The Black Hole
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The Black Hole is a 1979 American space opera 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. It was the first film from Walt Disney Productions to receive a PG rating. The film was released on December 18, 1979 in the United Kingdom and on December 21, 1979 in the United States.
Nearing the end of a long mission exploring deep space, the spacecraft USS Palomino is returning to Earth. 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").
The Palomino crew discovers a black hole in space with a large spaceship nearby, somehow defying the hole's massive gravitational pull. The ship is identified as the long-lost USS Cygnus, the ship McCrae's father served aboard when it went missing. Deciding to investigate, the Palomino encounters a mysterious null gravity field surrounding the Cygnus. The Palomino becomes damaged when it drifts away from the Cygnus and into the black hole's intense gravity field, but the ship manages to move back to the Cygnus and finds itself able to dock with it. The Cygnus appears abandoned.
The Palomino crew cautiously boards the Cygnus and soon encounters the ship's commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, a brilliant scientist. Aided by a crew of faceless, black-robed android drones and his sinister-looking robot Maximilian, Reinhardt explains that he has lived all alone on the Cygnus for years. After the ship encountered a meteor field and was disabled, he ordered the human crew to return to Earth, but Kate's father chose to remain aboard and has since died. Reinhardt then reveals that he has spent the past 20 years studying the black hole and intends to fly the Cygnus through it. Only Durant believes it is possible and asks to accompany Reinhardt on the trip.
The rest of the Palomino crew grows suspicious of the faceless drones' human-like behavior: Booth sees a robot limping and Holland witnesses a robot funeral and discovers the Cygnus crew's personal items in the ship's living quarters. Old B.O.B. ("BiO-sanitation Battalion"), a battered early-model robot similar to V.I.N.CENT, explains that the faceless drones are in fact the human crew, who mutinied when Reinhardt refused to return to Earth and had been lobotomized and "reprogrammed" by Reinhardt to serve him. McCrae's father had led the mutiny and was killed. Using telepathy, V.I.N.CENT tells Kate the truth about what happened. When Kate tells Durant, he removes the reflective faceplate from a "drone" to reveal the zombie-like face of a crew member. Appalled, Durant tries to flee the bridge with Kate, but Maximilian kills him. Reinhardt takes Kate prisoner, ordering his sentry robots to take her to the ship's hospital bay to be lobotomized.
Just as the process begins, Holland, along with V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B., rescues Kate. Meanwhile, fearing the situation is escalating dangerously, Booth attempts to escape alone in the Palomino. Reinhardt orders the craft shot down, but the weapons fire sends the ship crashing into the Cygnus, destroying its port-side anti-gravity forcefield generator. A meteor storm then destroys the starboard generator. Without its null-gravity bubble, the Cygnus starts to break apart under the black hole's huge gravitational forces.
Reinhardt and the Palomino survivors separately plan their escape aboard a small probe ship used to study the black hole. Reinhardt orders Maximilian to go and prepare the probe ship, but then a large viewscreen falls on Reinhardt, pinning him down. His lobotomized crew stand motionless as he struggles helplessly. Maximilian confronts the others and fatally damages B.O.B. moments before he himself is damaged by V.I.N.CENT and drifts out of the broken ship into the black hole. Holland, Pizer, McCrae and V.I.N.CENT reach the probe ship and launch, only to discover the controls locked onto a flightpath that takes them into the black hole.
In a surreal sequence inside the black hole which resembles Heaven and Hell, Reinhardt becomes merged with Maximilian in a burning, hellish landscape populated by dark-robed spectres resembling the Cygnus drones. Next, a floating, angelic figure with long flowing hair passes through a cathedral-like arched crystal tunnel. The probe ship carrying Holland, Pizer, McCrae and V.I.N.CENT then emerges from a white hole and is last seen flying through space 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. ("Special Troops/Arms Regiment").
- Roddy McDowall as Voice of V.I.N.CENT (uncredited)
- Slim Pickens as Voice of Old B.O.B. (uncredited)
The initial idea for the film was conceived by veteran Disney writer and producer Winston Hibler in 1974. Under the working title Space Station One, the film was originally written as a disaster film, in which a black hole was used as a minor background feature. Hibler brought matte designer Peter Ellenshaw out of retirement to create conceptual designs on the proposed film. However, Hibler died in 1976. Four months later, director John Hough was approached to direct the film, but he turned down the offer.
Encouraged by the success of Star Wars, Walt Disney's son-in-law and then-executive vice president of production and creative affairs Ron Miller took over the project now re-titled Space Probe One. The script was then changed to focus on the encounter of a black hole, a phenomenon that had been a growing discussion within the scientific community. In December 1977, Miller then approached Gary Nelson, who had just been nominated for a Primetime Emmy on the political mini-series Washington: Behind Closed Doors, to direct the project. After reading a draft of the script, Nelson initially turned down 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. 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.
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 A.C.E.S. (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.
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.
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.
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 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 to draw a comic book strip adaptation of the film, in which Kirby accepted. The comic book 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, Old B.O.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 Old B.O.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 movie, 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.
Disney partnered with Fotomat Corporation on a trial distribution deal, in which The Black Hole was released on VHS and LaserDisc on March 4, 1980. In October 6, 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. In May 1999, Anchor Bay Entertainment re-released the film in a limited collector's edition DVD which was accompanied with interviews from director Gary Nelson and cast members, nine lobby cards, and a forty-eight page booklet about the making of the film. On August 3, 2004 and May 2, 2010, Disney re-released the film on DVD and Blu-Ray that was presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio. Its bonus features included a making-of featurette of the film's visual effects and its extended theatrical trailer.
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."
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." 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."
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. During its theatrical release, the movie grossed $35.8 million.
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.
"It's Not Too Beautiful," the second song on the Beta Band's self-titled debut album features a sample of the film's main title theme.
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 movie's development 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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