Okay, let’s roll the clock back to 1979 to take a look at Disney’s first PG rated film: The Black Hole.
Star Wars had come out two years earlier and every studio was scrambling to find their niche in the science fiction boom. Science fiction adventure films were, for the first time ever, considered an ‘A-list’ commodity. Every studio wanted their ‘own’ Star Wars. The results of this boom were rather a mixed bag, much like The Black Hole.
First, let’s talk about Disney’s state in the 70s. They were not in terrific shape. They’d had a string of mediocre animated and kids’ movies and were struggling to stay afloat and/or relevant since Walt kicked the bucket in 1966. Their bread and butter consisted of re-releasing old Disney classic animation every few years. Their main claim to fame at this point was the consistent G rating of their movies.
Then comes The Black Hole. May seem pretty tame by today’s standards, but the idea of a PG Disney movie was radical at the time.
Critics ripped the movie and Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave it infamy by saying it has the worst science in a movie of all time (although one wonders whether Neil has seen The Core.) To be honest, it’s not a terrible movie. The visual designs are pretty damn good. Costumes are decent and sets solid. The robot designs are interesting (although a bit too cutesy with VINCENT and BOB.) The antagonist robot Maximilian is especially sinister. The characters are mostly forgettable, the dialogue is soap-opera-cringeworthy and yes, the science is terrible.
The gist of the plot is that the exploratory space ship USS Palomino finds the long-lost ship USS Cygnus in orbit around a black hole. ( I assume it’s named Cygnus as a nod to the black hole of Cygnus X-1, although this is mere speculation on my part.) On board is the scenery-chewing Maximilian Schell as the kooky commander of the Cygnus–Dr. Hans Reinhardt. He’s got a crew of robot soldiers and android workers but apparently no other human survived. He manages to hit every mad scientist note, including having a monstrous flunky robot named Maximilian (as a nod to Schell?) Dr. Kate McCrae (played by Yvette Mimieux) has a personal stake in the fate of the Cygnus, as her father was one of the crew. Dr. Alex Durant (played by a luckless Anthony Perkins) is the cliched naive scientist who falls under Reinhardt’s sway. Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) is the square-jawed captain hero. Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) is the impulsive young hero. Harry Booth (a criminally-underutilized Ernest Borgnine) is the craven, weaselly crewmember. Those highlights are literally all I remember about these characters. They have as much depth as a puddle.
The other ‘actors’ are the robots VINCENT (voiced by Roddy McDowell) and BOB (voiced by Slim Pickens.) Like Maximilian, they are hovering robots instead of walking ones. I assume Disney did this because it looked interesting and allowed them to mimic the ‘cuteness’ of R2-D2 to some extent. Their eyes, though, are more like anime or cartoon eyes, giving them a bit more goofiness than I think they were going for. Maybe they were trying to balance the kind of melodrama depressing tone of the movie? Dunno.
Anyway, turns out Dr. Reinhardt is nuttier than a fruitcake (who could have known?) and wants to go into the black hole. Also turns out his ‘android workers’ are the lobotomized human crew of the Cygnus. When this is discovered, Maximilian kills Durant as he tries to escape with Kate. The rest of the crew comes to her rescue except Harry, who does the craven move and tries to escape on the Palomino and instead crashes into the Cygnus.
The rest of the movie is the crew escaping from the
haunted castle spaceship by getting on the probe ship used by Reinhardt to examine the black hole. They try to fly off, only to discover the probe ship is locked onto the black hole.
Or something like that. It’s not as weird as the end of 2001, but it’s pretty damn weird. The ship ends by coming out the ‘other side’ in some unknown solar system.
Again, this isn’t a terrible movie. Mostly it’s just a lot of misfires. There were decent ideas in it and moments of interest. I suppose the annoying part is that there was a great deal of unused potential.
Still, it’s worth checking out at least once.