Sci-fi space movies were nothing new when Star Wars became a huge hit in 1977. But, every major studio and production company pulled out all the stops with the knock-offs. Roger Corman did Battle Beyond the Stars. On TV, we had Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica. Even Mork & Mindy came about because of Star Wars.
Then there was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was based on the TV series but was so long and drawn out, people called it The Motionless Picture. And Disney made an even duller movie with The Black Hole. Ironically, they had intended to do a disaster in space movie in the vein of the Irwin Allen-produced disaster movies of the 1970s before The Black Hole was released for the Christmas season 1979.
In light of the recent image of the a black hole in our galaxy, it’s time to look back at the first time Disney decided to appeal to older audiences. Rated PG and containing a few “damns” here and a few “hells” there, The Black Hole made a modest $35 million against a $20 million budget, but it was light years away from what Star Wars had made. And considering Disney spent another $6 million on marketing, they only made a $9 million profit. That was reportedly the highest production Disney had done at the time. And when you compare it to Star Wars, you wonder just where the money went especially since it had nearly twice Star Wars‘ budget.
The movie opens on the USS Palomino on its return voyage back to Earth after exploring deep space. The crew consists of Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster), Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine), Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) and an android named V.I.N.CENT (voice by Roddy McDowall). The problem when you first see the movie, it’s clearly a Disney movie. V.I.N.CENT looks too cartoonish and cute.
The Palomino discovers a black hole with the USS Cygnus nearby on the event horizon. That ship was reportedly lost while on the same deep space exploration. The crew goes on board after the gravitional pull causes some damage and they discover Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell) as the only living person. But he has built faceless robots and drones to accompany him. It’s also revealed that McCrae’s father was serving on the ship.
It’s at this point the movie falls apart and becomes uninteresting melodrama against special effects and scenery that don’t look that impressive even for 1979. Eventually it’s revealed through another android, BO B (voiced by Slim Pickens), an earlier version of V.I.N.CENT that the roberts that seem faceless are actually what’s left of the crew of the Cygnus. A mutiny was led by McCrae’s father when he refused to return to Earth, so he had them “lobotomized” and reprogrammed them into zombies.
There’s a lot of laser blasts but the movie doesn’t have the same thrill as Star Wars. You can see it might attract younger audiences, but anyone expecting any action might find themselves bored. Worse, the ending tries to go for the psychedlic cosmic ending to 2001:A Space Odyssey and just looks bad.
Gary Nelson, who directed the movie, later admitted that production began without an ending. And you can tell. Despite the bad reviews, it still received two Oscar nominations for cinematography and visual effects. Neil deGrasse Tyson called it the least scientific movie. It does look a lot like those old sci-fi serials that seemed to ignore all physics. The sets obviously look like sets. There’s no suspension of disbelief they’re actually on a spaceship.
Despite all this, the movie has garnered a cult status. And Disney has been trying to remake it for over a decade. Maybe they should just leave it be and leave the idea of a remake in development hell, another black hole of its own kind.
What do you think? Please comment.