was tapped to draft the script. It’s what remakes are for. Unhampered by the constraints of 1970s technology and Disney’s wild paranoia and insistence that a PG-13 movie be labeled as PG. Again, this is what remakes are for. Not the retreading of already good ideas, but the reinvention of great ideas that didn’t turn out quite right.
If done properly it’s a PG-13 or even R-rated sci-fi/horror movie close to the same level of terror and suspense as the original Alien. Imagine if the Titanic hadn’t really sank, and James Cameron suddenly discovered it floating somewhere populated only by its captain., who is also a scientist. The crew investigates and discovers he’s surrounded by strange faceless robots (including a memorably menacing red robot named Maximilian) of his own devising. The scientist’s crew is missing, his sanity is in question, and the ship may be crumbling around them. That’s The Black Hole and if someone ever gets it right, it could be epic. But until that happens, check out the original 1979 trailer below.
If you liked this and you have other ideas for BACK! TO THE MOVIES!, email me at michaelbrown (at) kryptonradio.com.