Revisiting The Black Hole

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

The post-Walt and Roy Disney era of Disney was a fascinating and very weird one. In the ‘70s, Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller took over has head of Walt Disney Productions, and set out to expand the scope of Disney movies to appeal to the profitable teenage market that was spending a ton of cash on movies other than the family-friendly Disney flicks. 

Sure, we still got some classic Disney animated successes like Robin Hood and The Fox and the Hound, and live-action family-friendly films like the original Freaky Friday, but this was also and era marked by a series of boldly innovative and very dark films that were not huge successes. However, they showed that the company was willing to take chances. Under Ron Miller, Disney released the cult favorite Tron, the company’s first horror movie The Watcher in the Woods, and the dark sci-fi movie that was going to be their Star Wars, but ended up as an enthralling trip through hell with The Black Hole.

The Pitch

Inspired by the success of disaster films like Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, writers Bob Barbash and Richard Landau approached Disney Studios to make a disaster film set in space titled “Space Station 1.” The project went through many, many changes, with everything but the space setting being scrapped. Pre-production began in 1976, but a little space opera titled Star Wars came out in 1977, and it’s hard not to look at The Black Hole as an attempt to grab some of that sweet post-Skywalker money.  

The Black Hole has stormtrooper-like sentries, cute R2-like robots, swashbuckling laser battles, and a silent, tall and menacing mechanical villain that looked like the cross between a Cylon and Darth Vader. But the story is more akin to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but in outer space, mixing Gothic aesthetics with a family-friendly adventure, all accompanied by a moody score composed John Barry. Ron Miller said of the film: “Lately a lot of teenagers and young adults have stayed away from Disney films. They consider it kiddie material. Well, The Black Hole is not a kiddie film. We want to let people know that this is a different kind of movie than they’re used to seeing from us.”

In order to materialize the effects-heavy look of The Black Hole, Disney employed 150 matte paintings created by Harrison Ellenshaw, even through they only ended up using 13 in the film. The engineering department at Disney also developed a new computer automated camera system in order to have the actors move within the matte paintings. The end result was a $20 million investment, the most expensive film ever produced by Disney at the time, and also due to the use of the words “hell,” “damn,” and a very violent death, this was the first Disney film to earn a PG rating.

The Movie

When The Black Hole finally came out, it had dropped the disaster part of the story and the extensive star-studded cast in favor for a smaller crew of a deep-space craft that stumbles upon a huge ghost ship precariously floating on the rim of a massive black hole. Our crew is composed of Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux) an astro-geophysicist who has ESP ability; Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) a journalist; Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) and his first mate (Joseph Bottoms), and astrophysicist Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins). Curiously, the role of Kate McCrae was originally meant to go to a pre-Alien Sigourney Weaver, but according to director Gary Nelson, the head of the casting department countered: “Oh my god, with a name like Sigourney Weaver, we don’t want her.”

The Black Hole has a strange yet eerily enthralling sense of dread that fills the entire movie, and it starts the moment we meet Dr- Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), the only surviving crew member of the ghost ship that looms near the black hole.  Though the dialogue can be a bit dull, and it is certainly very heavy-handed, the film’s eerie atmosphere works in keeping you intrigued until the shit finally hits the fan. 

What The Black Hole may lack in story, it boats in stunning visuals and sheer audacity. The opening of the movie is a long sequence that is completely computer-generated, and the model for the ships and even the robots look great. Undoubtedly, the best effect if the titular black hole, made with a slow motion illuminated inky vortex of water. 

Then the film goes completely off the rails in the third act, once blood starts to spill. Though nothing graphic is shown on screen, there’s a death for a major character which is as jarring and violent as you can expect a death to be from a Walt Disney film in the ‘70s. The robot Maximilian activates his blade arms like he was General Grievous, and saws right through the heart of a character. Then, there’s the ending. Without saying a lot about this 40-year-old movie, lets’ just say there’s some weird metaphysics going on that results with a character literally going to hell and standing on a rock formation atop cavernous depths, surrounded by flames and legions of hooded, skeleton-like figures. After that, the camera emerges through a divine, glass tunnel as angels float around, which almost became a scene set in the literal Vatican. 

The Legacy

The Black Hole opened right alongside Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and just a few months after Alien scared the hell out of space-enthusiasts. Still, the Disney-release became a modest success, grossing $35.8 million from a $20 million budget. 

Though it wasn’t a big hit, it didn’t kill Ron Miller’s ambitions, as just a year later Disney would release The Watcher in the Wood, which was meant to be their Exorcist. Sadly, this era of Disney films was plagued by modest successes and big flops, like The Black Cauldron and Return to Oz.

Though not the success Disney was expecting, and despite the negative reviews, The Black Hole grew a cult following, and has recognizeable names amongst its fans, including one Edgar Wright who describes it as a childhood favorite. 

Now, of course, you can finally watch The Black Hole for yourself, and come to your own conclusion of whether this was a bold attempt at doing something different, or a colossal failure from Disney. One thing is for sure, with the criticisms that the latest Star Wars movie took few risks, you can’t really say that about The Black Hole

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