In 1979, Disney released a movie they shouldn’t have made. I don’t mean it was a bad idea to make it or release it, but it was a very un-Disney movie. It was the first Disney produced movie to be rated PG, the first to have profanity (hell & damn), a healthy dose of homo-eroticism and the first to have a human deaths. Yeah, I’m talking about The Black Hole.
—–Warning: Spoilers—– (but if you haven’t seen a 34 year old movie, too damn bad)
The Black Hole was Disney’s response to Star Wars. There are some obvious similarities, primarily with the hero robots V.I.N.Cent (voiced by Roddy McDowall) and the older model B.O.B. (voiced by Slim Pickens). These are short, roundish, multi-purpose droi.. er, robots similar to R2D2, but are more talkative, they float and have lasers. V.I.N.Cent constantly spouts faux-philosophy like a fortune cookie factory, but is endearing and a great companion.
However, this movie is dark. Damn dark. Dark as a black hole. (See what I did there?) The crew of the USS Palomino is on an interstellar voyage of discovery when their navigation computer makes an unexpected course correction. The reason? A previously unknown supermassive black hole. In orbit around this black hole is a derelict ship, the massive USS Cygnus. Well, less in orbit, and more in a Mexican standoff as the Cygnus’ captain (and only human occupant) Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Schell) later explains.
The Palomino makes a pass over the ship and Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvetter Mimieux) senses there are people alive on the ship. Did I mention she has ESP? Oh, so does V.I.N.Cent the robot … no, I don’t get that part either. It was the 70s. Oh yeah, her father was on the ship, too. As the Palomino passes over the Cygnus, they have some interstellar car trouble and are at risk of falling into the black hole. V.I.N.Cent goes out of the ship and stops the oxygen leak. Capt. Holland (Forster), decides to set down on the Cygnus to make repairs, when suddenly the dead Cygnus lights up. There IS someone alive and they want the Palomino to know it.
The Palomino crew makes their way via Logan’s Run-esque tram to the main control tower. There they find out the entire crew are all robots. Designs they’ve never seen before. The majority are humanoid with mirrored visors instead of faces. They don’t speak, just go about their programmed duties. There are also sentry robots that look vaguely stormtrooperish, but in red. They then meet Maximilian, an imposing red floating robot with an evil red light in place of eyes. He flies like V.I.N.Cent, but is more humanoid shaped. He has spinning chop-o-matic blades for hands and feet, as if he was assembled with parts from BlendTec. He also seems to be a sadist without a humor chip.
Just before Max can make Palomino crew tartare, Dr Reinhardt appears and calls him off. He explains the crew left 20 years ago and went back home, and he stayed here on the Cygnus to study the black hole, and make plans to go into it. The Palomino crew realizes he’s probably a little crazy, if not a psychopath. Well, everyone except Dr. Durant (Perkins). He quickly develops a serious bromance on Dr Reinhardt and refuses to see his man-crush is beyond insane.
The crew explores the ship some while Durant and Reinhardt flirt and whip out their peni.. er, brains. Seriously, there is some hardcore seduction by intelligence here.
The crew encounters odd things: a robot with a limp; a huge, well maintained garden with enough food growing for the entire previous crew; a robot funeral; crew quarters still full of personal belongings, etc. V.I.N.Cent meets an ancestor of his, the horribly beat up B.O.B. After a run-in in a shooting gallery with the arrogant Captain S.T.A.R. prototype sentry robot, B.O.B. confides in V.I.N.Cent that the crew never left. Dr. Reinhardt lobotomized them all and turned them into his own private robot zombie army. Pretty twisted shit for a Disney movie, huh?
The Palomino crew makes a break for it and Reinhardt sends his robot zombies after them. Dr. Durant gets eviscerated by the Cuisinart arms of Maximilian and Dr McCrae is taken prisoner and sent to the “hospital” (which is mad scientist talk for robot zombie factory). With help from sharpshooters V.I.N.Cent & B.O.B. the rest of the crew rescues her and makes a mad dash back to the Palomino. Reinhardt then decides to make a run for the black hole. This causes Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) to chicken out and take the Palomino by himself, and it gets destroyed by Reinhard, taking out a chunk of the Cygnus. Now the remaining crew has to go back to the other end of the Cygnus to take the probe ship Reinhardt uses to run experiments at the edge of the black hole, and take off before they go into the black hole with the Cygnus.
This becomes one of the greatest chase sequences in sci fi as they run through the ship’s garden, avoid the laser shooting robot zombies, ditch giant flaming meteoroids as they crash into the ship all while the ship is tearing itself apart. A giant flat screen crushes Reinhardt as Maximilian and the robot zombies ignore his pleas for help. The crew gets to the ship, barely, only after V.I.N.Cent kills Maximilian with a drill of his own, but they lose B.O.B. on the way. Honestly, losing B.O.B. is more emotional than Durant or Harry.
Now the freaky shit happens.
The Cygnus gets ripped apart by the black hole as it’s pulled in. Then, in a page out of Dante, Reinhardt is seen merging, almost sexually, with Maximilian. The camera then shows Reinhardt’s terrified eyes in Maximilian’s eye slit as the camera pulls out showing the Maximilian/Reinhardt hybrid ruling over a flaming hell. This flaming hell looks vaguely like the decimated remains of the Cygnus, and the denizens of hell look like the robot zombies without their face plates. The crew of the Palomino get sucked into the black hole as well, because the ship was locked into the programmed course planned by Reinhardt. They go on a bad acid trip through an ethereal crystal gate and wind up on the other side of the black hole apparently unharmed. Totally fucked up, right?
The real star of the movie is the special effects. This was the last big budget all in-house studio production by Disney. They didn’t farm any of it out to other companies. ILM was consulted, but they were too expensive for Disney at the time. This was also the last of the big-budget movies to use all practical effects, i.e. models, matte paintings, in-camera effects, etc.. The did use a computer animated sequence for the opening credits, but everything else was done the old fashioned way. The ships were incredibly detailed, the Cygnus especially. The robots, especially V.I.N.Cent, B.O.B. and Maximilian were more realistic than you can imagine, and the sets were astounding. The next big budget special effects movie Disney would release was Tron, the exact opposite of The Black Hole.
The soundtrack is also a stunner. It has a complete orchestral score composed & conducted by the incomparable John Barry, best known for composing the scores for most of the James Bond movies. The score is complete with a nearly unheard of overture. You sit down in the theatre, the lights go down, the curtain comes up, and you hear a wonderful piece of music while just seeing the title. No opening credits, just the music. An overture, historically, is the introductory piece of music in operas. So this makes it a space opera. Only 13 movies since 1970 have had an overture.
While the movie was a financial success, it doesn’t seem to be a movie of which Disney is proud. The last edition to be released was the DVD in 2005. It isn’t available on any streaming source I can find. It hasn’t been digitally remastered (you can still see wires in some scenes) and the only bonus material is a 3 ½ minute extended trailer and a brief making of documentary. It was announced that it is to be remade by the same team that did Tron: Legacy, but nothing has been done beyond that announcement. Personally, I hope Disney leaves it alone. Just do a new transfer, maybe paint out the wires, and put out a BluRay. Don’t fuck with it. This is an artifact, a true space opera. You can’t duplicate it and you shouldn’t try.
If you do, Maximilian may go all Will-It-Blend on your ass.