Given its current dominance of the cinematic marketplace, it may hard for people conceive of a time when Disney was a fading enterprise whose days seemed numbered.
Yet forty years ago, that was the case. By the late 1970s, Disney was running on fumes, cranking out Herbie the Love Bug sequels along with juvenile slapstick involving the Apple Dumpling Gang and oddities like The Cat from Outer Space.
The releases from that decade were a catalog of “meh.” There were a few decent films, but nothing that captured the public imagination like the classics of the 1960s.
Like many studios, Disney looked at the phenomenal success of Star Wars in 1977 and decided to try their luck on a space film of its own. The result was first one of the oddest films ever made -- and was the first PG-rating in Disney’s history.
Embrace the Strangeness
The Black Hole is really three movies in one.
The core of the film is a gothic horror story. The USS Palomino is a deep space probe that accidentally encounters the USS Cygnus, a long-lost exploration ship perched on the edge of a black hole. Initially taken to be deserted, the Palomino managed to dock with the vortex-defying wreck, only to find that it is very much inhabited.
At the center of the action you have the captain of the Cygnus, Maximilian Schell’s charmingly sinister Dr. Hans Reinhardt. Schell is essentially doing an evil reprise of James Mason’s Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, right down to the elaborate dinner with a view.
Reinhardt’s erudite charm is someone compromised by the appearance and actions of his psychotic robot sidekick, Maximilian. (The name was chosen before Schell was cast, in case you are wondering). Maximilian is blood-red, built to look like a devil and is fully equipped with whirling blades of death. You know, like all friendly robots.
It’s not a huge shock once the dark secret of the Cygnus is revealed, but the suspense is will done. At that point we transition into action-adventure mode. This is the worst part because it gets pretty corny with a lot of kid-pleasing violence, hammy acting and rather dated special effects.
The chief offender is the Palomino’s V.I.N.CENT, (voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowell). This guy is basically a robot Mary Sue. Imagine a droid with R2D2’s utility applications, C3P0’s erudition, and the ability to mow down endless numbers of enforcer bots.
Mercifully, the film then shifts into an apocalyptic scene of divine judgement that is visually stunning, but also completely out of place for a children’s movie.
The upshot is that one can’t watch The Black Hole like a normal film, because it doesn’t work that way. One also can’t do the “it’s so bad it’s good,” because it isn’t objectively bad. There are bad parts but also really good part. Once again, we’re in Phantom of the Paradise territory.
Instead, one has to look at it as an essay on what happens when one tries to fuse the adventure-driven concept of Star Wars with the abstract philosophical questions of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It borrows heavily from the latter, particularly at the end.
And what an ending! No wonder this thing got a PG rating. I was pretty small when I saw it in the theater and it scared the hell of out me. I’ll say this: I can’t imagine Disney trying this kind of morality play today.
Bending Space and Time
All films, even period pieces, have the aesthetic of their time. From the cut of the costumes to the hairstyles, you can pretty much look at a movie and know when it came out. Some, like Space: 1999 for example, practically scream their era.
The Black Hole, on the other hand, actually looks like it came out in 1964.
Seriously, the crew of the Palomino would be right at home in a Swiss chalet listening to “Meglio Stasera” – right down the haircuts and turtlenecks.
Speaking of the swingin’ 60s, the soundtrack is by none other than John Barry of James Bond fame. The score starts great, falters during the action/adventure section but then overwhelms as the Cygnus begins its fateful descent into the black hole.
I know of no other movie that manages to channel a completely different era by accident. Again, I don’t think Disney meant to go retro, I think that’s just where the design department was. It was jarring at the time but now it just adds to the aura of weirdness that pervades the film.
Speaking of weird, I don’t think there’s anything that can compare with the Cygnus. I mean, if you’re going to do a gothic horror story in space, why not make your ship look like an actual gothic cathedral? The weird fusion of industrial latticework and soaring arches is unlike anything else in the genre.
And don’t get me started on the bridge of the Cygnus. Has any space opera produced a more improbable yet visually fascinating command center?
These stunning images were produced by Disney’s in-house special effects crew, a holdover from the studio system that was literally on its last hurrah. (Again, this may be why early 60s aesthetic was dominant.)
Disney initially tried to hire Industrial Light and Magic to do the effects, but the shop was swamped with business following the triumph of Star Wars and turned them down. I’m glad, because while ILM might have done a more professional job, they would never have come up with anything so beautifully strange.
And that’s really the best way to describe The Black Hole: beautifully strange. It has some great moments, wonderful music and if you focus on those things, it’s quite enjoyable.
It’s also a glimpse into the last days of Old Disney, the last survivor of the studio system. Only a couple of years later, Tron will come out, featuring the first use of CGI special effects. The new era had arrived.