Last week, we recorded a Shouts From the Back Row podcast about our favourite live-action Disney movies and I decided to revisit the 1979 sci-fi effort, The Black Hole, which is one of the more unusual Disney flicks ever produced. The Black Hole was a movie I liked during my childhood, but I had vivid memories of being perturbed by certain sections of the film. After re-watching the movie for the first time in years, it’s obvious that The Black Hole was making an attempt to simultaneously emulate both Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey. When you’re a kid, watching a Disney flick inspired by Star Wars is pretty cool, but a Disney flick inspired by 2001? Uh… that’s kind of a baffling experience. I can see The Black Hole initially being developed as an existential and metaphysical piece of science fiction, but once Disney got their hands on the project and Star Wars became a smash hit, the company decided throw a bunch of robots and laser battles into the plot in order to appeal to a larger audience. Watching the finished product, it’s clear that the film isn’t quite sure what it wants to be, but I think that’s what makes The Black Hole so fascinating. As a whole, it’s certainly a very flawed piece of work, but it is entertaining and quite unlike any other Disney family film you’ve ever seen.
As The Black Hole opens, we meet the crew of a spacecraft called the USS Palomino: Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster), First Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), reporter Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine), Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), and Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), who has ESP for seemingly no other reason besides the convenience of the plot. They are also accompanied by VINCENT (Vital Information Necessary Centralized), a talking robot voiced by Roddy McDowall. The Palomino winds up passing by a black hole and the crew is surprised to see another spacecraft called the USS Cygnus, which left Earth on a mission 20 years ago and never returned. When the crew of Nostromo boards the Cygnus, they meet the ship’s commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell). The rest of the Cygnus’ crew are missing and Reinhardt claims that most of them abandoned the ship and disappeared. Reinhardt stayed behind to study the black hole and the only crew member to remain with him happened to be Dr. McCrae’s father, who eventually died. The Cygnus is now being run by a crew of android drones, the most ominous of which is a large robot named Maximilian (and yes, the writers apparently gave him that name long before they knew Maximilian Schell would be in the film). There’s also a talking robot onboard named BOB (Bio-Sanitation Battalion), which is an older, more worn-out version of VINCENT’s model and happens to be voiced by Slim Pickens.
Dr. Reinhardt tells the Palomino’s crew that he is about to embark on a potentially dangerous mission by taking the Cygnus into the black hole in order to uncover the mysteries inside. Of course, it comes as no surprise to learn that Reinhardt is batshit insane and that the drones running his ship are actually lobotomized versions of his former crew. It becomes apparent that Reinhardt will not hesitate to exterminate the crew of the Palomino in order to achieve his goal. The Black Hole is pretty uneven, to say the least. At times, it’s obviously modelled on an old-school Saturday matinee sci-fi serial, as the writers don’t exactly go out of their way to develop multi-faceted, three-dimensional characters. As a kid, I very much preferred the second half of the film, which is filled with wall-to-wall action set pieces and Star Wars-esque laser gunfights. The first half is a lot more cerebral and talky, giving off the impression that the film wants to be more than your standard space opera. However, watching it again as an adult, The Black Hole is still a surprising amount of fun. The talking robots, VINCENT and BOB, look pretty ridiculous today and some of the action set pieces are dated, but overall, the production values are first-rate, featuring top-notch special effects and set design. The film’s budget was $20 million, making it Disney’s most expensive production at that time, but the money is definitely up there onscreen. However, the most memorable element of The Black Hole is its ending, which, quite frankly, might be the weirdest sequence you will ever see in a Disney film.
Yes, the implication here seems to be that after entering the black hole, Dr. Reinhardt winds up in Hell and is condemned to spend eternity inside his robot creation (yes, Maximilian Schell literally winds up being trapped inside Maximilian’s shell!). I think I share the sentiment of everyone else who saw The Black Hole at a young age when I say that I found this sequence to be pure nightmare fuel and I had no friggin’ idea about what to make of it. Hell, as an adult, I’m still not quite sure what to make of this ending! And even though we know things don’t turn out well for the villain, the movie still leaves it a bit ambiguous about what actually happens to the heroes once they enter the black hole. It seems like the ending was trying to evoke memories of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the whole thing is pretty out there for a Disney family flick. The Black Hole was actually the first Disney film to ever garner a “PG” rating and this was mainly due to a sequence where Maximilian eviscerates one of the characters. While there’s no blood or gore onscreen, it’s still a pretty dark and scary moment for unsuspecting young viewers. In a way, The Black Hole marked a major turning point for Disney as it was one of their first attempts at exploring adult subjects in their films. It would eventually lead to them founding production companies like Touchstone Pictures, allowing Disney to expand away from merely producing family films. Not surprisingly, Disney has been trying to get a Black Hole remake off the ground for years, but if it’s made, I have to imagine it will be less ambitious than the original. In the end, it’s debatable whether or not The Black Hole is an objectively good movie, but it is a legitimately entertaining curiosity piece, showcasing Disney at a time when they were willing to take a lot more chances.