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Walt Disney Studios was in an identity crisis when it entered the space movie race with the ambitious live-action production The Black Hole in 1979. Disney's family features were losing ground and producer (and soon to be Walt Disney Company CEO) Ron Miller was trying to make the studio relevant in the contemporary filmmaking culture of blockbuster hits. In the wake of the success of Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Miller turned to a project that had been in development at Disney for years, a science-fiction adventure titled Space Probe-One. After numerous rewrites and conceptual overhauls from a parade of writers, the renamed The Black Hole went before the cameras in late 1978 under the direction of Gary Nelson, a TV veteran with a handful of feature film credits to his name, among them Disney's Freaky Friday (1976). It was a bold experiment for the studio: a budget that ultimately climbed to $20 million, a cast of name actors (if not quite major stars), and (most radically) the first PG-rated release in Disney history.
A space probe captained by the quietly authoritative Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, 1997) stumbles across the black hole and finds a seemingly derelict ship floating on the fringes of the gravitational well. The massive haunted house of a spaceship suddenly lights up into a stunning vision of glass and latticework, glowing like an ember in the night. The crew finds the long-lost Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell in a wild-man beard), a quite literally mad scientist who has created an army of robots to run the otherwise abandoned craft and now plans to ride it into the black hole. Anything for science.
The impressive production is hampered by a clumsy story, a murky metaphysical ending, and some of the most stilted dialogue ever to emerge from a film screen. The script suggests a space-age 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with Schell (Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961) as an interstellar Captain Nemo with a Hitler complex. In keeping with the Disney references, his robot bodyguard, Maximilian, a satanic-looking behemoth in crimson and black, was modeled after the devil in the final segment of the animated classic Fantasia (1940).
Anthony Perkins has the designated Spock role as Dr. Alex Durant, an emotionally closed-off intellectual fascinated by Reinhardt's maverick ideas and impressed by his achievements. The rest of the probe's crew Yvette Mimieux's telepathic scientist and empathetic balance to Perkins' prickly logical character, Joseph Bottoms' junior pilot and impulsive young crewman, Ernest Borgnine's crusty reporter, and the roly-poly floating robot Vincent, resembling a Fisher-Price toy take on R2-D2 and voiced in decidedly C-3PO tones by Roddy McDowall is more suspicious, and rightly so. The rest of the film delves into the secret of the silent robot drones - viewed by Forster conducting a funeral in space in one haunting scene - and the real story behind the mutiny of Reinhardt's "abandoned" ship.
The science of this fiction is as hokey as the drama, but the imaginative art design and excellent special effects are magnificent. Peter Ellenshaw, the acclaimed matte artist and Disney effects veteran who won an Oscar® for his work on Mary Poppins (1964), was lured out of retirement to oversee the production. (His son and heir apparent, Harrison Ellenshaw, painted the amazing spacescapes and richly detailed mattes for the production). After failing to come to terms with Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic to use the Dykstraflex camera system used in Star Wars, Disney engineers created an even more technologically advanced computer controlled system, A.C.E.S. The film's crew rose to the challenge with special effects even more elaborate and richly complex (if not as visually dynamic) than the pioneering effects work of Star Wars. The science is pure fantasy but the scale and intensity of the imagery is breathtaking, from the ominous first sighting of the ghost ship eerily floating in space to the stunning image of a fiery meteor rolling through the ship's enormous hull while the human occupants flee to safety.
John Barry's gorgeous score, with the bass ominously carrying much of the melody, provides a lyricism missing from so many bombastic sci-fi scores and sets a tone of unease that the drama never manages to match. The cast loses the battle with the stilted dialogue and Nelson's direction is more successful in showing off the elaborate and lovingly detailed sets than in creating dramatic tension. Critics were not kind to The Black Hole and audiences failed to respond, giving Disney its most expensive commercial failure to date. Yet the imaginative production design and layered special effects have given the film a minor cult status among sci-fi movie fans. For all the advances in digital effects in the succeeding decades, the craft and care and creative ingenuity of the deep-space spectacle is still impressive.
Producer: Ron Miller
Director: Gary Nelson
Screenplay: Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Barbash, Richard Landau, Gerry Day
Cinematography: Frank Phillips
Film Editing: Gregg McLaughlin
Art Direction: John B. Mansbridge, Robert T. McCall, Al Roelofs
Music: John Barry
Cast: Maximilian Schell (Dr. Hans Reinhardt), Anthony Perkins (Dr. Alex Durant), Robert Forster (Capt. Dan Holland), Joseph Bottoms (Lt. Charles Pizer), Yvette Mimieux (Dr. Kate McCrae), Ernest Borgnine (Harry Booth).
by Sean Axmaker