By the late ’70s, a decade after Walt Disney’s death, the movie company bearing his name was foundering because the studio had lost the marketplace dominance it enjoyed during Walt’s heyday. Although the animation division remained adrift until 1989, Disney’s live-action unit enjoyed a brief, daring creative renaissance that began in 1979. That’s when the studio jumped onto the Star Wars bandwagon with The Black Hole, a dark sci-fi adventure story boasting opulent special effects and a memorably brooding music score by the great John Barry.
The story involves a wonderfully absurd contrivance: In the year 2130, a deep-space exploration ship encounters a black hole and discovers that a long-lost spaceship, the Cygnus, is somehow locked in a permanent orbit over the mouth of the black hole. Our intrepid heroes enter the Cygnus and discover that megalomaniacal scientist Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) controls the ship with an army of robots. When Reinhardt decides to brainwash the heroes into becoming slaves, they rebel and trigger a chain of events that sends all of the movie’s main characters plunging into the black hole.
The story is goofy and turgid, and the clumsiest fingerprint of the Disney brand is the presence of cutesy robots like the wide-eyed V.I.N.CENT (voiced by Roddy McDowall). Furthermore, the acting and dialogue are consistently wooden, with unfortunate leading players Joseph Bottoms, Robert Forster, and Yvette Mimieux perpetually upstaged by veteran hams Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Perkins (to say nothing of Schell, who works a florid Bond-villain groove). So as a piece of dramatic art, The Black Hole is, well, a black hole.
As a compendium of vivid sensations, however, the picture is exceptional. Barry’s music is grandiose and malevolent, expressing the vastness of space in such a powerful way that many scenes are genuinely frightening. The old-school optical effects are breathtaking, with exquisitely detailed spaceship models, meticulous lighting, and impeccable matting creating sumptuous illusions. Furthermore, the picture boasts one of the weirdest climaxes in mainstream sci-fi cinema—a scary, phantasmagorical sequence illustrating the trippy horrors inside the black hole. To say that there’s disharmony between cutesy robots and a 2001-style conclusion is an understatement, but if you’re willing to pick and choose which parts of this movie to enjoy, you’ll find much of interest.
The Black Hole: FUNKY