Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
This week we’ll be looking at THE BLACK HOLE!
THE STORY: After a long mission, the crew of the U.S.S. Palomino encounters the U.S.S. Cygnus, a long lost ship now hovering on the edge of a black hole. Captained by Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Shell), the now mad scientist plans to take his ship through the black hole, with his guests-turned-prisoners his unwilling companions.
THE PLAYERS: Starring: Maximillian Shell, Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, Yvette Mimieux, Joseph Bottoms and the voices of Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens. Music by John Barry. Directed by Gary Nelson.
THE HISTORY: When STAR WARS opened in May 1977, Hollywood underwent an irrevocable change. The box office receipts kept adding up and adding up, with no sense of stopping even when the film went into its second year of release. Suddenly, science fiction was red hot, with Universal testing the waters by releasing the TV pilots for two space shows, BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA and BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY, theatrically – and experiment that ended with them grossing upwards of $20 million apiece domestically. And they were TV pilots that aired for free just a few months later! As a result, 1979 was flooded with sci-fi, from cheap Italian knockoffs like STARCRASH to big-budget studio fare like ALIEN, and STAR TREK – THE MOTION PICTURE. Heck, even James Bond went to space in MOONRAKER, and you know what the result was? The highest-grossing James Bond film ever (at the time and not adjusted for inflation).
Suffice to say, Disney was still smarting from its initial decision to not finance STAR WARS (of course they’d end up owning the property decades later), so they decided to produce their space epic, THE BLACK HOLE. Packing a lavish $20 million budget (twice that of STAR WARS), the studio had its own crew of artisans, leftover from the golden age of the House of Mouse, come up with visually dazzling VFX that would rival what Lucasfilm was doing. The result was a strikingly cerebral, often strange film that garnered mixed reviews but ultimately grossed a decent $35 million domestically; making it a modest hit, although it’s arguably failed the test of time alongside other sci-fi epics released that year.
“We deliberately went after the PG rating, just to get away from the G rating… At first, we didn’t know exactly what would make it PG. 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.” – Gary Nelson – The Hollywood Reporter
WHY IT’S GREAT: If you grew up in the eighties and rented a lot of videotapes, you’ll no doubt recall that Disney’s packaging was very distinct. Their movies were always housed in white clamshell packages, making them easy to distinguish. However, in the eighties, Disney wasn’t considered cool like it is now. Kids of my generation viewed all their stuff as “for babies” so we avoided those white clamshell tapes like the plague. But, we also still watched “The Wonderful World of Disney” (hosted by studio head Michael Eisner) on Sunday nights at 6, and I vividly remember catching the last half hour of the action-packed THE BLACK HOLE one evening and being stunned that this was Disney. I used to borrow movie storybooks from my local library, and lo and behold they had a BLACK HOLE storybook (as well as DUNE and BLADE RUNNER storybooks – which is weird) which I borrowed and plowed through (not that I could even really read at like five years old). I begged my mom to rent me this movie, which stunned her as I always hated Disney so much, but suffice to say I loved it and ever since I’ve had a soft spot for THE BLACK HOLE.
For years, it was one of the most obscure Disney films, although it got a DVD release from the company in the 2000s, but it was recently one of the hundreds of films the company made available on Disney +. With the fortieth anniversary of its release looming, now seemed to be an opportune moment to revisit it.
This is a weird movie. A space-set remake of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, it’s clear no one at Disney knew how to make a space opera, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. They threw everything but the kitchen sink into this one, but the concept of a black hole and the possibility of travel through said hole make this a lot more cerebral and quietly provocative in its way, although part of me feels like this was unintentional and is partly the result of no one having a handle on the type of movie they’re making.
So, on the one hand, you have a psychological thriller starring Maximillian Shell as a scientist going mad and Yvette Mimieux trying to discover what happened to her father, Shell’s former partner, while on the other you have Roddy McDowell’s R2D2 clone V.I.N.C.E.N.T getting into laser battles with an army of robots. Plus you’ve got the late Robert Forster as the Captain Kirk-styled square-jawed hero and Ernest Borgnine as the least realistic astronaut ever. It’s messy but also kind of awesome in its own way.
For one thing, the VFX are outstanding for the era. The movie starts with CGI-generated opening credits, and the matte paintings and miniatures used throughout are stunning to look at. Plus, the score by John Barry ranks as one of his best, being both haunting and exhilarating in the action scenes. It’s also surprisingly violent for a PG-rated Disney movie, with Anthony Perkins getting a rough death scene early on at the hands of the bad guy robot, Maximillian, whose ultimate fate in the Black Hole, which sees him and Reinhardt become one, seems lifted out of Dante. Some smart people were involved in this thing, but I’m not sure why anyone thought it would be the next STAR WARS.
“Expectations were so high, and yet expectations were slightly overblown. We all thought we were going to get the next Star Wars, which we didn’t. But it has done well over the years, so I can’t complain about that.” – Gary Nelson – The Hollywood Reporter
BEST SCENE: While silly, I love Roddy McDowell’s endearingly goofy, wisecracking robot V.I.N.C.E.N.T. I even have a soft spot for his broken down cowboy robot sidekick, old B.O.B (DR. STRANGELOVE’s Slim Pickens). I especially love an underdog and despite how silly it is, I can’t help but get chills when little V.I.N.C.E.N.T goes up against the hulking Maximillian in a space battle, set to Barry’s magnificent score, which takes things as seriously as if we were watching James Bond do battle with Blofeld.
SEE IT: THE BLACK HOLE is now widely available on Disney + in a nice HD transfer (they even went back in and removed some of the wires from the robots).
PARTING SHOT: THE BLACK HOLE is one of the more intriguing entries from Disney’s deep catalog to make its way to the new streaming service, and kudos to them for putting it on there. While dated and unsuccessful in some ways, without THE BLACK HOLE I doubt we would have ever gotten Touchstone Pictures and the modern version of Disney that now owns Lucasfilm and Marvel. It’s an important piece of the company’s history and a fascinating find.