The Black Hole (1979 film)
The Black Hole is a 1979 American science fiction film directed by Gary Nelson and produced by Walt Disney Productions. The film stars Maximilian Schell, Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, Yvette Mimieux, Anthony Perkins and Ernest Borgnine, while the voices of the main robot characters are provided by Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens (both uncredited). The music for the film was composed by John Barry. With a production budget of $20 million, plus another $6 million for advertising, it was at the time the most expensive picture ever produced by Disney.
|The Black Hole|
|Directed by||Gary Nelson|
|Produced by||Ron Miller|
|Edited by||Gregg McLaughlin|
|Music by||John Barry|
|Distributed by||Buena Vista Distribution|
|Box office||$35.8 million|
In the early 1970s, the film was initially conceived as a space-themed disaster film. However, the script went through numerous iterations from various screenwriters. Additionally, Disney's effects department used computerized camera technology to create the visual effects. The film was released on December 18, 1979, in the United Kingdom and on December 21, 1979, in the United States. It was the first film from Walt Disney Productions to receive a PG rating. The film received mixed reviews from film critics and grossed $35 million at the box office. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects.
The spacecraft USS Palomino has nearly completed its mission exploring deep space. The crew consists of Captain Dan Holland, First Officer Lieutenant Charlie Pizer, journalist Harry Booth, ESP-sensitive scientist Dr. Kate McCrae, the expedition's civilian leader Dr. Alex Durant and the diminutive robot V.I.N.CENT. ("Vital Information Necessary CENTralized").
As it is returning to Earth, the Palomino discovers a black hole with the apparently abandoned and long-lost USS Cygnus nearby, the same ship that McCrae's father was aboard when it vanished 20 years ago. The Palomino decide to investigate and finds that there is a mysterious null gravity field surrounding the Cygnus that allows it to defy the massive gravitational pull of the black hole. The Palomino briefly strays outside the field and is damaged by the intense gravity, forcing it to emergency dock with the Cygnus, which no longer appears abandoned.
The cautious Palomino crew soon encounter Dr. Hans Reinhardt (one of Earth's most brilliant scientists, according to Durant). Reinhardt explains he has been alone on the Cygnus since it encountered a meteor field and was disabled. He ordered the human crew to return to Earth without him, but Kate's father chose to remain aboard and has since died. To replace the crew, Reinhardt built faceless, black-robed drones, sentry robots and his sinister bodyguard robot, Maximilian. Reinhardt says he intends to fly the Cygnus through the black hole because 20 years of study has shown that it's possible. Only an enamoured Durant believes him and asks if he can accompany Reinhardt.
However, the rest of the Palomino crew start to become suspicious of Reinhardt. Booth sees a drone limping, while Holland witnesses an android funeral and discovers personal items in the Cygnus crew quarters. V.I.N.CENT. meets a battered earlier model of his type named BO.B. ("BiO-sanitation Battalion"). BO.B explains the drones are actually what's left of the human crew, who mutinied when Reinhardt refused to return to Earth after the Cygnus was damaged. McCrae's father was killed leading the mutiny, and the crew was lobotomized and "reprogrammed" to serve Reinhardt. V.I.N.CENT. uses telepathy to tell Kate. After she informs Durant what really happened, he removes a drone's faceplate, revealing the zombie-like face of a crew member. Durant tries to flee with Kate, but is killed by Maximilian.
Reinhardt orders his sentry robots to lobotomize Kate, but just as the process begins, she is rescued by Holland, V.I.N.CENT. and BO.B. Harry Booth tries to escape alone in the Palomino, but is shot down and fatally crashes into the Cygnus. A subsequent meteor storm and the explosion of the ship's overstressed main power plant cause the anti-gravity generator to fail. Without its null-gravity bubble, the Cygnus quickly starts to break apart under the black hole's huge gravitational forces.
Reinhardt and the Palomino survivors separately plan their escape in the probe ship used to study the black hole. Reinhardt orders Maximilian to prepare the ship for launch, but then a large viewscreen falls on Reinhardt, pinning him to the deck, surrounded by his lobotomized crew. Maximilian encounters the Palomino crew and fatally damages BO.B. before being disabled by V.I.N.CENT and left to drift. Holland, Pizer, McCrae and V.I.N.CENT. launch the probe, which has a pre-programmed flight path that takes them into the black hole.
Within the black hole, Reinhardt and Maximilian merge together above a burning, hellish landscape populated by dark-robed spectres resembling Cygnus drones. Meanwhile, the probe ship is led through a cathedral-like arched crystal tunnel by a floating, angelic figure. After the ship emerges from a white hole, Holland, Pizer, McCrae and V.I.N.CENT. fly towards a planet near a bright star.
- Maximilian Schell as Dr. Hans Reinhardt
- Anthony Perkins as Dr. Alex Durant
- Robert Forster as Captain Dan Holland
- Joseph Bottoms as Lieutenant Charlie Pizer
- Yvette Mimieux as Dr. Kate McCrae
- Ernest Borgnine as Harry Booth
- Tom McLoughlin as Captain S.T.A.R. (Captain Special Troops/Arms Regiment).
- Roddy McDowall as the voice of V.I.N.CENT. LF-396 (Vital Information Necessary CENTralized LF-396) (uncredited)
- Slim Pickens as the voice of Old BO.B. LF-28 (Old BiO-sanitation Batallion LF-28) (uncredited)
In the wake of several successful disaster films such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), writers Bob Barbash and Richard Landau approached Disney Studios executive story editor Frank Paris with the idea for a space-themed disaster film tentatively titled Space Station 1. The writers showed Paris a preliminary sketch of their idea, and the idea was later pitched to Ron Miller, who assigned longtime studio producer Winston Hibler to help develop the project. An idea of Hibler was for a black hole to be featured in the story. After nearly a year of work on the project, Hibler was not satisfied with the later story drafts, so William Wood was added to rework the script. Ultimately, Hibler retired from Disney Studios. The project was later shelved until late 1975 when development resumed on the project now re-titled Space Probe 1. In 1976, Hibler returned from retirement, and suggested to Miller to hire conceptual artist Robert McCall to create some pre-production visuals to help focus the story and explore some possible ideas.
Four months later, director John Hough, who had just directed Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), was approached to direct the film. Although he liked the premise, he felt the script needed more revisions, so he brought in Sumner Arthur Long for an additional rewrite. However, by summer 1976, the production team was still unsatisfied with the script, and audiences' interest in the disaster genre was steadily declining.
Hibler died in August 1976, but with the amount of work already invested in the project, Miller took over the project. In October, writer Ed Coffey was added to rewrite the script. By February 1977, Jeb Rosebrook was included to restructure the story, in which the script was then changed to focus on a small core group of astronauts who would encounter a black hole, which was a phenomenon that had been a growing discussion within the scientific community.
While the script was again being rewritten, Hough left the project and decided to direct Brass Target (1978). In December 1977, Miller then approached Gary Nelson, who had just been nominated for a Primetime Emmy on the political miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors, to direct the project. Nelson read a draft of the script and declined the offer. However, he was called back to the studio, and after observing the miniatures and matte paintings created by Ellenshaw, he agreed to direct.
Rosebrook finished his final draft in March 1978, but because Disney was still displeased with the script, Gerry Day was hired for some script doctoring. After scientific research headed by marketing director Martin Rabinovitch, the title The Black Hole was selected to convey the power and mystique of the film.
Jennifer O'Neill was originally cast in the film but was told she needed to cut her hair because it would be easier to film the zero-G scenes. She gave in, drinking wine during the haircut and leaving noticeably impaired. She lost the part after a serious car crash on the way home.
Although Star Wars had revolutionized the use of computerized motion control miniature effects, The Black Hole was shot using a blend of traditional camera techniques and newly developed computer-controlled camera technology. Disney wanted to rent equipment from Industrial Light and Magic, but it was unavailable during the film's production period and was prohibitively expensive. In the end, Disney turned to its own engineering department, which created the ACES (Automated Camera Effects System). The computerized system allowed for the camera to take double exposure photographs of the miniature models as it moves convincingly across the matte painting. It also permitted the actors to move unrestrictedly within a matte painting, and the camera tracks them within a non-existent set that would be painted in later. The Mattescan system was then used to composite live-action shots onto a single matte painting while the camera is in motion on several axes. In total, 150 matte paintings were created for the film under the supervision of Harrison Ellenshaw, but only 13 were used in the film.
Highlights of the score, as conducted and composed by John Barry, were released on an LP by Disneyland Records in 1979. A remastered edition of the LP version was made available on iTunes. Silva Screen Records released compilation albums remastering some of John Barry's works, which includes some of the music ("The Overture") from The Black Hole.
The Black Hole premiered at the Odeon Leicester Square in London on December 18, 1979. It was then released in the United States on December 21, 1979. Along with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, released the same month, The Black Hole was one of the last mainstream Hollywood films to have an overture at the start of the film. Although this was cut on subsequent television airings, the overture is included on Disney's 2004 DVD release, and Disney's streaming service, Disney+ (2019).
The Black Hole is notable for being the first Disney film to earn a PG rating because of the frequent use of "hell" and "damn" and the violent death of Dr. Alex Durant. Buena Vista Distribution had released the PG-rated sports drama film Take Down earlier the same year, but it was produced by an independent production studio. The version of the film broadcast on the Disney Channel was edited for language, with all uses of the words "damn" and "hell" removed. The film also features some subtext and metaphysical and religious themes that reflected the company's interest in developing more adult-oriented and mainstream films. This trend eventually led the studio to create the distribution company Touchstone Pictures, under which films considered too mature for the Buena Vista Distribution label could be released.
The film had a record opening weekend for Disney with a gross of $4,738,000 from 889 theatres. During its theatrical release, the movie grossed $35.8 million in the United States and Canada, from which it returned $25 million in box office rentals.
Coinciding with the film's release, Alan Dean Foster wrote a novelization based on the film. In a retrospective interview, Foster remarked that his novelization had to rationalize the scientific inaccuracies depicted in the film. Around the same time, Disney used their comic strip Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales to promote their latest film releases. Comic book artist Mike Royer suggested fellow artist Jack Kirby draw a comic strip adaptation of the film, and Kirby accepted. The comic strip adaptation, which ran for twenty-six weeks, was scripted by Carl Fallberg with the inking done by Royer.
A separate comic book adaptation of the film published by Whitman Comics in 1980 bypasses the whole issue of what happens inside the black hole by having the crew enter the black hole on one page and emerge apparently unharmed on the next page into a parallel universe where they encounter alternate versions of Reinhardt, BO.B., Maximilian and even Frank McCrae, Kate McCrae's father. Four issues were published. The first two issues adapted the film and the second two issues continued the story introducing a race of people called Virlights, whom they end up aiding against a rising tyrant. The rare fourth issue concludes with the promise of a fifth issue but the series was canceled before it was released. In Mexico, Editorial Novaro S.A. published the first four Whitman issues, including the fifth issue, but also released a sixth issue before the series ended. Other comic adaptations released in Europe have the crew emerging into another galaxy, thus confirming Reinhardt's theories. While wondering if they will ever return to Earth, they decide to explore this new universe.
In the official Disney Read-Along recording and illustrated story book, the crew in the probe ship emerge safely on the other side of the black hole, while the Cygnus is "crushed like an eggshell." The story ends with Captain Holland saying, "We've been trained to find new worlds. Let's go find one for ourselves!" The children's book line, Little Golden Books, released a book entitled The Black Hole: A Spaceship Adventure for Robots. The story involves V.I.N.CENT. and BO.B. exploring the Cygnus, visiting its gardens, encountering the "humanoid robots", and escaping detection by Maximillian.
The Mego Corporation produced 6 million action figures and models of the USS Palomino from the film, released in the fall of 1979. Nabisco issued a series of plastic pencil holders in the shape of the film's robot characters via specially marked boxes of breakfast cereal.
In 1983, Disney put out a computer learning-game spinoff, Space Probe: Math. This was a cassette containing two educational games designed for use with the Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer. The concept of the first game was that the Palomino had landed on an infected planet, Delta 5 Omega. All the crew were falling under "mind diffusion", basically a viral form of fatigue. The player (aged 7–14) had to solve multiplication or division problems to save the crew. In the second game, the player had to save a primitive world's crops, using (rectangular) area and perimeter problems.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film two stars out of four upon its release, saying it "takes us all the way to the rim of space only to bog us down in a talky melodrama whipped up out of mad scientists and haunted houses." Janet Maslin, reviewing the film for The New York Times, wrote that the film "is attractively unpretentious and at times quite snappy — among the more sensational stunts is a shot of a huge, molten meteor rolling towards a crew of tiny people, who appear to be right in its path. Its story, about a band of explorers and a wicked space tyrant who pretends to be nice, has a comic-book feeling. But as comic books go, this one is pretty much a page-turner." Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune found the film to be "dull" and claims "it takes much too long to get its less than grand finale, in which a space villain and some good guys face being swallowed by a collapsed star with enormous gravitational pull." While he praised the film's visual effects, he was critical of the film's cast claiming they were "dead stars in their own right. If actors get paid to express emotions, then the cast in The Black Hole doesn't even deserve the minimum wage."
Richard Schickel of Time acknowledged that the "overpowering score, squads of menacing heavies, and, especially, two adorable robots—are straight Star Wars steals, and because, despite all this sincere flattery and a script and performances that are merely adequate, the fool thing works." He later praised the visual effects and miniature designs as an "amusing mixture of the plush and technological" concluding that it is "good to see the Disney craftsmen doing what they do best on such a grand and risky scale." Reviewing the film in Ares Magazine, Vincent Misiano commented that "In the final analysis, The Black Hole is similar to its natural namesake. Nothing can escape from it either. Not a glimmer of imagination or inspiration. Perhaps if Pluto and Micky[Sic] hadn't been involved…"
Colin Greenland reviewed The Black Hole for Imagine magazine, and stated that "Even more awesome than the special effects is the stupidity of the script; and the cute robots will have you reaching for a tin-opener."
Science fiction historian John Clute dismissed The Black Hole as "a silly concoction" where "the story disappears down the hole". Phil Hardy, writing in The Aurum Film Encyclopedia, also gave the film a negative review, saying The Black Hole featured "the most heavy-handed dialogue imaginable" and added that the film's climax "has no dramatic power at all". Author John Kenneth Muir wrote an extensive review of the film that delved into some of the nuances and metaphysical ideas which marked The Black Hole as more adult-oriented fare than Disney had previously been involved with. In 2014, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson deemed the film to be the least scientifically accurate movie of all time. Criticizing the film, he noted, "They not only got none of the physics right about falling into a black hole, had they gotten it right it would have been a vastly more interesting movie."
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 38% based on thirty-two reviews with an average rating of 5.26/10. The site's consensus states: "While lavishly crafted and brimming with ambitious ideas, The Black Hole probes the depths of space with an unexciting story and hokey melodrama."
|Academy Awards||Best Cinematography||Frank Phillips||Nominated|
|Best Visual Effects||Peter Ellenshaw, Art Cruickshank, Eustace Lycett, Danny Lee, Harrison Ellenshaw, and Joe Hale||Nominated|
|Saturn Awards||Best Science Fiction Film||Nominated|
|Best Writing||Gerry Day||Nominated|
|Best Music||John Barry||Nominated|
|Best Special Effects||Harrison Ellenshaw||Nominated|
|Stinkers Bad Movie Awards||Most Annoying Non-Human Character||BO.B. (voice by Slim Pickens)||Nominated|
|V.I.N.CENT. (voice by Roddy McDowell)||Nominated|
In March 1980, Disney began a partnership with Fotomat Corporation in a four-city market test to make 13 selected titles available for rental, which was to be expanded nationwide by the end of the year. In September 1980, The Black Hole was made available for purchase or rental on videocassette. In 1982, Disney announced it had partnered with RCA to release nine of their films on the CED videodisc format of which The Black Hole was re-released in the following year. The film was re-issued on VHS and LaserDisc as an installment of the "Making Your Dreams Come True" promotional campaign on November 6, 1985. On March 30, 1999, Anchor Bay Entertainment re-released the film on three separate VHS editions: Anniversary Edition, Collector's Edition, and Limited Edition as well as on DVD. The Limited Edition VHS was contained in a collectible tin box and accompanied with nine lobby cards, a 48-page booklet about the making of the film (featuring an interview with director Gary Nelson), and a script of an abandoned alternate ending. On August 3, 2004 and May 2, 2010, Disney re-released the film on DVD that was presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio. Its bonus features included the extended theatrical trailer and a making-of featurette about the film's visual effects.
The film was available to stream on Disney+ when the service launched on November 12, 2019.
In November 2009, it was reported that Disney had plans to remake The Black Hole. Director Joseph Kosinski, who also directed Disney's Tron: Legacy (2010) and producer Sean Bailey were attached to the production. By April 2013, Jon Spaihts, who wrote the script for the Alien prequel Prometheus, signed on as screenwriter.
In 2016, it was announced that the remake was put on hold because Spaihts' script was considered "too dark for a Disney movie". Spaihts commented:
Black Hole was an amazing experience. That was one of those movies I was stuck on until I cracked the beginning, and suddenly it just started to flow. I loved that script. It sits uneasily in Disney’s world as a dark epic, and Disney is in a very colorful place.
They already have multiple big space epics going, so I don’t know how or whether it’ll find its way to light of day, but I sure wrote a heck of a movie and was thrilled to do it. It was very faithful to the original but clever in all the ways in that first film was silly, I hope.
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