In the early ’80s, Disney was trying to go a bit darker and more grown up while still being “family” entertainment. They wanted to push the boundaries of narrative away from pure wholesome fare and into more mature, even scary, content, as well as push the boundaries of their special effects. This movement was short-lived but gave us things like Tron in ’82, Something Wicked This Way Comes in ’83, and even the animated film The Black Cauldron in ’84. This notion began in earnest, though, in 1979 with the release of The Black Hole, the very first Disney film ever to be given a PG rating (the highest it would have until 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean was branded PG-13). While the idea of dark Disney movies didn’t last, this outing did break a lot of ground with its visuals and earthed the film two Academy Award nominations, for best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects. Hey, that’s why I’m writing about it!
This might be the film, more so than either Star Trek: The Motion Picture or Moonraker, that most wanted to capitalize on the success of Star Wars. Disney was very eager to make its own swashbuckling space adventure, but since everybody was caught off guard by the sudden runaway success of George Lucas’ film, the only script they had that even approached that kind of sci-fi was written as a response to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade before. It was retooled a bit, adding robots with personality, and the result is a very weird and bleak film for kids, or a goofy and pie-eyed film for adults.
The Black Hole follows a group of astronauts and scientists (including Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, Yvette Mimieux, Robert Forster, and Joseph Bottoms) aboard a small exploration vessel in the far reaches of space. They also have a hovering, philosophy-spouting smart-robot named V.I.N.Cent (voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall) who can communicate with Mimieux’s character via ESP… for whatever reason. They come across a massive black hole, and in getting nearer, they notice a massive ship seems to be sitting stationary in front of it, neither fleeing nor being sucked in.
They land on it and discover it to be the long lost Cygnus, a vessel sent to study black holes but that has been missing for ten years. While most of the ship’s inhabitants are robots, they do find the original mission’s captain, Dr. Reinhardt (the late, great Maximilian Schell), who claims he sent his crew back home but stayed with the Cygnus to continue researching the hole. Mimieux’s father was Reinhardt’s second in command, who stayed with the ship, but Reinhardt says the man sadly passed away a few years ago.
It becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that Reinhardt is out of his mind. He has an army of soldier robots, seemingly for no reason; He’s got worker-robots (who, it’s discovered, are the former crew with their brains hollowed-out and made into slaves); and he’s got a bodyguard/sentry named Maximilian who looks like Satan with spinning roto-blades. He wants to pilot the Cygnus into the black hole so that he can see if his experimental probe ship can work and survive through the other side. The final act of the film has the good guys trying to get off the Cygnus before they are crushed or atomized inside the nothingness.
I’m not going to beat around the bush: I like this movie. I said as much when I reviewed it for the Schlock & Awe predecessor Weird Old Sci-Fi a year ago. It’s not a perfect movie, and in fact it’s a very odd and uneven movie, but for whatever reason, I love it. It might have something to do with the very odd casting choices, specifically having Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, and Ernest Borgnine in a sci-fi movie. Also the robots are very out of place in such a somber film. V.I.N.Cent could be forgiven, but the broken-down custodial robot Old B.O.B., which is voiced by an uncredited Slim Pickens, is much harder to justify.
For all the incongruous script and cast moments, the film looks and sounds spectacular. The director, Gary Nelson, had done countless television shows and the Disney feature film Freaky Friday prior to this movie. His style is slightly televisual, but with a definite edge, and his handling of some of the darkest moments are really outstanding. The score was done by the brilliant John Barry, who had also done the score for the much shittier Starcrash (which I also love for being awful), out that same year. His score is at times triumphant, but overall a lovely kind of ominous wonder, befitting of such a celestial body.
But, we’re here mostly to talk about the effects. Disney was so concerned that the effects be good that they coaxed their former go-to FX guy, Peter Ellenshaw, out of a ten year retirement to head the team, which created 550 effects shots and 150 matte paintings for the movie, a huge number at that time. Any time you see the black hole out a window or in space itself, that’s a visual plate of a whirlpool inside a Plexiglas water tank with various dyes added to it for coloring.
The model of the Cygnus ship was 12 feet in length in order to show all of the detail. Disney had wanted to use the Dykstraflex camera system developed for Star Wars for photographing models, but when it proved to be too expensive, they created their own system called the Automated Camera Effects System (or A.C.E.S.), which was considered superior to the Dykstraflex.
Unlike 1941, which gave me mostly bupkus, some nice people have uploaded lots of clips from The Black Hole‘s many effects shots. Below is a compilation of the effects near the end of the film featuring the Cygnus being drawn ever nearer toward the event horizon. It really highlights the ship and the photographic effects used for it.
And this second is the ending sequence when the ship and all the people are pulled inside the black hole and things get all weird and ethereal, with Reinhardt and his robot combining (he’s in a Maximilian shell) and going to hell, basically, while the others travel through the wormhole to a decidedly heavenly place. You can see the 2001 influence for sure.
Overall, I think The Black Hole is an unfairly maligned movie that isn’t perfect, but does possess some absolutely killer elements that make it at least notable if not wholly good. The effects work by Peter Ellenshaw and his team was revolutionary and represents the very last film created in the “Old Studio” style of having all the effects done in-house instead of being farmed out to independent effects companies. The Black Hole has not had a Blu-ray release, but I’d hope it gets one soon, because I think it’s due for a reexamination.
Next week, we end The FX of ’79 with an undisputed classic, and the winner of the Visual Effects Oscar that fateful year: Ridley Scott’s Alien. It’s easily the best film of the five, but did it deserve to win the award? We’ll find out together next week!