Retro Review: ‘The Black Hole’

In the 1970’s a little movie called Star Wars forever changed the game in science fiction. In the wake of the movie’s success studios everywhere tried to get their own piece of the space opera pie by making films which emulated George Lucas’ blockbuster. At Disney, new CEO Ron Miller was no different and greenlit an old script which had been laying around called Space Station One. Over time the marketing decision was made to give the film a title which they felt held more magnitude, giving us the 1979 movie the Black Hole. Director Gary Nelson combined a grand operatic science fiction epic with the scale of a big-budget, star-studded disaster flick all with the tone of a tense thriller.

On their return voyage home, the crew of the Palomino comes across a mysterious black hole orbited by the Cygnus, a massive ship thought to have been lost forever. They are welcomed aboard the mysterious vessel by the eccentric Dr. Hans Reinhardt has been living there alone with an army of ominous robots most notably the ominous Maximillian. As they explore this grand and wondrous vessel, it becomes clear there is something dangerous afoot. One by one the mechanical crew of the Cygnus prey on the visitors from the Palomino as their secrets become exposed.

Though it was meant to cash-in on the space opera craze, the Black Hole was actually more in line with Disney films of old like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A slower paced film featuring a group of explorers at the mercy of a deranged genius. This ultimately gives the Black Hole its own identity apart from so many of the other science fiction films of the era. There is thick layer of dread draping over this movie as you know Dr. Reinhardt is clearly up to something and along with the crew the audience uncovers what it is. While other flicks inspired people to wonder about space, this taught them there was definitely fears associated with the exploration of the cold and unwelcoming vacuum of space. Given this film is far darker and more violent than one usually expects from Disney films. Though the hovering robots voiced by Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens provide fun and humor the overall style and tone of Black Hole is dread-filled thriller. Once the plan of Dr. Reinhardt and Maximillian is exposed things really get kicked up a notch and it all ends with the menacing robot triumphantly descending to Hell itself which is contained in the heart of the black hole.

No doubt the initial impression this film gives off is that Disney spared no expense in its production. From the first moment the audience sees the Cygnus they will no doubt be awe-inspired by its scope. The vast financial resources of the film expanded beyond the visual fx as a top notch cast was assembled with the likes of: Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins, Maximillian Schell, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine, to lead moviegoers through one of the strangest films Disney has ever produced. Unfortunately all of the effort poured into this film did not equal success as critics were bored by it and the film barely scraped by at the box office.

While the Black Hole was an attempt to ride the coat tails of Star Wars, the end result was something far different. While this may ward off mass audience it has led to a sizable cult following for the science fiction flick. The Black Hole has sadly become one of the most obscure additions to the Disney film library as it is a genuinely great film and is deserving of more respect.