“More light…” | The Black Hole (1979)

‘When the original Disney Black Hole movie came out,’ said astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, ‘I was in graduate school. I was so disappointed in that film. Black holes were my favourite subject coming out of the Seventies. The movie was awful. It was a bad movie and it didn’t get any of the interesting science about black holes right.’[1]

The Black Hole, directed by Gary Nelson and released by Walt Disney in 1979, is a film with a reputation. Several reputations, in fact: for being scientifically inaccurate, leaden in pace and personality, and for being a colossal misfire upon release. Not all of these descriptions are entirely true, making The Black Hole is a film ripe for re-appraisal. That the film plays fast and loose with science is a fair point, although in its defence it does not ignore the laws of physics any more or less often than Star Wars (released two years earlier). To say it was a complete flop in cinemas is less defensible; it effectively earned back its production and marketing costs in the USA, leaving foreign markets to provide a small but disappointing return. Is it slow? By the post-Star Wars standards it does certainly take its time, but it also takes that time to develop an unsettling and creepy tone. Compare it to Star Trek: The Motion Picture – its chief competition in cinemas – and The Black Hole feels actively energetic.

This is not an undiscovered gem, or disregarded classic, but it is an effective blend of science fiction and horror. Thanks to a beautifully remastered presentation of the film on the streaming service Disney+, now more than ever is the time to give The Black Hole a second chance.

blackhole_04

While widely seen as the Walt Disney Company’s response to Star Wars (1977), The Black Hole had been in development since February 1974. Writers Bob Barbash and Richard Landau initially developed the concept and successfully sold it to Ron W. Miller. At the time Miller, who was married to Walt Disney’s eldest daughter Diane, was working in the studio as an executive producer. In 1980 he would be appointed studio head and CEO.

Barbash and Landau’s concept was titled Space Station One and depicted the adventures of a group of people onboard the titular station when their home is struck by disaster. Disney’s executive story editor Frank Paris said: ‘The initial idea was that this space station would be hit by a supernova wave; everyone would be in jeopardy and the big problem would be how to get back to Earth.’[2] It was absolutely an attempt to cash-in on a popular film genre, but it was not Star Wars-esque space fantasy being target – that was three years away. Instead Barbash and Landau were proposing making a science fiction version of the disaster film, and profit from the popularity of Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and the eagerly anticipated The Towering Inferno (1974).

Miller appointed studio producer Winston Hibler to oversee the film’s development and potentially direct. Hibler, referred to as “Hib” by colleagues, had joined Disney in 1942 as a camera operator and subsequently worked as a writer, narrator, director, and producer. Across a three-decade career Hibler had contributed to the scripts for Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty. As producer he had helped to oversee The Aristocats, The Cowboy Castaway, The Island at the Top of the World, among others. At 63 years old Hibler was planning on retirement but took on supervision of Space Station One as his final studio project. By the fall of 1974, a new storyline had been fleshed out by Barbash and Landau under Hibler’s supervision. It removed the supernova and replaced it with a black hole. Efforts had also been made to wrap the disaster movie format around the standard Disney format. ‘We tried to force a kid and animals into it,’ recalled Miller, ‘and make it a sort of Disney science fiction situation.’[3]

Despite the development of a new story, Hibler was still not satisfied. A new writer, William Wood, was brought in to rework what Barbash and Landau had already done. Wood had primarily worked in television, contributing scripts to the likes of Mission: Impossible, The Mod Squad, and The Mary Tyler-Moore Show. When Wood’s rewrites failed to sufficiently assuage concerns among Disney’s executive producers, Space Station One was temporarily shelved pending a complete rethink of the property.

 

The project was unexpectedly resurrected a year later, with Ron Miller keen to give the concept one last chance to pull together. Winston Hibler, dragged again out of his planned retirement, hired artist Robert T. McCall to develop conceptual paintings. With some art, so went the theory, Disney’s executives might be more convinced of the film’s potential. The film received a title change to; to Probe One.

‘I was working on a space mural at the Smithsonian in Washington,’ McCall said, ‘and they wanted to know if I would be interested in doing some pre-production design work for the film. We agreed on a fee. I said yes, and following my mural project I went out to Los Angeles. Of course Ron Miller was involved too. I had a meeting with and those two other gentlemen and then in March of 1976 I started working for Disney and stayed on the project for six months.’[4]

Director John Hough – who had recently completed filming Escape from Witch Mountain for Disney – was approached to discuss directing the new film. Hough agreed, but like everyone else was not a fan of the screenplay in its current state. Writer Sumner Arthur Long (Never Too Late) was hired to work on the script with Hough in his London home.

 

Tragedy struck on 8 August 1976 when Winston Hibler unexpectedly passed away. In his absence, and with extensive writing and design work already completed, Ron Miller elected to take direct control of the picture himself.

McCall had expected to be appointed production designer of the film, having already invested time and energy into his development sketches and paintings. Instead Miller persuaded Peter Ellenshaw, a retired Disney visual effects designer, to return to work for one final assignment. For his own part McCall was not holding any grudges, saying ‘I’m not bitter about it. Peter and I actually worked together for a month, about, before I finished my part of the job and left. My only regret is that I couldn’t have been more involved’[5]

Miller’s appointment of Peter Ellenshaw was very much a case of putting a large financial investment into a safe pair of hands. With its elaborate sets, props, and models, Probe One was shaping up to be Disney’s most complex film production in more than a decade – with a price tag to match. Ellenshaw was a company veteran and Oscar winner, whose skills had been applied to such films as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mary Poppins, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. While promoting the film in 1979, Ellenshaw said: ‘As this is my last film, I want people to see it as the climax of my career, not just the last work of a tired old artist. I’ve tried to make this as different as possible from the other space films coming out, from top to bottom, especially with our giant space platform, the Cygnus.’[6]

McCall was philosophical about his apparent rejection – telling one magazine that ‘the paintings are an entity. They are there, and I’ve achieved that.’[7]

 

Hough and Long arrived in Los Angeles with a completely overhauled screenplay, only for it to still be considered unsatisfactory in the eyes of its producers. The chief problem was its disaster movie narrative; over the course of pre-production the genre had simply fallen out of favour with audiences – and within Disney itself. Hough and Miller workshopped ideas together and decided to re-imagine the entire story. No longer about a group of colonists trying to escape a black hole, the film become about a crew of astronauts who discover a long-lost space vessel sitting near a black hole.

As the focus on the black hole increased, it became clear that it was worth consulting with some experts about what a black hole actually was. Several astrophysicists and scientists were consulted – including both Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking – to ensure there would be some form of scientific accuracy. Anyone with some knowledge of black holes that has seen the finished film will know that accuracy is almost entirely out of the picture: The Black Hole’s final screenplay is peppered with references to event horizons, Einstein-Rosen bridges, and the like, but they are mostly used as buzz-words. It is safe to assume that, in the end, Hawking and Sagan’s assistance was ignored.

Another rewrite was undertaken in late 1976 – this time by Ed Coffey – before Frank Paris hired writer Jeb Rosebrook (best known for the TV films I Will Fight No More Forever and The Prince of Central Park) to rebuild the entire screenplay from scratch. It was in Rosebrook’s hands that the story finally fell into place to everyone’s satisfaction. The size of the cast was significantly decreased, and the premise was refocused on antagonist Dr Hans Reinhardt’s desire to pilot his massive spaceship Cygnus through the eye of the black hole. When Rosebrook took over the screenplay he also changed the title for a second time; to Space Probe One. While Rosebrook undertook his floor-to-ceiling rewrite, John Hough was temporarily re-assigned to direct Return from Witch Mountain (released in 1978) for Disney.

By mid-1977, Rosebrook had not only completed a new script but had commenced workshopping its content, scene-by-scene, with key members of the crew. Tiring of the long process, however, John Hough pulled out of the project in favour of directing another production. He was replaced with another Disney-tested director: Freaky Friday’s Gary Nelson.

A common problem in re-tracing the production of feature films – and building a narrative from interviews made both during and years after those films are made – is that inconsistencies crop up between individual accounts. It is commonly due to either faulty memory or personal perspectives. At any rate, it not entirely clear from past or current interviews the precise order in which Rosebrook’s key rewrite occurred between John Hough departing and Gary Nelson commencing. For his own part in a 2015 interview Nelson recalled: ‘I hated the original script. It was at that point called Space Probe One, and it was so stupid. It was about a colony onboard a spacecraft somewhere near a black hole. Something had gone wrong, and they were being dragged into the thing. But I agreed to do the movie based on the concept renderings, which were magnificent. We started with a massive rewrite. Writers came in, fell by the wayside, and then more writers came in.’[8]

 

Immediately prior to Nelson’s hiring, 20th Century Fox released their science fiction adventure film Star Wars. Its phenomenal box office success and cutting-edge science fiction visuals raised a bar that Disney’s film was clearly going to have to meet or surpass, but it had less of an impact on the final picture’s design than many viewers suspected. ‘By the time Star Wars came out,’ said Peter Ellenshaw, ‘I had designed all the sets on the picture.’[9] This design work also included the film’s various robots – including lead robots Vincent and Maximilian.

 

Eight weeks after Gary Nelson was signed on, Rosebrook was replaced with Gerry Day. Day’s rewrite focused on dialogue more than structure – particularly during the first act. ‘They took out the first five-to-ten pages that I wrote,’ Rosebrook later explained, ‘so none of the characters – other than Maximilian Schell and to a degree Perkins – developed the real characters that I had in mind.’[10]

Day’s rewrite was the draft that finally convinced Disney executives that the film was ready for production. One final change was made: after considering a multitude of alternative titles, Space Probe One was retitled The Black Hole.

 

The Black Hole was a rarity among 1970s blockbusters by being produced entirely in-house. The set construction, costume creation, model work, and visual effects were all handled by existing departments of the Walt Disney Company.

The head of the special effects department was Danny Lee. He said: ‘As far as our department was concerned, we were not only responsible for all of The Black Hole’s mechanical effects but for all the mechanical props as well. Our job was to start totally from scratch, to make models and moulds, or to just roll up our sleeves and completely fabricate a particular item.’[11]

Work on the film’s key miniatures – particularly the Cygnus – started early in order to keep studio workers employed until Disney officially greenlit the shoot. Over the course of 1978 not one but two 12-foot-long scale models were constructed at an approximate cost of $100,000. Each contained 150 tiny lights to give it its iconic cathedral-like appearance. When seen in the finished film, the Cygnus still stands as one of the most impressive movie spaceships ever constructed. Design-wise it is the film’s greatest asset.

 

While sets were built, and props constructed, work started on casting the film. Ron Miller explained: ‘We wanted an international cast of important actors who hadn’t worked at Disney before. We wanted to let people know this was a new kind of movie, that we are now going to pursue stories that bit broader.’[12]

Disney’s commercial performance in cinemas was already declining during the 1970s, but it was the phenomenal success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that definitively showed that its once-unbreakable hold on the children of America had been broken. By virtue of simply being the ‘next big thing’ on Disney’s release schedule made The Black Hole more than a simple attempt at commercial success. Its more adult, less ‘cutesy’ approach was seen as the future of the company – and its best chance to restore its reputation.

‘American teenagers are embarrassed to tell their friends they went to see a Disney movie,’ said Martin Rabinovitch to the New York Times. At the time he was Disney’s director of market planning for film and TV. ‘They’re pulling away from their families, trying to put some distance between themselves and small children. We held screenings for teenagers of Freaky Friday at MGM, without the Disney name attached. They were excited by the movie. When we told them it was a Disney movie, they admitted they wouldn’t have gone to see it. Disney is the only brand name in the movie business. If Fox makes a film and people don’t like it, they don’t say Fox is making lousy films.’[13]

 

The Black Hole was deliberately Disney’s first-ever PG-rated feature. With an eye on expanding their teen and adult viewership, Disney already had several other projects in train including The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark (1980), Condorman (1981), and The All-Night Treasure Hunt (later retitled Midnight Madness and released in 1980).

‘At first we didn’t know exactly what would make it PG,’ said Gary Nelson, ‘So we decided that we would say that it was ‘too intense for younger audiences.’ Plus, “damns” and “hells” never appeared in Disney films until The Black Hole.’[14]

blackhole_23

Nelson’s first choice for the troubled genius Hans Reinhardt was the Swiss actor Maximilian Schell. Having an Oscar winner (Best Actor for 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg) headline the film would immediately signal that The Black Hole was not typical Disney fare, which was often populated by the likes of Dean Jones, David Tomlinson, and Buddy Hackett.

Schell insisted on meeting Nelson personally in Switzerland. When Nelson arrived – having been warned in advance of the actor’s prickly reputation – he was surprised to discover Schell was already a keen Disney fan. ‘Well, when I hear the word “Disney”,’ Schell later said, ‘my face lights up with joy – like practically everyone’s face does. In my youth I knew of Snow White and Dopey. Actually, Dopey is one of the reasons why I agreed to do this picture; I wanted to be near where he came from.’ Schell added: ‘When I agreed to do the film, Ron Miller, head of Disney Studios, sent me a telegram that said, “Welcome to the family!” I’ve never received anything like that from a movie company in my life.’[15]

In addition to his performance fee, Schell requested that Disney make an editing suite available so that he could continue working his own directorial feature Tales from the Vienna Woods while acting in The Black Hole. A jury-rigged suite was assembled adjacent to Schell’s dressing room.

‘Sure,’ he later reflected, ‘I suppose it was kind of a hammy part, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. As an actor, I really enjoy a role like this from time to time, when you can do some scenery-chewing and let yourself go a bit.’[16]

blackhole_18

Robert Forster was cast as Dan Holland, captain of the Palomino – the small exploratory ship that discovers the Cygnus in deep space. Forster recalled: ‘My agent at the time called and said, “I’ve got a picture for you and it’s The Black Hole, and it was extraordinary – 20,000 Leagues out in space.’[17]

Forster was a well-regarded actor who had been building his reputation via such films as The Stalking Moon (1968) and Medium Cool (1969). Decades later he would experience a career resurgence thanks to a role in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997).

‘He’s an actor of great depth,’ said Gary Nelson. ‘Unfortunately, his character in The Black Hole does not have great depth. That’s not to say that the part is a cardboard cut-out, but he is the commander of the mission. And therefore he has to have strength. He has to have honourability. And he has to be a leader. And he has all of those qualities in his character. I wish the characters had been a bit deeper, but I think we’ve probed as deeply into the characters as any film of this nature should do.’[18]

blackhole_08

For the role of Kate McRae, Nelson considered up-and-coming actor Sigourney Weaver. That choice was nixed by Disney’s head of casting – who objected to Weaver’s hard-to-sell first name. An offer was ultimately made to Jennifer O’Neill.

O’Neill was a Brazilian model and equestrienne who had shifted to acting with the 1970 western Rio Lobo. She continued balancing acting in film with modelling for hair and beauty products. Early camera tests had revealed that long hair – O’Neill’s signature asset – would not be suitable for The Black Hole’s early zero-gravity sequences. As a result, Nelson requested that O’Neill cut her hair short. After much negotiation this was done, only for O’Neill to immediately be injured in a car accident and rendered unable to appear in the film.

A replacement was found: Yvette Mimieux, whose screen debut had come in George Pal’s science fiction film The Time Machine (1960). Based on her performance as Weena, she was put on a long-term contract with the MGM studio. Subsequent film roles included parts in Platinum High School (1960), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1961), Light in the Piazza (1962), and Toys in the Attic (1963). During the 1970s Mimieux segued into writing, due to what she felt was a paucity of worthwhile roles for women – although she did still perform from time to time. Jackson County Jail (1976), in which she performed opposite Tommy Lee Jones, was one commercial hit.

Joseph Bottoms played Lieutenant Charlie Pizer. Prior to The Black Hole his highest profile role was in the 1978 television mini-series Holocaust, although he did win the Golden Globe for Best New Actor for The Dove (1974).

blackhole_26

Dr Alex Durant was played by Anthony Perkins, the talented actor best known for playing Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). So successful had Perkins been in the role that it effectively type-cast him for life, leading him to return to the role in multiple unsuccessful sequels. Much of his post-Psycho career had been taken up performing in films in France and other non-American countries, as well as plays on Broadway including Equus and The Star-Spangled Girl. ‘I just think Tony Perkins is one of the most interesting character/leading-man type actors around,’ explained Gary Nelson of his casting choice.[19]

blackhole_17

Journalist Harry Booth was played by film veteran Ernest Borgnine. An Oscar-winner for his 1955 film Marty, his career included a string of smash hits and critical favourites, including From Here to Eternity (1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). From 1962 to 1966 he starred in the popular American sitcom McHale’s Navy.

‘Borgnine was everybody’s uncle or brother,’ said co-star Joseph Bottoms. ‘He was just the most gregarious person, took great interest in everybody. He was a super social guy. He was like Hollywood royalty in a way, the longevity of career. He could be counted on.’[20]

Matte artist David Mattingly recalled ‘it was interesting that, unlike the rest of the cast, Borgnine stayed on set long after he’d actually finished shooting his scenes. I just couldn’t get over the fact that, as a very highly paid performer, he’d stick around, chat with the crew, help to move some of the bigger props into the sets and even push a broom to help clean up afterwards. What a guy.’[21]

Prior to shooting the cast were put through a two-week workshop process to practice using the wired-up rigging that would help simulate the zero-gravity environment onboard the Palomino.

Principal photography commenced on 11 October 1978 and ran until the following April. Sets occupied all four Disney soundstages. While shooting the film Nelson insisted upon a closed set, guarded by security and kept out of sight of the entertainment press. Nelson was not personally concerned about the film’s contents leaking to the public – he simply thought the secrecy could become a story in itself and help boost the film’s publicity. In subsequent years Nelson admitted another reason for locking the set down. In his own words it was to ‘not leak out that maybe we didn’t really have a good movie, you know?’[22]

blackhole_10

The Black Hole begins with the USS Palomino, a small exploratory spacecraft, making its long journey home to Earth after a mission into deep space. It boasts a crew of four – Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster), Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), scientist Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) and the psychic Dr Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux) – as well as an intelligent robot named Vincent (V.I.N.CENT, standing for “vital information necessary – centralised”) and an accompanying journalist named Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine).

Vincent first detects that the Palomino has drifted into the pull of a nearby black hole, and then that the Palomino is not alone: a massive unidentified spacecraft has settled into a comfortable orbit nearby. The ship is identified as the long-lost USS Cygnus, which went missing 20 years ago when it failed to comply with an order to return to Earth. While Captain Holland is keen to note its location and continue travelling home, damage sustained to the Palomino by gravitational forces leave the crew no other choice than to dock with the Cygnus to make repairs.

blackhole_05

One of the first impressions gained from The Black Hole is that space is not black. It is a deep miasma of blues and purples, peppered with stars. When the Cygnus is discovered, the colourful starfield allows for a remarkable effect: the ship is powerfully silhouetted against it. Never before or since has a spacecraft in a film seemed so ominous.

Once the ship lights up, it looks extraordinary: a glittered golden jewel that continues to contrast against the vortex of space. Scientifically accurate? Possibly not – but it looks outstanding. It also seems a clear precursor to Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1997 science fiction horror blend Event Horizon. It is unknown if one film did ultimately influence the other, but it is soon followed by another odd forerunner: Vincent exiting the Palomino to make repairs while the ship is in flight – something seemingly replicated with the droid R2-D2 in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace (1999).

blackhole_21

The early scenes of The Black Hole beautifully showcase two major innovations in filmmaking. One is the quality of the motion control – a computer-based system that allows a camera to make an identical tracking shot multiple times in a row and thus capture the various models in a particularly dynamic fashion. At first, Disney was hoping to commission George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic to produce these effects shots, but when the company provided a quote for the work it was found to be prohibitively expensive. Instead Disney effects workers produced and perfected their own motion control system, dubbed ACES (automated camera effects system). It was a system widely considered to be superior to ILM’s own, although it is fair to say that without Lucas’ innovations on Star Wars ACES would never have been developed in the manner that it was.

Don Iwerks, son of original company employee Ub Iwerks, recalled: ‘The ACES project was done in a very limited time frame. It was very, very tight. As a matter of fact, we jokingly complained that the model shop had had a couple of years to do the spaceship models and all of a sudden someone had thrown this monstrous job at us. But I guess that that’s the way it goes.’[23]

The early passes over the Cygnus comprise some of the best-looking model shots in the history of science fiction cinema. It boasts a good design, but also one that has never been shot or lit better.

blackhole_09

The film’s other great innovation was in its use of matte paintings. The film made extensive use of matte paintings in presenting the sheer enormity of the Cygnus. The technique has existed for almost the entire history of narrative film, and involves painting a large-scale scene onto glass, and then projecting a pre-filmed shot of live actors through a deliberately empty part of the pane. Through this method, a painting could resemble the city of Oz on the horizon while Judy Garland performed on a small section of yellow brick road, or a pit in the Death Star could extend down into darkness while Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher stood on a small corner set in complete safety.

Peter Ellenshaw’s son Harrison was hired to prepare The Black Hole’s matte paintings, having already undertaken the task for Star Wars. In the end, 150 separate paintings were created for the film. The production also presented an opportunity to use a new camera technology developed for Disney by Don Iwerks that could track a matte painting and back-projected film scene in tandem; simulating movement where none was previously possible. The system – for which there was a single computer-controlled rig assembled – used original camera lenses made for shooting 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Lens flares, which were added for realism, were created by scratching a section of painting away and shining a light through into the camera. The entire rig cost more than $100,000 to construct and was only approved once The Black Hole went into production.

As soon as the crew begin to explore the Cygnus it becomes clear that it is not uninhabited, as armed robots capture and escort them to the ship’s command deck. There they meet Dr Hans Reinhardt, the brilliant scientist who oversaw the Cygnus’ original mission. The original crew, Reinhardt explains, all left for Earth when a meteor storm disabled the ship. Reinhardt remained behind to study the black hole, aided by an army of black-robed android drones, security robots, and his personal robotic aide Maximilian.

blackhole_02

As with Vincent and Bob, the design of Maximilian was handled by George McGinnis. Numerous conceptual sketches were made, with McGinnis focused on making the ominous robot as nun-humanoid as possible. Feedback from Ron Miller saw the ultimate design move back to the floating, more human-like shape seen in the final film. One of McGinnis’ original intentions was for Maximilian to be internally lit, with reddish-orange lighting giving it a more infernal, hellish appearance. This was abandoned by the design team shortly before the Maximilian props and models were constructed. McGinnis: ‘I probably did a dozen different designs before one was selected and finally grew into the Max you see on screen. Max is physically six feet tall, but since he’s a hovering robot – he doesn’t have any feet, you’ll notice – when he’s hovering he’s seven feet tall, which is the way I conceived him.’[24]

In its on-screen form, Maximilian is a wonderfully threatening and foreboding character. While it features an overall humanoid shape, its multiple arms, triangular appearance and ability to fly in the air give it much of the inhuman look that McGinnis wanted to reflect. The glowing red ‘eye’ and its smooth, careful movements make it particularly frightening – and that is before one considers its whirring razor-sharp claw. More than 12 separate versions of Maximilian were constructed for the film, each with its own specific purpose and ranging from a three-inch-high model to a full-size replica for close-ups that weighed close to 136 kg (300 lb).

blackhole_27

The sentry robots that populate the Cygnus are much less successfully realised, consisting of fibreglass armour parts over skin-tight jumpsuits. They are, despite the production’s best efforts, not particularly convincing. Professional mimes were hired to perform the robots – with the armour parts having to be screwed or unscrewed to get into or out of costume. ‘So,’ recalled actor Tommy McLoughlin – who played many of the sentries on-screen, ‘if there was a scene where there were 20 sentries involved – which was the maximum number used in any shot – they had to allow darn near an hour to get all the special effects men to literally screw 20 men into these costumes.’[25]

More successful are the ‘humanoids’, robed androids with mirror-like blank faces that populate Reinhardt’s command deck. As if often the case, the simplest solution is often the best. They are nicely creepy, and the round reflective masks produce an unsettling vibe.

blachhole_22

While the Palomino crew accept Reinhardt’s hospitality, and Holland and Pizer make needed repairs, each member of the crew notices unsettling behaviour among the android drones. Harry notices one android limping. Holland finds the crew’s possessions, still laid out and stored away in their respective cabins. Vincent meets Bob (B.O.B. or “bio-sanitation battalion”), a badly damaged robot of a similar model to his own, who confides in him that the crew never left the Cygnus – the android drones are made from their lobotomised bodies.

Holland’s silent investigation of the Cygnus’ crew quarters is, like much of the film, deeply unsettling. His observation of a robot ‘funeral’ simply adds to the mystery. While it may not seem much a mystery, the fate of the crew is a particularly ghoulish and horrific revelation for a Disney film – another mark that, whatever its faults, The Black Hole represents a bold new direction for the company.

Bob was intended to look very similar to Vincent but be significantly damaged in some way. After early attempts to develop a damaged version stalled, Peter Ellenshaw literally took to the clay model of Bob with a baseball bat. The on-screen version was moulded out of what remained.

blackhole_22

Reinhardt has fully revealed his intention to guide to Cygnus through the eye of the black hole, a plan that entrances Dr Durant. While the Palomino officers hurriedly prepare to leave the ship, Durant is resolute in staying – until McCrae reveals the nature of the android drones throughout the ship. A horrified Durant rushes to escape, only to be murdered by Maximilian. Reinhardt takes McCrae prisoner, and orders his security robots to have her lobotomised.

The death of Durant, in which Maximilian drives its whirring saw blade claw through his chest, is very likely the single-most disturbing moment that Walt Disney Pictures had produced to that date. It is a jaw-dropping shift in tone for a company that, just six months earlier, was still producing relatively anodyne family comedies like The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again and Unidentified Flying Oddball. While the reveal that the ship’s robots are what remains of the human crew is disturbing, Durant’s death is actively distressing.

The scene occurs without a hint of blood, and instead relies upon the foreshadowing of Maximilian’s claw in the robot’s first scene, Anthony Perkins’ remarkably vivid acting during the moment in question, and the fact that as Durant he feebly holds up a book of Reinhardt’s formulae as a shield. While we do not see the blood, we do see the book turn to confetti – and that is a surprisingly effective substitution. While Disney would continue to experiment with darker content through to the mid-1980s, there really is not anything as confronting as this presented until Davy Jones strangles Mercer with his tentacles in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007).

blackhole_11

Holland leaves Booth and Pizer to prepare the Palomino for take-off while he, Vincent, and Bob set off to rescue McCrae. A panicked Booth tries to take off in the Palomino without his crewmates; Reinhardt orders his robots to fire upon it, causing the Palomino to collide with the Cygnus and explode. This causes the gravity bubble protecting the Cygnus to fail, and the massive ship starts to break apart under the black hole’s own pull. Reinhardt is pinned by falling debris and cries for help, but his robot servants do not respond.

It is during the climax of The Black Hole that its origins as a disaster movie are most evident. There is a string of calamities that befall the Cygnus in turn, with the protagonists racing to escape one after another to survive. Reinhardt suffers the most ironic demise of course, trapped helplessly under debris surrounded by cyborgs he made too indifferent to consider saving him.

The chase through the ship’s agricultural section, where a meteor strike blows a hole in the Cygnus’ side and the characters are almost blown out into open space, took two full weeks to shoot. At one point a flying piece of set hit Robert Forster above the eyebrow, cutting his forehead. After a quick trip to the nearest emergency ward he was sent back to set – to continue shooting the scene with make-up covering his stitches.

Holland and McCrae’s path to Reinhardt’s test ship – now the only method of escape – is blocked by Maximilian, who fatally damages Bob before being blown out into open space. The surviving humans and Vincent manage to reach the test ship and escape the Cygnus, but they find the test ship controls are irrevocably set on a course for the hole. As the Cygnus completely breaks apart it, the test ship, Maximilian, and a dying Reinhardt are all dragged inside the black hole.

blackhole_13

Despite several years of development and pre-production, and a six-month-long shoot, the climax of The Black Hole was not written until a few weeks before filming was complete. It was broadly agreed that the escaping astronauts would be dragged into the titular black hole, but not what would happen to them when they did.

One version that was almost completed was for the camera to zoom in close on McRae’s eye to reveal the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. To this end, the Vatican was approached and actually gave permission for Peter Ellenshaw to travel to Rome and shoot key shots inside the Chapel itself. ‘We were going to show Yvette there in a kind of trance,’ said Ellenshaw, ‘imagining she was back in the Sistine, looking up at Michelangelo’s “Creation of Man”. That’s the way we photographed it and we were able to put Yvette there – she didn’t go with us, but she would have appeared to be there. You’d see the fingers of God about to touch the fingers of Man, to transform him into a living being and we were going to go right through the fingers.’[26]

Word came down hard and fast from Disney’s executives: out of fear of upsetting religious conservatives, no such climax should occur. The finished climax as seen in the film contains extensive religious imagery, but it does avoid any real-life images or specific iconography.

Another thing the climax studiously avoids is making much sense. Reinhardt’s body somehow fuses with Maximilian’s, leading a scene of the robot standing on top of a fire-ravaged landscape. Mysterious robed figures line the mountainside tracks. It is essentially an arrival in hell, with Reinhardt’s terrified eyes peering out from where Maximilian’s glowing eye used to be. As for the Palomino survivors, their violent journey through the black hole segues to an image of a flying angel before they emerge out of the other side. The film ends with the test ship approaching a mysterious planet, backlit against its sun.

blackhole_19

Following the conclusion of photography were months of editing, model work, and post-production. Nelson recalled: ‘For the last three months I was in the cutting room every day, plus being down on the set for the miniature photography. Towards the end it was hard to be objective and there were moments when I felt like throwing everything out – but those moments passed.’[27]

The Black Hole premiered in the USA on 21 December 1979. A world premiere was staged in London three days beforehand. The film was released to theatres in both 70mm and 35mm editions, both of which featured a short overture. The practice of including overtures was a legacy tradition from decades past. After The Black Hole – and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was released in the same year – overtures were by-and-large abandoned by the industry. At first only two 70mm prints were struck – one for the world premiere in London an d a second for an American premiere in Los Angeles. A wider 70mm release was intended, but those responsible at Disney were unaware it took an entire day to develop a single print in that prestigious format.

The film was by all accounts a commercial failure. Critics widely considered it a talky and stereotypical bore. Audiences largely stayed away, leading to a final North American gross of US$36 million – not a loss-maker, but hardly the smash hit Roy Miller had anticipated. Science fiction enthusiasts bristled at the film’s poor science – assuming they bothered with the film at all – and the traditional Disney audience likely stayed away from such a gloomy and dark project.

Attempts to market the property with toys and merchandise, Star Wars-style, were particularly unsuccessful. The toy line was so unsuccessful, in fact, that several figures – including BOB and the Cygnus robot – were only released in Italy.

blackhole_01

Miller’s grand plan to update and revitalise Disney via dark, more adult fare did continue. Over the following years the company would roll the dice on further science fiction with Tron (1982), horror with Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) and The Watcher in the Woods (1980), and bizarrely child-unfriendly fantasy with Dragonslayer (a 1981 co-production with Paramount), Return to Oz, and The Black Cauldron (both 1985). All were generally unsuccessful but have since developed their own cult appeal. Decades later, and many of these films are as popular as they have ever been.

As a science fiction film in its own right The Black Hole has much to recommend it, despite a slow pace and some terribly on-the-nose dialogue. A talented cast commits to the story wonderfully, while at its best the design and effects work is – for the late 1970s – state-of-the-art. As the beginning of a shift in the way Walt Disney Pictures considered its own reputation, tone, and audience, it is a hugely significant production.

It is also a comparatively unique film in the way in which it blends science fiction and horror. While it lagged Ridley Scott’s ground-breaking Alien by six months or so, it still makes a strong contribution in developing the genre. The way it balances the various elements is much looser and relatively family-friendly by comparison. For children of its generation, most of whom likely watched it on home video over the following years, it has a way of sticking in the mind: half-remembered, a little too scary for comfort and with key moments seared into the mind.

‘I worked two full years on The Black Hole,’ said Nelson. ‘That’s a long time to spend on one film.’[28] Peter Ellenshaw said: ‘It was such a terribly difficult picture to make – it really was! – that no one would even want to think of making another.’[29]

‘I have no regrets at all,’ said Yvette Mimieux, once the film had been and gone. ‘I made a film that I really like and am proud of; it’s a big entertainment – an event.[30]

blackhole_25

[1] Matt Patches, “Neil DeGrasse Tyson isn’t done getting angry in the name of science”, Vanity Fair, 10 June 2014.

[2] Paul M. Sammon, “Inside The Black Hole”, Cinefantastique, Vol. 9 No. 3-4, Spring 1980.

[3] J.P. Telotte, The Mouse Machine: Disney and Technology, University of Illinois Press, 2010.

[4] Paul M. Sammon, “Inside The Black Hole”, Cinefantastique, Vol. 9 No. 3-4, Spring 1980.

[5] Paul M. Sammon, “Inside The Black Hole”, Cinefantastique, Vol. 9 No. 3-4, Spring 1980.

[6] James Delson, “The Arts”, Omni, Vol. 2 No. 3, December 1979.

[7] Robin Snelson, “To envision the future: an interview with America’s premiere space artist Bob McCall”, Future, No. 4, August 1978.

[8] Jarret Keene, “The Hole Story”, Vegas Seven, 9 February 2015.

[9] Quoted in “The Black Hole interviews”, Starburst, No. 21, May 1980.

[10] Sean Egan, “The Black Hole”, SFX, No. 266, November 2015.

[11] Paul M. Sammon, “Inside The Black Hole”, Cinefantastique, Vol. 9 No. 3-4, Spring 1980.

[12] Altean Harmetz, “Disney studio risks $17.5 million on Black Hole”, New York Times, 4 March 1979

[13] Altean Harmetz, “Disney studio risks $17.5 million on Black Hole”, New York Times, 4 March 1979

[14] David Weiner, “’We never had an ending’: how Disney’s Black Hole tried to match Star Wars”, Hollywood Reporter, 13 December 2019.

[15] Samuel J. Maronie, “The mad scientist of The Black Hole: Maximilian Schell”, Starlog, No. 33, April 1980.

[16] Samuel J. Maronie, “The mad scientist of The Black Hole: Maximilian Schell”, Starlog, No. 33, April 1980.

[17] David Weiner, “’We never had an ending’: how Disney’s Black Hole tried to match Star Wars”, Hollywood Reporter, 13 December 2019.

[18] Paul M. Sammon, “The Black Hole”, Cinefantastique, Vol. 9 No. 2, 1979.

[19] David Weiner, “’We never had an ending’: how Disney’s Black Hole tried to match Star Wars”, Hollywood Reporter, 13 December 2019.

[20] David Weiner, “’We never had an ending’: how Disney’s Black Hole tried to match Star Wars”, Hollywood Reporter, 13 December 2019.

[21] Quoted in “The Black Hole: The evolution of a film”, Mediascene, No. 39, September/October 1979.

[22] David Weiner, “’We never had an ending’: how Disney’s Black Hole tried to match Star Wars”, Hollywood Reporter, 13 December 2019.

[23] Paul M. Sammon, “Inside The Black Hole”, Cinefantastique, Vol. 9 No. 3-4, Spring 1980.

[24] P.B. Beene, “The robots of The Black Hole”, Fangoria, No. 4, February 1980.

[25] Paul M. Sammon, “Inside The Black Hole”, Cinefantastique, Vol. 9 No. 3-4, Spring 1980.

[26] Quoted in “The Black Hole interviews”, Starburst, No. 21, May 1980.

[27] Gary Nelson, “Two years directing The Black Hole”, American Cinematographer, January 1980.

[28] Jarret Keene, “The Hole Story”, Vegas Seven, 9 February 2015.

[29] Quoted in “The Black Hole interviews”, Starburst, No. 21, May 1980.

[30] Samuel J. Maronie, “Yvette Mimieux: Travelling from The Time Machine through The Black Hole”, Starlog, no. 36, July 1980.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.