Movie Name: The Black Hole
Studio: Walt Disney Productions
Release Date(s): December 21, 1979
MPAA Rating: PG
A space exploration ship called the USS Palomino discovers a believed to be lost ship called the USS Cygnus perched at the edge of a massive black hole. Landing on the Cygnus, the crew learns that a man named Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) seems to be one of the only living person on board along with androids, an old robot named B.O.B. (BiO-sanitation Battalion) and a menacing robot named Maximilian. The crew of the Palomino must uncover what happened to the crew of Cygnus and avoid a similar fate if they hope to return to Earth…but Reinhardt has plans for the crew and the black hole is looming ever closer!
Directed by Gary Nelson, The Black Hole was one of Disney’s early forays into live-action that had a more adult approach. The PG rating was the first for a Disney film and generally is seen as an early lead in to their Touchstone company and other spin-off companies which were freer to make harder films. It was one of the last major movies to feature an overture (along with Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and features music by John Barry. The movie had a huge budget and faired average at the box office, though most critics gave it poor reviews. The movie was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography.
I had The Black Hole read-along record and was extremely freaked out by it as a child. The movie has some rather terrifying aspects for it and multiple print and recorded versions (like my read along record) had to tone them down and make them a bit more family friendly. With death, murder, and an ending which leaves you scratching your head, The Black Hole doesn’t seem like much of a kids’ film.
The plot of The Black Hole is very classic sci-fi and has been used in other science fiction before and since its release. The idea of an isolated mad scientist isn’t uncommon, but movies like Event Horizon, Sunshine, and even Doctor Who have played with the idea of a spaceship isolated in space and teetering on the brink of the abyss.
Kids will like the robots B.O.B. and V.I.N.CENT (Vital Information Necessary CENTralized) and actors Slim Pickens and Roddy McDowall go uncredited for the roles as the robots voices. Maximilian Schell plays a nice crazed doctor, but it was just coincidence that his robot was named Maximilian. The crew of the Palomino is also fun with Ernest Borgnine, Yvette Mimieux, Joseph Bottoms, Anthony Perks in and Robert Forster.
The film was quite high tech at the time and had a big budget. The opening sequence featured one of the first computer animated scenes, but plans to have zero gravity in the space station proved too costly to carry out (though you do have zero gravity at the beginning of the film…and clean DVD transfers really let you see the wires). I do like some of the scale model work, but feel B.O.B. and V.I.N.CENT are a bit too cartoony to be taken seriously.
The themes are very much like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this aspect, but the weirdness of this plot doesn’t involve the killings, robots, or the madness of Reinhardt, the weirdness has to evolve from the metaphysical ending which is not kid friendly at all. The characters are sucked into the black hole which apparently is a gateway to Heaven and Hell…I guess. There appears to be angels and such for the crew of the Palomino while Reinhardt is merged with Maximilian in a hellish world. I still don’t really understand it, and I can’t imagine a kid getting it.
The Black Hole feels like a Disney film at some points and an art picture at other points. The film flirts with high science-fiction but still has low-brow stuff like B.O.B. and V.I.N.CENT which feel like Star Wars rip-offs. Despite being largely forgotten, there are moments that stick with me and I think will stick with audiences…plus, that Maximilian is pretty damn creepy.